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Analysis From Washington - Fighting Terrorism Isn't Easy

  • Paul Goble

Washington, March 12 (RFE/RL) - World leaders will meet in Egypt this week to seek ways to cope with the latest upsurge in terrorism in the Middle East, Great Britain and elsewhere. Their task is not an easy one.

More than almost any other threat to the international community, terrorism seems to many a virtually insoluble problem. Even worse, virtually every proposed solution seems to entail a whole new set of problems. But the situation is not hopeless, and planning for the meeting has already led to several steps which give grounds for cautious optimism.

The difficulties the international community has in dealing with terrorism lie in the nature of terrorism itself. First of all, terrorism is the weapon of the weak and the excluded. As a result, terrorist attacks are always intended to achieve one or more of three goals:

First, to highlight the fragility of the existing political system and the inability of the authorities to prevent violence; second, to attract attention to and possibly support for the terrorists and their cause; and third, to force the authorities either to yield or to take actions which may in effect subvert the existing political order.

In addition, there is the problem of evalualing "terrorism." There is no generally accepted agreement of just what the limits of terrorism are in many cases, one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter, terrorism that succeeds is seldom called terrorism, and actions taken by a state are seldom described as terrorism even if they are quite similar to those used by outsider groups. Consequently, all discussions of terrorism are politically charged even as some officials try to suggest that terrorism is terrorism, bombing is bombing and hostage taking is hostage taking.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge terrorism presents however, and certainly the one that will be at the center of the session in Egypt, is deciding how to fight terrorism without to some extent giving the terrorists a victory. A useful way to think about this task is to remember that terrorism is like fire: three things need to be present for terrorism to take place. First of all there must be fuel: in the case of terrorism that means a grievance. Second, there must be oxygen: in the case of terrorism that means the possibility of action. And third, there must be heat: in the case of terrorism that means weapons to carry out the attack. If any of these is absent or is removed, terrorism can be stopped. But removing any or all of them is far from easy.

If a government or the international community seeks to remove the grievances behind the terrorist act, it not only gives the terrorists a victory but also suggests to others that terrorism works, a message that virtually guarantees that there will be more terrorist actions on behalf of other groups. If the authorities seek to remove the possibility of action by adopting harsher or more restrictive policies, the terrorists may also claim a victory.

Such a governmental response highlights the weakness of the existing authorities, not their strength, and the strength of the terrorists rather than their weakness. Moreover, it is virtually impossible to adopt more restrictive policies that do not affect a broader class of people than just the potential terrorists. And the impact of these more restrictive policies on this larger group of people may ultimately weaken their loyalty to the existing regime. And if governments seek to control the access of potential terrorists to weapons, the authorities are likely to discover that doing so is beyond their capacities. The number of weapons in private hands around the world is very large, their flow largely unrestricted, and most worrisome of all, many weapons such as bombs can be manufactured by people from readily available and otherwise legal materials.

These combined difficulties have led many to throw up their hands and to conclude that terrorism is the wave of the future because there is no obvious way to prevent terrorism without imposing the very controls that would both cost the larger community its freedoms and thus create a new breeding ground for the support of the terrorist agenda.

But such a conclusion is far too pessimistic. If there is no single solution against terrorism, there are many things that can be done in particular cases.

The run-up to the meeting in Egypt and that session itself suggests that the international community doesn't have some useful and potentially effective weapons to deploy against terrorist activity. One of these weapons is the sharing of information. Over the weekend, the Americans, Israelis and Palestinians exchanged data about terrorism in the Middle East and this may have helped lead to the arrest of several terrorists since that time.

But most important the meeting in Egypt signals a new determination of the world community to fight terrorism, a determination that will stiffen the resolve of the peoples who are its victims to stand up to terrorist attacks, to denounce terrorism as an appropriate means of political struggle, and thus to deny the terrorists all the goals that they seek.