Terrorism Can be Defeated, Probably Piecemeal, but I Doubt that it Can be Eliminated Entirely.

Terrorism Can be Defeated, Probably Piecemeal, but I Doubt that it Can be Eliminated Entirely.

Exclusive interview with Mr. Stanley Escudero, vice-president of American Chamber of Commerce in Azerbaijan
By Rovshan Pashzadeh

AT: The whole world was shocked by the terrorist attack on Baku’s Oil Academy on 30 April, which took the lives of a dozen innocent people. Terrorism has become a more serious problem of late. What is the reason for that?
S. E.: First I want to offer my deepest sympathies and condolences to the innocent victims of this senseless terrorist attack and to the families of the survivors. No one could have predicted this violent assault, which runs counter to everything which I know and admire about the Azerbaijani character. I am certain that the authorities will do everything humanly possible to prevent the recurrence of such an outrage.
In my opinion terrorism has become more widespread for several reasons but, primarily because on some level and for a period of time it works: with the exception of suicide missions it involves limited risk for the perpetrators and even less for the organizers; it is an inexpensive way for a weaker, often non-state, opponent to strike at a stronger one and in ways that will not necessarily produce a violent response; it almost always results in substantial media coverage of the event and, by extension, of the cause of the terrorists and; it spreads terror, frightening people and leading them to lose faith in their government. In extreme cases it can lead governments to so severely restrict the freedoms of its people in the name of enhanced security that the people come to oppose their government almost as much as the terrorists. Finally, terrorism is becoming more prevalent because it is a tactic which leaves the initiative with the terrorists. In most cases nations operate in accordance with the rule of law and the dictates of what is generally accepted as civilized behavior. Terrorists intentionally put themselves beyond the pale of law or civilization, leaving governments only with the options of reacting after they are attacked or taking pre-emptive action which is always costly in terms of international public opinion.
For those whose sense of grievance is so great and whose sense of honor is so lacking that they are willing to take innocent life as a deliberate tactic, for those whose senses of cause and self-importance are so puffed up that no compromise can be acceptable, for those whose sense of hate – of others and perhaps of themselves as well- is so great that life in the same world with those they despise becomes unendurable, perhaps terrorism makes sense. My own sense of the basic goodness of humankind is grieved by the numbers of people who, these days, are willing to dedicate themselves to actions which any rational person would regard as despicable and which, ultimately, will prove counter-productive.

AT: How would you assess the role of the United States in the fight against international terrorism after September 11, 2001?
S.E.: We have led that struggle since 9/11 and have enjoyed some measure of success. I hope that we will continue to do so.
When a nation is as wealthy and powerful as the United States, perhaps it is to be expected that that nation will become a target of terrorists seeking revenge for some grievance, real or imagined.
There are those who believe that the principal reason for that the US is a frequent target of Islamic terrorists lies with our consistent support of Israel since its modern foundation in 1947. Now there are many sides to that issue and there are arguments to be made for and against each of those sides. These are best made by real experts on the Middle East Question and, in any case, the ins and outs of the Arab-Israeli conflict are far too complex for inclusion in a simple magazine article. The point is that America did not just become a target on 9/11. The truth is that, since the end of World War II in 1945, more American ambassadors have died by terrorist action than American generals have been killed in combat. Our embassies and military installations have been attacked, our companies and commercial offices assaulted, our commercial aircraft bombed, our citizens kidnapped – sometimes murdered, and our flag defiled and burned.
Most of the time the United States did not respond directly to these outrages, preferring to regard them as pinpricks. When responses were made they were most often confined to diplomatic protests to the governments responsible for the territory on which the attack took place. The occasional military responses were carefully crafted to be precise and surgical in hopes of directing the damage exclusively toward the intended target(s). Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t but always they were planned and implemented with a sense of proportionality.
But 9/11 was different. This was a massive attack on the Pentagon, on our two most prominent commercial buildings and an attempted attack on our Capitol building. More Americans were killed on 9/11 than in any act of violence on United States soil since the American Civil War, which ended in 1865. The American people were shocked, outraged, and very, very angry. No president who failed to rain down destruction upon the perpetrators would have long retained his office and we knew who was responsible and where they were. Thus Afghanistan.
As President of the United States it was the duty of George W. Bush to protect the country from other such attacks and a variety of measures were taken including the creation of a new cabinet department, the Department of Homeland Security, which have to date accomplished that purpose. As the de facto leader of the western world Bush saw it as his duty also to reduce or eliminate the terrorist threat posed by al-Qaeda and, in a response equally as dramatic as the event, he declared a “global war on terror”. But while a man may lead, his friends and supporters may not necessarily follow.
And so it was with Bush and the war on terror. In Afghanistan, with only partial NATO support, the Taliban was overthrown and, along with al-Qaeda, driven into Pakistan, where it has since regrouped to some extent. Sometimes alone and sometimes in cooperation with other intelligence services, al-Qaeda’s loosely organized networks have been widely disrupted, much of its first and second tier leadership killed or arrested (with the prominent exceptions of Osama bin-Laden and Ayman al-Zarkawi), its money flows blocked and its communications monitored. While still capable of terrorist acts, and in some areas such as Somalia even stronger than it was before, overall al-Qaeda is far less effective than it was prior to 9/11.
Bush might have diminished terrorist capacities even further and precluded any serious Taliban resurgence from Pakistan had he not diverted the American effort into Iraq. There can be no question that the Iraqi government of the day was guilty of state terrorism, not least of all against its own people. Yet it seems to me that Baghdad was not the primary target of the war on terror at that time. In what I believed at the time to be a mistake and with very limited allied support, President Bush attacked Iraq, overthrew the dictator Saddam Hussein, occupied Iraq and acquired responsibility for its future. In my view he did so with inadequate prior diplomatic preparation, insufficient commitment of force for both conquest and occupation and inattention to the inevitably vast demands for nation-building which would follow the combat phase of the war. The result of these infaust decisions was greater cost to all involved in lives, time, money, material, and especially in damage to the international standing and reputation of the United States. Even so, the result was victory in Iraq, though it remains to be seen if that victory will long survive the withdrawal of American forces.
The results so far of American leadership in the post-9/11 struggle against terrorism could best be described as a mixed success. The Obama Administration seems still to be refining its policy and role in this area and, honestly, I am not sure what they will do.
On the one hand President Obama’s ideological predilections would suggest a more compromising attitude toward America’s opponents in the Islamic world apparently in hopes of finding a mutually acceptable modus vivendi. His messages to Iranian Prime Minister Ahmadinejad, his apparently tougher stance toward Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his descent into the depths of euphemistic absurdity through reference to acts of terrorism as “man-caused disasters” are examples of this attitude. On the other hand America’s interests have not changed and Obama appears to have adopted Bush’s policies with respect to rendition of captured terrorists, maintenance of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay (via Congressional refusal to appropriate funds for its closure) and continuation of the conflict in Afghanistan – though under a different commander – among others.
At the moment Obama is far more concerned with domestic and international economic issues than with the struggle against terrorism. That said, I suspect that he will want to continue that struggle and to lead it on behalf of the West and of most other terrorist victim states. We will have to wait to see if the tide of the US-led effort against terrorism is receding or if Obama will seek to press ahead.

AT: What kinds of serious threats does international terrorism pose to peace and stability in the world today?
S.E.: As noted above, al-Qaeda is weakened but still active. And there are many other terrorist organizations, some of which have affiliations with al-Qaeda and some which do not. Most or all of these are capable of what we have come to regard as “standard” acts of terrorism such as the planting of bombs, drive-by shootings, attempts at assassination of prominent individuals or just indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians.
Some of them remain capable of planning massive acts of terrorism such as the use of biological or chemical weapons distributed via drinking water systems or building or metro air distribution systems, for example. But the largest scale disaster would come from the use of a radiological or a nuclear weapon against a large western city. All national intelligence and security services are constantly alert against such an event and there have been important advances in training and detection technology since 9/11 which have made protective efforts more effective. That said, no protective system is perfect and, should a terrorist group ever get control of a weapon of mass destruction, there can be little doubt that they would try to use it.
To date I am unaware of any evidence suggesting that any terrorist group has ever obtained a nuclear or other significant weapon of mass destruction. But some western analysts fear that a takeover of nuclear-armed Pakistan by the Taliban or a pro-Taliban government, or the development of nuclear weapons by Iran would lead to just such a horrific scenario. Others have claimed that some miniaturized so-called “suitcase nukes” have gone missing from Russia. Of course, the Pakistanis deny that their government could ever fall to or under the influence of the Taliban while the Iranians deny that they are developing a nuclear weapons capacity and Moscow denies that any of its nuclear weapons are unaccounted for.
But the potential threat is there. It may become worse. Constant vigilance is called for.
AT: The fight against terrorism is a qualitatively new type of warfare. How dangerous are today’s terrorist organizations? How should we fight against them?
S.E.: I disagree that terrorism is a new type of warfare. After all, it was common in Eastern Europe during the 19th and early 20th centuries. A Russian Czar was assassinated by a terrorist bomb and World War I began when an Austrian archduke and his wife were shot and killed by a terrorist member of a Serbian terror group called the Black Hand. The earliest instance I can recall of terrorism is the activities of a group of terrorists known as the Hashishim who operated out of a supposedly impregnable fortress in the Alborz mountains of Iran and terrorized the authorities of the Caliphate of Baghdad for generations.
The Hashishim (from which the word assassin is derived) remained active until the coming of the Mongols in the 1220’s. Apparently no one ever told the Mongols that the Hashishim fortress at Alamut was impregnable. So, the Mongols invested the fortress, fought their way into it and killed the Hashishim to the last man.
The lesson is instructive.
Unfortunately the two situations are not comparable. Today’s terrorists have not conveniently grouped themselves together in a single place, they are not all members of a single organization and they are disposed of a broader range of weaponry. Today’s terrorists do not fit a simple template. They are not all of a single faith, a single ethnic group, united against the same enemy and they are not all children of poverty. Indeed, studies have shown that the majority of the Palestinian youth who have sacrificed themselves against the Israelis are children of doctors, engineers or other relatively wealthy and privileged parents. Fighting them successfully, as the Bush Administration found, is possible but it is expensive, difficult and it requires a flexible approach and a sustained multinational commitment.

AT: Is it possible to defeat international terrorism? Can terrorism be eliminated in the future as a type of criminal activity?
S.E.: Terrorism can be defeated, probably piecemeal, but I doubt that it can be eliminated entirely. The indispensable requirement for the defeat of any terrorist organization is accurate timely intelligence. This not only enables the authorities to identify, locate and arrest individual terrorists and their supporters, prevent terrorist incidents and interrupt the flow of money or other kinds of support, it also provides understanding of the issues which led the terrorists to abandon their humanity and become terrorists in the first place. Timely accurate intelligence however obtained makes possible the successful two-pronged strategy of: identifying, dividing and hopefully co-opting a substantial part of the terrorist support base and; identifying, locating and either arresting or killing the hard-core terrorists themselves.
At this point let me make it clear that I believe that terrorists have voluntarily removed themselves from the constraints of civilized society. They refuse to abide by the norms of civilization and thus have forfeited any legal or moral claim to be treated in civilized fashion when taken. I regard as fatuous the argument that we become no better than they if we do not accord them all of the rights normally granted to captured soldiers or arrested criminals. The war against terror is not a moral struggle; we are already better than they are and we will remain so as long as we remain true to our own values amongst ourselves. It is demonstrably untrue that information obtained through coercion is not reliable. If it can be checked it will often be found to be quite reliable – if unreliable information is given, interrogation can be resumed. In short, I believe that by failing to do whatever is necessary to obtain timely accurate intelligence from captured terrorists, we do not make ourselves better, we make ourselves vulnerable.
Primary sources of such intelligence, in addition to the interrogation of captured terrorists, include communications intercepts and infiltration of terrorist cells. Once obtained intelligence must be evaluated and acted upon with precision and in timely fashion. Actions taken should be carried out in a manner which eliminates the terrorists with due consideration for their support base. In Iraq and in Afghanistan in years past it has often been possible to work through the existing tribal structure to help establish and sustain stability at the expense of terrorist groups which will ultimately challenge the traditional tribal leaders for authority. In a more fractious society like that of Somalia this may not work as well.
A combination of development and other assistance offered through and in cooperation with traditional authority structures which are accepted and understood by the people, in combination with the ruthless application of surgically applied force on the terrorists, sustained over time, can defeat terrorists in a given region or nation. But international terrorism is such that, once defeated in one area, it is likely to rear up again elsewhere. Current terrorist structures and the attractions they hold for the youth in some societies did not develop overnight. This was the work of generations and it will take generations to eliminate.

AT: Some Western specialists claim that Islam is facing a crisis, which they say has prompted Islamic terrorism. Could you please comment on this?
S.E.: I have problems with this explanation, which seems to me a bit facile. All the world is experiencing multiple crises. The global economy has imploded, demographics and unchecked immigration are changing the face of European and American societies, Christianity appears to be fading as a religion, the world’s climate may be warming (or cooling) as a result of human activity (or not) just to name a few. But these have not led to widespread terrorism amongst most of the world’s countries. Statistically Muslims have been responsible for a disproportionate number of terrorist incidents in recent years but that fact, along with the premise of the question, would seem to suggest that there is something intrinsically wrong with Islam and I do not buy that.
Most of my adult life has been spent in Muslim nations and cultures. Without exception, I have found Muslim peoples to be hospitable to an extraordinary degree and accepting of foreigners who accept them as equals. I have encountered no more intolerance of Christians amongst Muslims than I have of Muslims amongst Christians. It is a fact that our two cultures have often been in conflict ever since the Holy Prophet led the tribes out of the Arabian desert and against the Byzantines and Sassanian Persians. Yet this conflict has only rarely expressed itself as something that might be called terrorism although both cultures and the many countries which make them up have gone through myriad crises during that near millennium and a half.
In the 20th Century, when terrorism became more prevalent, terrorism has by no means been limited to the Islamic world. What was the Holocaust if not the greatest act of inhuman terrorism in world history? Yet the perpetrators were a civilized Western Christian nation. What was the slaughter of some two million Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge but a campaign of terrorism on a grand scale directed against Cambodians by Cambodians? What was the ethnic cleansing of almost one million Azeris from the territories illegally occupied by Armenia but an extraordinary act of terrorism, this time committed by a Christian nation against Muslims? And have those who falsely call Islam and incubator for terrorism failed to notice that the majority of victims of terrorist attacks committed by Muslims have themselves been Muslims and Muslim governments?
No, I reject the claim that Islam itself is the cause of the plague of terrorism in the modern Islamic world just as I reject the claim that the United States, through its policies, has brought on terrorist attacks and is therefore itself to blame for terrorism. I believe that individuals have free will and that they must take responsibility for their decisions and actions. As I wrote at the beginning of this article, terrorism has proven to be an inexpensive and effective way for a weak opponent to strike at a stronger one. But those who choose to engage in terrorism, regardless of their faith, must expect that eventually they and their supporters will be hunted down and killed. It is the duty of all responsible governments to turn this expectation into reality.

AT: What is the role of Azerbaijan in antiterrorist operations in Iraq and Afghanistan? How do you predict the future of US-Azerbaijani cooperation in the fight against international terrorism?
S.E.: Both Azerbaijan and the United States are victims of terrorism and both stand together arm-in-arm as allies and strategic partners to combat this international scourge. In the past Azeri platoons served in Kosovo and they still serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. This has been a courageous and expensive step for a small country like Azerbaijan and it is deeply appreciated by the nations of the West and others who feel that the continuing fight against terrorism is the main conflict for the civilized world of today.
The immediate future of that cooperation will depend in part on the direction of events in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, under the leadership of the Aliyev family Azerbaijan has developed rapidly into a prosperous and influential player on the international economic scene and a major force in the South Caucasus and Caspian Basin. Not only is this role understood and encouraged by major world powers but it has also given Azerbaijan an important stake in the continued success of that same international marketplace and political system of which Azerbaijan is becoming an important part.
Looking to the future of Azerbaijan as the key player in the flow of hydrocarbon energy from the Caspian Basin to the markets of the West the major trading nations of this interdependent world have come to recognize that they have a growing interest in the continuing stability and success of Azerbaijan.
Terrorists seek to weaken or destroy exactly that international system so critical to the ongoing growth and prosperity of Azerbaijan and its Western partners. It follows then that Azerbaijan, the West (which in this context I take to include Russia), the great trading nations of the East, indeed the entire civilized world will work together to a greater or lesser degree to combat their common enemy.

Azerbaijan Today Magazine 2010