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Errors in fighting Al Qaeda have worsened the danger

WHAT DO the March 11 attacks mean to Spain and the world? The news is not good. A group of international terrorists claimed that they intended to affect the outcome of an election, and they did.


Are the Spanish people guilty of appeasing the terrorists, as many are now suggesting? To pose this question demonstrates extraordinary ignorance about the nature of the terrorist threat we confront.

The Spanish people cannot appease Al Qaeda by voting in a new party, leaving Iraq, or anything else. We must not romanticize Al Qaeda and its networks of nihilist minions by assuming that they have clear objectives that they could ultimately achieve or that we could, if we chose, appease them. The groups that subscribe to Al Qaeda's dystopic ideology have a grandiose vision but no set goals.

The purpose of lethal attacks is to rally the troops at least as much as it is to horrify and frighten the victims. The goals continue to shift -- from forcing US troops out of Saudi Arabia or Western troops out of Iraq to stripping America and its allies and sowing discord in the West to setting Iraq aflame with sectarian tensions. To achieve these shifting goals, the movement aims to create a clash not only among civilizations but also within civilizations. The ultimate objective is to "purify" the world -- replacing the new world order with a caliphate of terror based on a fantasized simpler, purer past.

When Osama bin Laden announced his intention to target American civilians in February 1998, he demanded that US troops leave Saudi Arabia. Despite the US decision to remove its troops (for reasons having nothing to do with complying with his demands), bin Laden and the movement he inspired were not appeased. They continue to pose a threat to the entire world. And when the Spanish people voted the Popular Party out, they did so not to please Al Qaeda but because they felt that Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and his party no longer represented their interests.

Aznar's government appears to have reacted the way many governments would, alas: by jumping to the conclusion that the "usual suspects" were responsible and then attempting to cover up its mistakes. This is certainly not the first time that victims of terrorism have assumed that a familiar group was responsible for an attack only to discover that the attack was perpetrated by a mysterious, shadowy network with no clear home address. Nor is it the first time that a government has taken its time in divulging the truth about its intelligence mistakes. Indeed, many see much about the war in Iraq very much in this light. President Bush and his administration lashed out at the usual suspects (in this case Saddam) for the horrific attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and they have been extraordinarily slow to admit their mistakes -- both in intelligence and in judgment. The Bush administration has -- even today -- not woken up to the fact that in today's world, rogue individuals can be more dangerous than rogue states. (This is as true in regard to nuclear proliferation as it is in regard to terrorism.)

That act of lashing out at the wrong enemy at the wrong time has made the world a far more dangerous place, including for the Spanish people.

Over the last six years I have interviewed many mujahideen, and one of the most chilling things they have told me is that jihad becomes addictive. To support a jihadi habit, nearly any action becomes acceptable, including cooperating with enemy terrorist groups and criminal rings, killing innocent Muslims or attacking friendly forces.

The Bush administration made a grave error when, reeling from the shock of Sept. 11, it chose to defy its allies. Rather than allowing the March 11 tragedy to sow even further discord among us, now is the time to band together, including by working together to create a functioning state in Iraq. We need to become as savvy at psychological warfare as is our enemy. Whenever and wherever possible, we should be sowing confusion and dissent among Al Qaeda and its franchises, not allowing Al Qaeda to sow confusion among us.

It is possible to fight this foe only if we stay focused on its true nature -- it is addicted to a nihilistic holy war. It will not be appeased by minor victories in Spain or anywhere else.

Jessica Stern, a lecturer on terrorism at Harvard's Kennedy School, is the author of "Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill."

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