How to Deal with Al-Qaida? Declare Victory

James Fallows offers a modest proposal in the war against terrorism in the September issue of The Atlantic Monthly. His article, "Declaring Victory," calls for the U.S. to resist being provoked by terrorist acts.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

The journalist James Fallows has a novel idea. Declare victory in the war on terrorism and change the way the U.S. responds to terrorist acts. His thesis is the cover story in the September issue of the Atlantic Monthly magazine, where he's a national correspondent. But right now, he's in Shanghai, China, and he joins us from our bureau there.

Thanks for being with us, Jim.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (Atlantic Monthly): My pleasure.

HANSEN: Declare victory, really?

Mr. FALLOWS: This was not an idea that I pulled out of - out of the air, out of my hat. I spent a couple of months before I left D.C., talking to - in the end - about 60 people who are experts in the field of dealing with terrorism, about half of them American and half from the rest of the world. And the surprising gist of their argument to me was one positive element I had not expected, which was the argument that al-Qaida central itself - that is the group that originally had an act of war against the United States and which the United States was declared to, you know, to try to eradicate - has in fact been weakened to a serious degree. And it's unlikely that they'll be able to pull off anything like the catastrophic acts of five years ago.

And so point one is that there's been more progress than most people would think against the actual objects of our initial war effort. And point two is that to the extent there are going to be continuing terrorist threats, as there are going to be from so-called copycat groups around the world, the most effective way to deal with them in the long-term might be, in fact, to move out of the open-ended state of war and to pursue other avenues against them.

HANSEN: Then your article was written and printed before the events in Britain and where al-Qaida was mentioned in most news reports as being responsible for this. So how do you put those two things together, that we're declaring victory and then there was an act in Britain?

Mr. FALLOWS: Well, interestingly and surprisingly, you know, you might expect me to say this but I'll actually say it, that this incident confirms rather than undermines the argument I was actually trying to make in this article, in several ways. One is, from all available evidence, the cell that had been operating in Britain apparently had been penetrated by the U.K. authorities for many months, perhaps a year. That is dramatically different from the way al-Qaida operated before September 11th, and is one sign of how much harder it's been for them to try to pull off any large-scale plot, if indeed al-Qaida central was involved in it. So point one is that it's harder for them to operate.

Point two is that the means through which the British actually brought this plot to light didn't have anything to do with declaring war, or saying you're with us or against us, or anything else of the sort. But it was old-fashion surveillance, police work, cultivating allies, trying to have informers inside a cell.

Point three was - and this was actually the most eye-opening part of my own reporting over the last few months - was the analysis by many experts that the real harm terrorism does to a society is not so much the direct damage, even when that is extreme, as it was in 9/11; it's the reaction that it provokes. And what terrorists are in business to do is to provoke a target society into doing something that is self-destructive in the longer term.

And it was interesting how Britain, both after this plot was unveiled and after its own train bombings of a year ago, prided itself in getting back to normal life as soon as it could, and not having new declarations of war, but saying we've dealt with these people, no doubt there'll be threats again, but we can't go crazy when the threats occur.

HANSEN: Are you saying the United States is not following the British model?

Mr. FALLOWS: Well, I'm saying there was a striking difference in the immediate response between - from the U.S. government and from the British government after this latest plot was unveiled. The British government, which apparently had done the bulk of the work in cracking the investigation, did not say, you know, we are in a new declaration of war or anything of the sort, as President Bush did say.

And one point that many of the officials I spoke with stressed is that every time you declare this is an ongoing, open-ended war, you hurt yourself in a number of ways, among them driving away allies who might be valuable to you in the long run in the Arab and Islamic world. You need those people as informers, as those who are going to sort of dry up the water in which the fish of terrorists might swim. And al-Qaida has done enough to turn reasonable Arab and Muslim opinion against it that the United States should not be helping al-Qaida by polarizing things again.

HANSEN: So how does the U.S. then respond to an attack or the threat of an attack?

Mr. FALLOWS: Well, the United States - its people and its leader - should recognize that these threats are going to be part of our life in the long run, as political violence has been part of most of the developed world for quite a number of years. Most of our Europeans allies, most of the societies that are been most similar to the United States, have lived for a very long time with the idea that there might be terrorist activities, from the IRA, from the Basque groups in Spain, from the Red Brigades, and various places over the years. And it's a problem they have to deal with, and at the same time they have to go on living some kind of normal lives.

And so I think that is the goal for the United States, to pursue as rigorously and as vigorously as it can the steps it needs to protect itself, but recognize that there is going to be an ongoing threat and this isn't the end of our civilization when it occurs.

HANSEN: Where does the war in Iraq fit into this?

Mr. FALLOWS: The war for Iraq is - almost everybody - the same people who told me that al-Qaida was battered and on the run said that the only thing that had gone well for al-Qaida in the last five years had been America's decision to invade Iraq.

In a way this was serendipitous, if you will, for Osama Bin Laden. He had laid out, as documents since captured have shown, the argument that with the provocation of the terrible 9/11 attacks, the United States would get bogged down into an unpopular and un-winnable war that would alienate itself from the Islamic world and in his view, quote, you know, have American show it's true nature, unquote.

He thought it was going to happen in Afghanistan, where for various reasons it didn't, but one can argue that it has happened in Iraq. And so I didn't find - although most of the people I interviewed had strongly supported the original decision to go to war in Iraq, almost all of them said that it had turned into a strategic plus for America's enemies because it did provide a new source of terrorists, it did provide sort of constant propaganda weapons against the United States, and it put the United States in almost an impossible situation. If the United States stays, it makes new enemies; if it goes, it looks defeated.

HANSEN: Can you take your thesis out just a little bit, and can we get your reaction to the Israeli response to Hezbollah?

Mr. FALLOWS: Without pretending to be any kind of operational expert on what's been happening, especially recently in the Middle East, I will say that the trap I would argue that Israel has fallen into is very much like the one that a number of my interviewees, probably most clearly a man named David Kilcullen, an Australian army expert on counter-insurgency, laid out when he said that again, the goal of the terrorist is to provoke you into doing something which that in the long run will hurt you.

And the terrorists obviously operate in an entirely different sort of moral scale, but what they're looking to do is to lead you to do things that you wouldn't do if you thought about them carefully. And my guess at the moment is that Israel's incursion, invasion, air-raids - or whatever - of Lebanon will appear that way historically, that Israel was provoked, and certainly they were provoked, but they reacted the way that will make their strategic situation harder in the long run.

HANSEN: But you wrote that on 9/11 al-Qaida was an existential threat to the United States, that it threatened America's very existence. There have already been statements that threaten Israel's existence.

Mr. FALLOWS: Well, certainly Israel is an entirely different strategic situation from the United States. I mean, the United States, it is virtually impossible to think of any adversary except one equipped with a very, very large number of nuclear weapons that could threaten the existence of the United States. But I'm simply arguing that the logic of terrorists trying to provoke excessive response, it looks to me from this, you know, very modest historical vantage point as if it will apply to what's happened in the last month in Lebanon.

HANSEN: James Fallows is a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly magazine, and he joined us from our Shanghai bureau. Jim, thank you very much.

Mr. FALLOWS: My pleasure. Thank you, Liane.

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