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Endless War on Terror (Phase Two)

By Nat Parry
July 6, 2006

Just nine days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, George W. Bush defined victory in the “war on terror” as the defeat of al-Qaeda and “every terrorist group of global reach.” But now with almost no debate, the Bush administration has expanded those ambitious goals by adding the elimination of potential “homegrown terrorists.”

In effect, this bait-and-switch definition of “victory” guarantees that the “war on terror” will indeed be endless, striking not just at al-Qaeda and other organized terrorist groups that can operate internationally, but including disaffected youth in the United States and elsewhere who might be inspired by al-Qaeda or some other extremist ideology.

This mission creep was reflected in several recent developments, such as the arrest of seven young black men in Miami for agreeing to collaborate with an FBI agent posing as an al-Qaeda operative and the CIA’s shutting down of a special unit that has been dedicated to tracking al-Qaeda for the past decade.

Intelligence officials said the CIA disbanded the al-Qaeda-focused “Alec Station” late last year and reassigned its analysts to a broader Counterterrorist Center because the center’s then-director Robert Grenier felt that the reorganization would better meet the shifting terrorist threat. [NYT, July 4, 2006]

At the heart of that changing threat is a heightened concern about “homegrown terrorism,” which is not directed by al-Qaeda or another international terrorist group but may be inspired by them. An example of that type of terrorism was the July 7, 2005, subway bombings in London, carried out by four young Muslims from northern England.

Lucky Punch

Yet, rather than take this declining capability of al-Qaeda to conduct direct attacks on the West as a sign of victory – or as an indication that the 9/11 attacks were a case of lax U.S. defenses letting al-Qaeda get in a lucky punch – the Bush administration has redrawn the parameters of the potential threat.

“We’ve already seen this new face in terrorism in Madrid, London and Toronto,” said FBI Director Robert Mueller in a speech to the City Club in Cleveland. “They were persons who came to view their country as the enemy.”

Mueller’s comments also could have applied to the Miami Seven case, although some critics see it more as an example of the administration manufacturing a “homegrown” threat to justify Bush’s continuation of extraordinary presidential powers and further encroachments on American constitutional rights.

“Without the help of the FBI, determined to establish a ‘homegrown’ terrorist threat, as elucidated by FBI head honcho Robert Mueller in Cleveland as the bust unfolded in Miami, these ‘terrorists’ hailing from a cult that believes in shape-shifting reptiles, would have gone nowhere,” wrote journalist Kurt Nimmo.

The seven Miami defendants appear to be alienated young men, but there is no evidence that they would have “sworn allegiance” to al-Qaeda if an undercover FBI agent hadn’t approached them with promises of cash, uniforms and supplies. Even then, as FBI deputy director John Pistole said, their plan was “aspirational rather than operational.”

Despite the breathless media attention to the arrests – one CNN anchor even wondered if the Miami Heat’s celebration of the NBA championship might be disrupted by the terrorist threat – the seven African-Americans had no weapons, no explosives and no concrete plans for waging a “full ground war against the United States,” as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales claimed.

“We’re as puzzled as everyone else,” said Howard Simon, director of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “There’s no weapons, no explosives, but this major announcement.”

More Fear

Though rounding up these seven young men may not have headed off some imminent terrorist attack, the arrests did serve several other purposes, including injecting a new dose of fear into the American people, giving Republican candidates a boost in the November elections and justifying continuation of the “war on terror” at a time when Bush’s strategies are facing new questions and challenges.

Most notably, on June 29, a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court rebuked Bush’s proposed military tribunals for trying many of the 460 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The five-justice majority declared that the “war on terror” does not grant the President unlimited powers.

As Marty Lederman observed in an analysis for SCOTUSblog.com, the court determined that Bush’s conduct is “subject to the limitations of statute and treaty” and the court made clear that “Congress’s enactments are best construed to require compliance with the international laws of armed conflict, absent contrary legislative direction.”

Perhaps most importantly, the Supreme Court ruled that the Geneva Convention applies as a treaty obligation to the conflict against al-Qaeda.

In citing the Geneva Convention, the court unambiguously rejected legal theories put forth by the White House Office of Legal Counsel when it was run by Alberto Gonzales who argued that provisions of the Geneva Convention were rendered “quaint” and “obsolete” by the 9/11 attacks.

In repudiating the White House position, the Supreme Court implied that the administration has committed war crimes at Guantanamo. Theoretically at least, the ruling would open U.S. officials to prosecution under the War Crimes Act, which defines a war crime as any act that “constitutes a violation of common Article 3” of the Geneva Convention.

Although few people expect George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld to be put in the docks as war criminals, the court’s ruling does mark the most significant institutional challenge to Bush’s assertion of virtually unlimited powers as commander in chief.

Advisory Opinion

For his part, Bush has hinted that he may treat the Supreme Court’s ruling as more of an advisory opinion than a binding decision.

Responding to a reporter’s question shortly after the court’s decision, Bush rhetorically put quote marks around the word “ruling.”

“Yeah, I – thank you for the question,” Bush said, “on a quote, ‘ruling’ that literally came out in the midst of my meeting with the prime minister [of Japan], and so I haven’t had a chance to fully review the findings of the Supreme Court.”

Between the quote marks around “ruling” and the later reference to the court’s “findings,” Bush conveyed a sense that he didn’t necessarily consider the decision to be binding on his actions.

Some congressional Republicans also indicated that they might just ratify Bush’s previous plan for Guantanamo tribunals – which would have sharply restricted the rights of the defendants – and then dump the issue back in the Supreme Court’s lap.

Bush already knows that four justices – Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and John Roberts – are prepared to sign off on Bush’s claims to extraordinary powers for prosecuting the “war on terror.” If one of the other five justices switches or is replaced before a new ruling, Bush might well be granted his wishes.

Given Bush’s assertion of “plenary” – or unlimited – powers as commander in chief, it would follow that he doesn’t believe the Legislature or the Judiciary has any control over his actions.

Regarding legislation passed by Congress, Bush has issued hundreds of “presidential signing statements” to effectively nullify laws that he believes encroach on his authority. For instance, in December 2005, Bush signed a law prohibiting abuse of terror suspects but then added a signing statement asserting his right to ignore the law.

Though Bush has sworn to “faithfully execute the law in a manner that is consistent with the Constitution,” he has made clear that he actually sees the laws as optional depending on whether they serve his interests.

Endangering Security

Beyond these legal issues raised by the “war on terror,” there is the troubling question of whether Bush’s strategy is endangering national security by relying too much on force. Traditional counterinsurgency tactics emphasize addressing root causes of extremist violence, such as economic conditions, cultural sensitivities and judicial practices.

Yet Bush has discovered that tough talk and rough tactics play well with his political base and with Americans frightened by the prospect of another 9/11 attack. In allied countries, however, there is a growing concern that the Iraq War is fueling the terrorist threat by riling up Muslims living in the West.

After the London bombing and the earlier Madrid train attacks, large majorities in Britain and Spain blamed their government’s involvement in the Iraq War for making those countries more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. In Spain, the calls to withdraw from Iraq contributed to the election of Jose Zapatero, who soon pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq.

In Afghanistan, U.S.-backed president Hamid Karzai has urged the United States to reconsider its strategy of relying on military force to hunt down terrorists and to begin addressing the root causes of terrorism.

Karzai said the recent deaths of 600 Afghanis were “unacceptable” and warned that the U.S. strategy was feeding a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan and a growing militancy in neighboring Pakistan.

Indeed, it appears the Bush administration may have entered into a circular pattern of reacting to terrorism with greater force, which in turn generates more anti-Americanism and more terrorism, which justifies even a more severe application of force.

A recent survey of over 100 of America’s top terrorism experts found an overwhelming consensus that the world is more dangerous for the American people than it was on Sept. 11, 2001. Over half the experts cite Islamic animosity and the Iraq War as the main reasons why the world is becoming more dangerous.

Eighty-seven percent of those surveyed believed that the war in Iraq has had a negative impact on U.S. national security. Other contributing factors were the detention of terror suspects in Guantanamo, U.S. policy toward Iran and U.S. energy policies.

Suicide for the Republic

In a June 28 panel discussion about the survey, retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, noted that some experts say that between 40 million and 100 million Muslims around the world support the killing of American men, women and children for political objectives.

Wilkerson said it was impossible to neutralize this widespread hostility by relying on military force. Plus, he said, if the United States did try to eradicate this Muslim anger through force, “we will commit suicide as a democratic republic.”

Throughout the Cold War, Wilkerson said, even when facing a security threat much worse than al-Qaeda, presidents balanced the needs of national security and the constitutional principles that ensure a democratic republic.

Under Bush, there has been a “radical departure” from that tradition of compromise, Wilkerson said.

Not only has Bush’s departure from constitutional principles led to an “imperial presidency,” Wilkerson said, but many of Bush’s “war on terror” policies have exponentially increased anti-Americanism and fueled the terrorist threat.

Other experts agreed that Bush’s strategy is playing into al-Qaeda’s hands.

Former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, who ran the now-disbanded al-Qaeda task force, said Osama bin-Laden knows that his ragtag band of terrorists can’t do much in taking on the awesome power of the U.S. military, but bin-Laden hopes that his call to arms can inspire people inside the United States and elsewhere to take up his cause.

Jason Burke, author of Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, argues that al-Qaeda is “an idea, not an organization,” with bin Laden and other leaders having no “need to organize attacks directly.”

Instead, al-Qaeda leaders “merely need to wait for the message they have spread around the world to inspire others.” Rather than following orders from above, autonomous cells launch attacks on targets independently at times of their own choosing, actions which are then applauded by al-Qaeda leaders.

That may be the underlying significance of the Miami Seven case, if indeed the government’s allegations are correct that these young African-Americans agreed to the FBI informant’s demand that they swear allegiance to al-Qaeda.

Bush’s “war on terror” may now be refocusing itself on disaffected individuals who are driven by their exclusion from society or economic hardship to turn toward extremism and possibly violence against their own country’s power structure.

Why Terrorism?

According to a 1999 report commissioned by the Clinton administration entitled “Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why,” terrorists “often are unemployed, socially alienated individuals who have dropped out of society.” In western societies, some terrorists also are “intellectual and idealistic,” the report said.

“These disenchanted youths” usually “engage in occasional protest and dissidence” before turning to terrorism, an escalation that often follows “violent encounters with the police,” the report said.

Dealing with some of those underlying issues may ultimately prove more effective in addressing alleged homegrown terrorism than pre-emptive arrests.

But less violent tactics for defusing social tensions have never been of much interest to Bush, who has gotten great political mileage out of macho rhetoric about bringing in terrorists “dead or alive” and bombing “rogue states.”

Bush also has offered the American people simplistic, feel-good explanations for the motivation of terrorists.

In his Sept. 20, 2001, speech to a joint session of Congress, for instance, he not only defined what victory would be but offered his famous explanation for why the United States was attacked nine days earlier.

“Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there,” Bush said.. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.

“Americans are asking, why do they hate us? They hate what we see right here in this chamber – a democratically elected government. … They hate our freedoms – our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”

Now, almost five years later, Bush has expanded his counterterrorism plan to go after potential “homegrown” threats, even though that strategy is certain to erode some of the same freedoms that Bush extolled just nine days after 9/11.

Despite this downward spiral in the “war on terror,” Bush stands to continue benefiting from the political support of frightened Americans who are ready to trade their constitutional liberties for a sense of a little more safety at the shopping mall.


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