Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer

Which War on Terrorism?
America Will Not Be As Effective If It Continues to Pursue Multiple Targets, Rather than Focusing on Al Qaeda


Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2003

A U.S. military campaign against Iraq seems imminent, unless some alternative resolution can be reached. One of the most convincing critiques of the Bush Administration's war plans has been the fear that a war against Iraq will unnecessarily, and prematurely, distract from the more pressing efforts to disrupt and disband Al Qaeda.

Recent events have only underlined the truth in this critique. We continue to fall far short of our goals when it comes to Al Qaeda, as recent warnings only emphasized. Yet instead of pursuing these goals, we spend much of our time on other objectives.

That raises a very serious question. America may be very capable of fighting two wars at once. But can it fight both of them well?

Rather than confront this question, America has recently chosen to conduct yet a third war - on groups related to neither Al Qaeda nor Iraq. For instance, last week Sami Al-Arian, a Florida professor, was publicly arrested, and subsequently indicted on charges of supporting the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).

Al-Arian, an outspoken critic of Israel's occupation, has many supporters who argue that his arrest is simply a political witch hunt. Regardless of whether or not they are correct, it is plain that Al-Arian does not belong to the inner core of terror on which the government should be focusing.

America's Disappointing Record In the Real War on Terrorism

Al Qaeda, of course, remains a horrific threat. Not only is Bin Laden apparently still at large (and issuing messages to his followers), but his terrorist group also seems to have re-formed. Indeed, Al Qaeda recently launched effective attacks in Bali, Lebanon, Kenya, and Kuwait that cost lives, and instilled the very terror they were meant to create.

Meanwhile, after last week's terror alerts, America remains on edge, fearing that the U.S. will face further attacks - and wondering when Al Qaeda will be stopped. Yet Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged "twentieth hijacker," remains our only 9/11-related arrest, and he was in custody before the attacks. (Germany has also tried and convicted Mounir el-Motassadeq, a suspect in the 9/11 plot, but seems to have done so quite independently of the U.S.)

The hard truth is this: America's law enforcement role in the war against terrorism is, to date, not one in which most Americans can find comfort or security.

There have been a handful of "material support" cases brought against Islamic charities. While cutting off funding is important, no one is under the illusion that these cases have directly prevented the terrorist attacks our own government tells us are imminent.

Meanwhile, two Americans are being held, incommunicado, in military confinement, based largely on facts not disclosed to the public. But if the cases against Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla are so strong, why not try them, at least before a military tribunal?

Certainly if Hamdi and Padilla were going to speak to the government about co-conspirators, they would have done so by now. Granted, perhaps Hamdi and Padilla are co-operating even now. But if they were, it seems likely that the government would let us know. After all, they have publicized, by comparison, other alleged terrorists' cooperation.

There have also been arrests of alleged Al Qaeda sleeper cells in New York and Washington. But, in both cases, the government admitted that the alleged cells were neither active nor planning any attack. The strongest case against the cells is that members appear to have been trained for fighting in Afghanistan. And, finally, there are the detainees being held in Guantanamo. This may be progress, but with warnings being issued, the public can be forgiven for believing it is not progress enough.

Granted, the government's investigators and lawyers have a difficult job when it comes to ferreting out terrorists, pursuing and prosecuting terrorism cases. These cases are arduous, painstaking and not exactly conducive to press conferences. Most terrorists remain below the radar screen before their attacks. And Al Qaeda's policy of dividing members into cells whose members do not know each other, only makes investigation more difficult.

But these difficulties are exactly the reason we ought to focus intensely on Al Qaeda, and not divide our focus so many times, among so many different alleged enemies, that in the end, we lose it entirely.

There is plainly much room for improvement in our system. For example, an independent review by the General Accounting Office recently found that nearly half of the 288 convictions reported as international or domestic terrorism cases were wrongly classified as such by the Department of Justice.

And when it comes to Al Qaeda, we desperately need any improvements we can get. As FBI Director Robert Mueller recently testified, the potential that Al Qaeda has unleashed cells domestically still remains, despite extensive surveillance and draconian immigration rules.

Al-Arian and PIJ: Far From the Greatest Threat We Face

Consider PIJ, to which Florida professor Al-Arian belongs. It is a terrorist group that is responsible for deaths and violence in Israel. However, no amount of stretching can link PIJ - or Al-Arian in particular - to the real threat of additional violence against Americans.

Then why is Al-Arian being prosecuted now? One possible reason is that the prosecution serves to distract attention from events embarrassing to the Administration.

If you doubt it, consider a few facts: Al-Arian had been under investigation since the mid-1990s. The 80-plus page indictment is mostly predicated on facts arising out of surveillance from 1994. However, he was not arrested until 2003 - at about the same time the Administration was under fire for its "plastic sheeting and duct tape" recommendations, and for the possibility that its increased security alerts, which had panicked the public, were based on faulty intelligence.

In sum, Al-Arian was arrested just when some good news in the war on terrorism was desperately needed. Not surprisingly, Attorney General Ashcroft held a dramatic press conference to announce the indictment

The Justice Department claimed that the arrest was enabled - and its timing explained - by new law: specifically, the Patriot Act and other post-September 11 legislation. Don't believe it. In fact, as the indictment shows, many of the charges against Al-Arian rest on longstanding federal statutes criminalizing conspiracy and racketeering.

All this is not to say that Al-Arian is innocent. That issue remains yet to be tried. But it is to say that his arrest was made out to be more key than it really was. And it's also to say that arrests like Al-Arian's have little, if anything, to do with making progress against Al Qaeda's genuine threats of domestic U.S. terrorism.

Ranking the Enemy: The Need to Prioritize

The world is filled with violent people and organizations. But only a few of these pose a national security threat to the United States. Moreover, among those that do threaten the U.S., the magnitude of the threat varies dramatically. Thus, the current view that "a terrorist is a terrorist" is not accurate.

Rather than viewing its enemies as all alike, and all equally "evil," the U.S. should conceptualize them as belonging to a series of concentric circles of threat. Only successes against the core circles - not the peripheral ones - should be counted as great achievements for the Administration and the country. And Al-Arian is peripheral, while Al Qaeda is at the absolute core.

Finally, the outer circle is composed of terrorists whose crimes do not directly endanger America's security. They may be groups who target allies who can and do protect themselves. The Irish Republican Army and Spain's Basque movement are examples. Palestinian groups such as PIJ, the one Al-Arian belongs to, arguably are, as well.

Why the Core of the War on Terrorism Must Be the Focus

The Administration has defined the war on terrorism broadly, but in the end it will be more effective to pinpoint than to sweep. Al Qaeda indisputably poses an immediate and continuing threat to our well-being. We need to ask of our government, every day, several questions: What is being done about Al Qaeda? It is worth pursuing other goals if we are not yet effective in pursuing the overriding goals of preventing further Al Qaeda attacks and putting the entire pernicious organization out of commission?

The world may be somewhat safer now that Al-Arian is behind bars; time and evidence will tell if he was a violent, or simply a political, man. But it will never be safe unless we make an honest accounting of threat that is still out there - and admit that arrests like Al-Arian's make little, if any, headway against that threat. A victory against a terrorist is not necessarily a victory in the war on terrorism.

Juliette Kayyem, a national security and law expert at the Kennedy School of Government, was a member of the National Commission on Terrorism and a former attorney at the Department of Justice. In an earlier column for this site, she discussed the sentencing of "shoe bomber" Richard Reid.

Was this helpful?

Copied to clipboard