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U.S.: Can An International Coalition Really Fight Terrorism?

  • Kathleen Moore

In the wake of this week's devastating attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., America's NATO allies have promised to join forces in the fight against terrorism. And U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said yesterday that the U.S. is working to build a broad coalition to counter terrorism. So what form could this cooperation take? RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox speaks to defense and security experts who say that such a coordinated approach may create more problems than solutions.

Prague, 13 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- "We are building a strong coalition to go after these perpetrators, but more broadly, to go after terrorism wherever we find it in the world. It is a scourge, not only against the United States, but against civilization."

That was U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell speaking on 12 September, the day after hijackers turned three U.S. passenger planes into bombs that destroyed New York's World Trade Center and caused extensive damage at the Pentagon.

Shock and anger at the unprecedented attack turned quickly into resolve to hunt down the hijackers' accomplices -- and ensure atrocities like this never happen again.

Today, support was growing for Powell's call.

Support came not only from NATO allies, but from less likely countries like Russia. Pledges of cooperation also came from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, two of only three countries in the world to recognize Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia, which is said to be sheltering Saudi-born extremist Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden has been mentioned as a potential suspect behind the attacks.

With so many unlikely partners pledging to work together, any coordinated campaign against terror is bound to raise many questions.

Gerd Nonneman is a Mideast specialist at the Center for Defense and International Security Studies in Lancaster, England. He says NATO allies could launch coordinated military action in hitting targets, though some allies might prove reluctant for fear of overreacting. It's easy to say an attack on one is an attack on all, but, Nonneman asks, "Who is the enemy and how do you get hold of him?"

Nonneman recalls the U.S. strikes at targets in Sudan and Afghanistan three years ago, in response to the bombings of its embassies in Tanzania and Kenya:

"There, the culprit was identified with a reasonable level of certainty as bin Laden or people close to him. The result of that reaction was that, one, he wasn't killed -- in fact, all that happened was that, at great expense to the U.S., lots of extra supporters for bin Laden's cause were created in Afghanistan and around the world. And two, in Sudan, a factory was hit that had nothing to do with terrorism but was a completely innocent pharmaceutical factory. It was a massive public relations disaster, as well as misdirected -- and that was on a small scale, so you could see where the difficulties could come in a case like this."

Nonneman says the emphasis in the drive against terrorism is more likely to be on coordinating intelligence. He says it will be more a question of degree than any new initiative.

But here, too, there are problems. He says the pressure on investigators and intelligence-gatherers to get a result after the bombing of a Pan Am airplane over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 was so intense that it led to mistakes being made:

"The possibility is that because of the enormous size of what happened and the sense of anger and the desperate need to hit back, the pressure to ride roughshod over any such qualifications, over quality of evidence, will be strong. Actions will happen, but then the question is, 'How effective are they and how counterproductive might they become?' I'm sure that in other Western capitals, there is a strong awareness of this. One of the main considerations in some of those capitals will be, 'How do you square your complete solidarity with the Americans with keeping a clear head and making sure you don't worsen things further?'"

Nonneman says that the drive to strike back in the wake of the atrocities risks overlooking what may be the root cause -- namely, 'What kind of grievances lead to extremists carrying out such attacks?'

"Unless people understand and focus much more on what's been going on in these regions and what the feelings are of the kind of milieus that these people come from, any intelligence or particular security or terrorist operations will never be sufficient."

Andrew Kennedy is an analyst at London's Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies (RUSI). He says new ways of thinking in intelligence-gathering are required. Terrorists often work in small networks that are hard to infiltrate, since outsiders are easy to spot.

"It was a case of the Cold War idea of 'them' and 'us' and we know what's going on. 'The new extremist terrorist groups work in a different manner. They work in a very loose collection of individuals united by a common hatred of one thing, in this case the U.S., and this is going to have to bring forward a complete revolution in thinking of the intelligence communities, particularly in the U.S."

He says the United Kingdom, for one, can contribute information gleaned from its experience combating the "faceless enemy of terrorism" on its own soil in the form of Irish Republican Army attacks. But he says cooperation could still prove difficult:

"There's been very little history of cooperation between these organizations and it will be very difficult to break down the barriers of mistrust that exist between some of the European states and particularly between some European states and the U.S."

Nonneman says offers of help from non-NATO members such as Russia and Pakistan seem genuine. But the current wave of revulsion provoked by the 11 September attacks suits some of these countries' own agendas, too:

"The Russians have their own problem in Chechnya, and they will be very pleased indeed to use this as an excuse to say -- 'Look, you see, we were right all along,' as does Israel at the moment. China would be perfectly happy to think along the same kind of lines. They have had instances of violence in their western province."

He says Pakistan's pledge of cooperation is also problematic, as it has to balance its desire to be seen as cooperating with Washington with its backing for the Taliban.