State-Sponsired Terrorism Is a Myth

Can we talk about an actual issue here for a minute instead of having to spend valuable blog-time debunking the latest swarm of lies about the issue from the Bush Admin? Cause if we can, I think that might be good.Josh Marshall noted that Richard Perle unaccountably hasn’t joined the chorus of Clarke-drubbing BA flacks and gives him credit for accurately stating the differences between Clarke and the neocons, which Marshall summed up this way:

[Perle] focused on what really is the central issue — whether the war on terrorism is principally a battle against states (which sponsor terrorist groups or, we might say, launder violence through them) or transnational terrorist organizations who are not fundamentally reliant on state sponsors.

This is, indeed, the key difference and the crucial question to be answered if we are to have an effect on them. Baldly put, if terrorists exist primarily on the largesse and with the approval of states, then one cannot beat them without destroying or at least undermining that state support. If, on the other hand, terrorists have stopped relying on state support and are now no longer either centralized or primarily regional, then attacking states supposedly supporting them will be futile. So which is it?

Marshall points to a Newsweek article by Mid-East reporter Fareed Zakaria for a look at what the 9/11 Commission’s documents show, particularly the staff reports.

Before the mid-1990s, almost all terrorism against the United States had been backed by a state. The Soviet Union had financed and trained terror groups around the world. Syria, Iran, Iraq and Libya had all sponsored terrorism. The most dramatic attacks on Americans—the Beirut Marine-barracks bombing in 1983, and Pan Am 103 in 1988—had both been encouraged if not planned by governments. Even Saudi Hizbullah, the group that bombed Khobar Towers, the American barracks in Saudi Arabia, got support from Iran.Around 1997, members of the intelligence community—and others, like Richard Clarke—began focusing on a Saudi man, Osama bin Laden, who they realized was the financier and leader of a new group, Al Qaeda. Few in government shared their concern. In 1997 Al Qaeda was not confirmed to have executed a single terrorist attack against Americans. “Employees in the government told us that they felt their zeal attracted ridicule from their peers,” the commission’s report on intelligence says.

But a series of events and personalities linked to the attempted WTC bombing back in ’93 began to show investigators a different picture which the unraveling (and interdiction) of the millenium plots confirmed: something new was going on. States were getting out of the business of sponsoring terrorism.

I asked an American official closely involved with counterterrorism about state sponsorship. He replied, “Well, all that’s left is Iran and to a lesser extent Syria, and it’s mostly directed against Israel. States have been getting out of the terror business since the late 1980s. We have kept many governments on the list of state sponsors for political reasons. The reality is that the terror we face is mostly unconnected to states.” Today’s terrorists are harbored in countries like Spain and Germany—entirely unintentionally. They draw on support not from states but private individuals—Saudi millionaires, Egyptian radicals, Yemenite preachers.

The states were probably bailing out because, like Qaddaffi, they had reached the conclusion that terrorism didn’t work, that it wasn’t going to get them what they wanted and that instead they were losing respectability and influence on the world stage–the opposite of the result they had hoped for. But whatever the reason, terrorists like bin Laden were now working almost entirely outside the sponsorship of any state as independent entities with independent goals.

So much had the CTC (counter terrorist community) learned–the hard way–by 2000. Both Sandy Berger, Clinton’s National Security Advisor, and CIA Director George Tenet were slow to come around, but when they did they became advocates. All of them tried very hard to pass on what they now knew about the radical shift in terrorist tactics, but the Bush Bunch had its own agenda.

The Bush team, distrustful of anything Clinton’s people said, did not see Al Qaeda as an urgent threat. They held few meetings on it and in other ways were inattentive to it. One example from the panel’s report: the senior Pentagon official responsible for counterterrorism is the assistant secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict. Even by September 11, 2001, no one had been appointed to that post.The Bush administration came to office with different concerns. During the 1990s conservative intellectuals and policy wonks sounded the alarm about China, North Korea, Cuba, Iran and Iraq, but not about terror. Real men dealt with states.

Even after 9/11, many in the administration wanted to focus on states. Bush spoke out against countries that “harbor” terrorists. Two days after the attacks, Paul Wolfowitz proposed “ending states that sponsor terrorism.” Beyond Iraq, conservative intellectuals like Richard Perle and Michael Ledeen insist that the real source of terror remains the “terror masters,” meaning states like Iran and Syria.

Afghanistan would appear to support that contention, but Zakaria points out that Afghanistan was, in reality, a major role-reversal, a real tail-wagging-the-dog situation.

[Afghanistan] was less a case of a state’s sponsoring a terror group and more one of a terror group’s sponsoring a state. Consider the situation today. Al Qaeda has lost its base in Afghanistan, two thirds of its leaders have been captured or killed, its funds are being frozen. And yet terror attacks mount from Indonesia to Casablanca to Spain. “These attacks are not being directed by Al Qaeda. They are being inspired by it,” the official told me. “I’m not even sure it makes sense to speak of Al Qaeda because it conveys the image of a single, if decentralized, group. In fact, these are all different, local groups that have in common only ideology and enemies.”

Not only not a state-sponsored group, not even a single vertically-integrated group but a collection of indie-cells loosely organized and often acting on their own initiative with the help, advice, and “inspiration” of the parent group as a guide. If this picture of the new reality is accurate–and there is every reason to think it is–then the Bushies’ refusal to take it into account in their planning wasn’t just wrong but spectacularly wrong, the equivalent of criminal negligence.

Blinded, deafened and cut off from the real threat by their insistant reliance on Cold War models with which they were comfortable but which were hopelessly out of date, it could be argued that Bush, Rice, Wolfowitz, Perle, Cheney and the rest were as responsible for allowing 9/11 to happen as the mother whose child dies when left unattended in a closed car on a hot day because she didn’t believe that excessive heat hurts children despite being told by her doctor that it was dangerous. In law, her ignorance of science is no excuse and her refusal to take her doctor’s advice would lead to a manslaughter charge at the least. In BushLand, they think she should win a new car.

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