Terrorists are under attack even before a shot is fired

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Terrorists are under attack even before a shot is fired By John Keegan, Defence Editor (Filed: 28/09/2001)

THERE is a danger that America's worldwide war on terrorism risks declining into a phoney war, as the Second World War did in its early months, and for the same reason, lack of action.

Many in the West have already expressed a lack of support for the Americans' campaign. Even some fervent supporters may begin to lose heart if the president and his team are not seen to achieve concrete results soon.

It is worth reviewing what positive effects of the mobilisation of the anti-terrorist coalition can be claimed so far.

The identities of many in the terror network are now probably known to the security services and they are under pursuit. A large number of accomplices, both in America and Europe, have been arrested.

The probability is, therefore, that the primary network has been very severely damaged.

That would be a severe blow to the umbrella organisation controlling it, since the New York and Washington outrages took months of preparation and the trained personnel involved cannot easily be replaced.

Moreover, precautions against a repetition now in place make the launching of a similar operation improbable. The terrorist networks are now undoubtedly examining other possibilities.

Because the security services are now operating at full pressure, the terrorists are under another disadvantage.

Much of the energy they would want to devote to offensive operations now has to be invested in defensive measures.

Individuals are trying to create new identities, find new hiding places and establish new channels of communication, which they will fear have been penetrated. Secure communication is as essential to terrorists as it is to a national security organisation and has to be achieved with much less ample and sophisticated means.

Though it may not seem so to the public, which is now in a state of alarm and is tending to exaggerate terrorist capability, the terrorist organisations are currently in disarray. One of the main aims of the security services at present is to sustain that disarray and profit from it.

It is important to remember that in a contest between a developed state and a terrorist organisation, there is an enormous disparity of force in the state's favour.

Terrorists are weak. They succeed only by exploiting chinks in a state's armour. Such chinks are few.

States are far richer than any terrorist organisation, have far greater numbers of trained personnel at their disposal and, if they successfully mobilise their populations, an enormous resource in the vigilance and powers of observation of ordinary people.

Democratic populations are slow to slough off the easy assumptions of everyday security from danger but, when they do, provide the best shield of all against terrorist activity.

The Taliban, it must be remembered as well, is also a weak organisation. Its numbers are small - a few tens of thousands at most - its fighters are poorly trained and ill-equipped, and it has no capacity to operate outside its own territory.

It does not even control the whole of Afghanistan, where it has made itself widely disliked by the majority, who are conventional Muslims with a strong aversion to the fundamentalism to which the Taliban subjects them.

Although the Taliban is supported by the Pakistani army and intelligence service, that support is likely to wither if it succeeds in driving large numbers of refugees over the border to join the several million already present who are trying ordinary Pakistanis' sense of tribal brotherhood to the limits.

America's refusal to make clear its operational intentions, though it contributes to the public's sense of involvement in a phoney war, has an unrecognised advantage.

It creates a sense of insecurity in states which are involved in the terrorist web. It is said that there are 60 states in which bin Laden's organisation has cells.

While America gathers its forces and plans its attack, none can be sure that it is not in focus.

That will encourage states to declare themselves on the right side, as the Ivory Coast did recently by denying that any Islamic training camp was located on its territory, and by making good its disclaimers by taking appropriate action to expel or arrest suspects.

It may indeed be the intention of the United States government in this early stage of its war against terrorism to create a climate of insecurity equivalent to that associated with terrorism, but strengthened by having international law on its side.

The purpose would be to separate the sheep from the goats. The number of black sheep is, in reality, quite small. The rogue Islamic states - Iraq, Libya - are well known. Those with serious Islamic conspiracies - Yemen, Egypt, Sudan - are not more numerous. Those with dissident Islamic minorities are known also.

America's current intention, while it stays its hand, may be to put the rogue states on warning, while strengthening the hand of moderate Muslim governments against their internal dissidents and intransigent minorities.

Washington is displaying a remarkable coolness. Its current passivity should not be mistaken for weakness but as the masterly inactivity of a great power, provoked but not shaken, while it prepares a terrible reckoning.


-- Rich Marsh (marshr@airmail.net), October 01, 2001


In case you don't recognize the name: John Keegan is a British military historian and former instructor at Sandhurst (the UK's "West Point"); his many books are quite well known and usually well received, such as _The Face of Battle_, _The Price of Admirality_, etc etc.

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), October 01, 2001.

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