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French lessons: What America can learn about dealing with terrorism

04/18/2004

Lee Smith is hearing echoes. In a new article in Slate, he refers readers to an article from the Spring 2003 issue of Survival, the quarterly publication of the International Institute for Strategic Studies ("double-eye double-ess") in London. The authors, Jeremy Shapiro and Benedicte Suzan, chart the ups and downs of France's history of dealing with Middle Eastern terrorism during the last quarter-century.

Shapiro and Suzan sum up France's progress:

...in 1980, French authorities could not even identify a foreign terrorist attack in the middle of Paris after it had happened. In 1999, they possessed a detailed understanding of a terrorist cell in another country plotting attacks against yet a third country. This striking contrast reflects a more general increase in the French capacity to prevent and fight terrorism, both at home and abroad. Throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s, France was considered a haven for international terrorists, both for those operating in France and those using France as a base for operations elsewhere. By the late 1990s, in contrast, France had scored notable successes in preventing planned terrorist attacks on the World Cup in 1998, against the Strasbourg Cathedral in 2000 and against the American Embassy in Paris 2001.
Smith sees U.S. counter-terrorism as starting from the same low base that France did in 1980. But he doesn't seem too optimistic that the U.S. will match the French turnaround:
In July 2002, long after 9/11, an Egyptian national walked into Los Angeles International Airport with a gun and killed two Israeli citizens at the El Al counter. On his application for asylum in the United States, Hesham Mohamed Hedayet had written that in Egypt he'd confessed to being a member of al-Gama'a al-Islameya, but apparently, unless a man has Osama Bin Laden's phone number in his PalmPilot or a big "AQ" tattooed across his chest, it takes the FBI almost a year to decide he is, in fact, a terrorist. And how did they finally determine this? "The investigation," said an FBI spokesman in April 2003, "developed information that (Hedayet) openly supported the killings of civilians in order to advance the Palestinian cause." This is incompetence and there is nothing to indicate our law enforcement agencies are getting better.

When CIA Director George Tenet says it will take five years to build a clandestine service able to serve the country, his over-optimism suggests that either he is lying or too incompetent to know that he is lying. When he says it will take that long for U.S. agents to take root, as the Washington Post reports, "in the rough societies where terrorist sources can be developed," he is telling us he thinks that the main point is to get our boys in those darned caves and mud castles. The Islamist student union at Cairo University is not a rough society, and it does not take five years to get admitted into the school's engineering faculty. When Tenet says that al-Qaida's influence is only recently spreading, he is telling us that no one in his office has briefed him on Sayyid Qutb's writings, the bible for a very widespread and potent ideological trend that declared war on Jews, Crusaders, and infidel Muslim rulers long before Osama Bin Laden first sprouted whiskers.

It's become truistic that we are engaged in a "war of ideas." But this phrase is almost too genteel, and in its connotations sanguine and self-congratulatory: what civilization is better positioned to win a war of ideas than the intellectual powerhouse of the West, what idea is more powerful than democracy, etc. At the same time, we've become fond of assuring ourselves that the enemy is merely a sort of fanatical froth, operating on the fringes of global Muslim society, destined for extinction.

How we conceive of the problem has implications for strategy. Without wishing to deny the appeal of Hollywood movies, the ballot box, or the Enlightenment, it seems to me that we are facing a problem more central, entrenched, and enduring than "the war of ideas" would imply. Yet if it is an enduring problem, it also may be more manageable than we normally assume -- so long as our attempts to quelch it do not have the opposite of the intended effects.

Terrorism has a long history and seems to come and go in waves. As Shapiro and Suzan note,

...because France has lived so long under the spectre of terrorism at home, neither state officials nor the public views the problem as transitory or fixable, but rather sees political terrorism as an inevitable and permanent feature of modern life. The French system therefore seeks to manage and minimise the problem rather than to solve it. In contrast, in the United States, the very notion of a 'war on terrorism' implies that the struggle will someday end.
But we, too, probably had better get used to it. If I were to name a sole "root cause" for the current wave of terrorism, it would be that Western and specifically American culture, political forms, economic models, and military might have conquered the world. This is the backlash. Conquering the world all over again in the name of the same things won't fix the problem.

Analyst

(The article by Shapiro and Suzan, "The French Experience of Counter-terrorism," is available in PDF.)

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