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Back to School
Confronting Iraq: Terrorism
With Daniel Byman
Brookings Institution

Friday, March 21, 2003; 10:30 a.m. ET

Will the war in Iraq increase terrorism in the United States? How vulnerable are U.S. military personnel and U.S. interests in the Middle East?

Daniel Byman, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, was online to discuss terrorism and the war on Iraq.

In addition to his work with the Brookings Institution, Byman is an Assistant Professor in the security studies programs at Georgetown University and George Washington University. He previously served as a Professional Staff Member with the Joint 9/11 Inquiry Staff of the House and Senate Intelligence Committee.

This discussion is part of the washingtonpost.com Brookings Forum on Iraq series.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Daniel Byman: As the war progresses, we face the risk of terrorism from three sources. First, of course, is Iraq and its own agents. Although these should not be dismissed, in the past they have proven inept and vulnerable to disruption. Second, and much more frightening, is the danger of another attack by al-Qa'ida. The organization is skilled at exploiting public relations opportunities, and an attack during the war could put them at center stage. Third, radical Islamist individuals and small cells -- inspired, but not controlled by al-Qa'ida -- might also conduct attacks. Although they would not be "spectacular," they could still be quite lethal.

Harrisburg, Pa.: What, if anything, would cause terrorist cells to fade away without doing harm on their own? Does terminating their leadership cause them to lose direction, or are they capable of operating without instructions? If a Palestinian state is established, does this satisfy much of their political anger, or are their guiding influences more religious or otherwise ideological?

Daniel Byman: The answer varies by the group, making it difficult to have a single policy that leads group to fade away. Some groups abandon terrorism in response to political concessions. The Provisional IRA, for example, has gained from the ballot box as well as from the Armalite, leading it to reduce and then suspend attacks. Other groups are simply destroyed by arrests. The once fearsome Red Brigades is another example.

Terminating the leadership can work if the leader was an absolute commander or was particularly skilled. Many groups, however, have shown an ability to recover from the loss of their leaders.

A Palestinian state might satisfy some militant supporters (but not the hard core of militants). However, the terms of such a state would undoubtedly fall short of what they would want.

Boston, Mass.: Mr. Byman,

It seems that the Iraqi army is putting up little resistance. If the war goes too smoothly and no WMD are found, will people start asking why the US was so gung ho about this war?

Daniel Byman: People are already asking that, so it won't take much more to lead them in this direction. That said, the end of the war and the resulting decline in media coverage will lead other issues to come to the fore. Given the barbarity of Saddam's regime, U.S. officials can credibly cite humanitarian concerns if WMD and terrorism prove less troubling than currently suspected. And in any event, the WMD threat was largely based on potential future capabilities and intentions, not on current ones.

Indianapolis, Ind.: Do you feel that the hopefully achieved disarmament of the Saddam government will decrease the likelihood of a terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction? In light of this disarmament do you see terrorist activity decreasing in the world?

Daniel Byman: Unfortunately, al-Qa'ida and several other radical groups have long sought weapons of mass destruction, regardless of Saddam Husayn's regime. They will continue to do so. No easy answer here.

Lyme, Conn.: I work in a government facility that used to be subject to occasional fake bomb scares. Since Sept. 11, we have not received a single bomb scare. I thought of this when I overheard analysts mention they are surprised there have been no "home grown-copy cat" terrorist attack by an American wannabe terrorist. Is it possible that Sept. 11 shook up our country's nut cases such that they realize their crazy games are now being taken very seriously by authorities? Further, might all this increased security be deflecting any home grown terrorist from attempting to make some "copy cat" type of attack?

Daniel Byman: We can hope that the fruitcakes are indeed staying home. The arrests of a few after 9/11 may have served as an example, though I'm always surprised at how malevolent or senseless people can be.

The increased defenses will discourage some amateurs. However, there are simply too many targets for us to relax.

Alexandria, Va.: What steps can the U.S. take now to begin to repair the diplomatic damage done by unilateral action in Iraq?

Will other Muslim countries (e.g., Indonesia) continue to support U.S. efforts to combat global terrorism?

Daniel Byman: The United States should start working to bring other countries into the occupation of Iraq. It is in all our interests to have the breaches in the West sealed at this point.

Other Muslim countries will support the effort against al-Qa'ida, as it is probably more a menace to them than to us (our citizens are at risk, but our institutions are secure). They may not support efforts against other Islamist groups, however.

Washington, D.C.: Some opponents to military action say that attacking Iraq would provoke a terrorist response. Don't the terrorists want to hit the U.S. anyway? Would the attack on Iraq really increase the chances of what was probably inevitable anyway?

Daniel Byman: Terrorists certainly want to hit the US anyway, and a group like al-Qa'ida needs no encouragement. That said, many groups have multiple targets (e.g. the U.S., Israel, the Saudis, etc.) and the war will make them more likely to choose U.S. targets over alternatives.

Wheaton, Md.: Since the U.S. now has such widespread approval to use deadly force all over the world against terrorism, do you think Israel will now be given the same approval to go after Arafat, Hamas, Hezbullah and other evil terrorists?

Daniel Byman: Nope.

Crystal City, Va.: The employment of assassination as a military strategy has finally been legitimized as a targeting strategy, as employed most regularly by Israel and more prominently adopted by the U.S. with Saddam Hussein. The bases of this legitimacy has not been clearly defined, but seems to have a fluid applicability -- depending on whether you're successful at it or not.
Do you see assassination being used more extensively in the future as a legitimate way to effect change both by governments and by terrorists?

Daniel Byman: I think most governments will shy away from assassination, both because it is difficult and because it raises the possibility of payback.

The moral dimension is cloudy to me. Whacking leaders here and there sounds horrible, but so too does going to war against a conscript army to remove one dictator. I think that the chance of getting Saddam was worth the shot.

The biggest problem in the past was a lack of intelligence and precision. Both of those are improving, though we're still a long way away from guarantees of success.

Vienna, Va.: Hello Mr. Byman:

Would you clarify what is a terrorist as opposed to a freedom fighter as opposed to all these other labels that are being offered, depending on whether you are the giver or the recipient? Also, what is the difference between innocent civilians, collateral, and collaborators? Then there's the difference between martyrs, suicide bombers, and I don't recall what Ari Fleischer is calling them these days. Then there's targeted killing, assassinations, and the latest craze -- I think it was an "opportunity." There appears to be such a huge gray area and we haven't been able to use value-free terms to describe exactly what is occurring.

Thanks for any explanations (or at least conventions) on the use of these terms that describe the same phenomena.

Daniel Byman: Terrorism is a tactic. It involves a group's use of violence to sow fear in a broad audience for a political reason. "Freedom fighting" is a goal. You can have a "freedom fighters" (in their own eyes, at least) who use terrorism, and those who don't.

Innocent civilians are, well, innocent. That is, they are not involved in an overall conflict in any way. Collateral damage is a horrid term, used to mean the undesired destruction of property or killing. Collaborators are those who willingly work with occupying forces, the enemy, etc (it depends on your point of view whether this is good, but the word has a negative connotation).

Suicide bombers are those whose attacks require their deaths to succeed. A martyr is a broader term that can include suicide bombers, but could also include someone who does a hunger strike.

Glenmont, Md.: Shouldn't the U.S. insist on a two-state solution to resolve the Kurdish issue? Why would the UN and U.S. approve of giving the Arabs (who already occupy land larger than 1,000 Israel's) a state in Israel to solve the Arab/Israeli conflict and not do the same for Arab-occupied Kurdistan?

Daniel Byman: It would be tough for a Kurdish state to survive. Turkey, Iran, Syria, and the rump state of Iraq would oppose it. U.S. views have historically been conditioned by a desire not to offend these governments and to recognize that they would intervene militarily to stop the new state.

Columbus, Ohio: Is it safe to proceed with vacation plans within the United States during this time?

Daniel Byman: Yes. Predicting where the next attack will be is exceptionally difficult, as terrorists often look for weak links.

In general, you are much more likely to die from a car accident ... so watch out for idiots with cell phones first and worry about terrorists next.

Atlanta, Ga.: What are the top five things the U.S. can do to suppress terrorism?

Daniel Byman: 1. Better integrate information already gathered

2. Work closely with concerned foreign governments

3. Recognize that criminal justice is not always the best means of fighting terrorism

4. Start to work on improving the U.S. image among Muslims abroad. This will take years if not decades to bear fruit.

5. Be creative: al-Qa'ida is a truly unique foe (I don't use "unique" lightly), and we need to adapt as it adapts.

Washington, D.C.: Would a foreign policy that angers a lot of people who usually are helpful to ambivalent increase the likelihood of terror attacks against Americans? See, I think our Iraq policy harms our friends who now find it more and more difficult to oppose those who would harm us. Sure, our most vocal supporters are there, but even their words are increasingly just lip service as the groundswell of opinion that we got what was coming to us on 9-11 grows.

Daniel Byman: The good news is that everyone hates al-Qa'ida. So I think others will still support American counterterrorism regardless of other foreign policy concerns.

That said, anger at U.S. policies is widespread, particularly in the Muslim world. We may have no choice on this (I, for one, don't want to abandon Israel or endorse religious exclusion), but when possible we should seek to explain our policies to minimize misperceptions. But don't count on too much progress -- the divide is deep.

Virginia: I wonder how you can fight terrorism without being discriminatory here in the U.S.?

Daniel Byman: One distinction that is easy to make is between American citizens and non-citizens. Additional scrutiny of non-citizens (particularly those in the US who have already violated the terms of their visas) seems a reasonable step.

Washington, D.C.: If innocent civilians are innocent would you characterize the civilian deaths of Hiroshima in 1945 as terrorism? The objective was to frighten the people into forcing the government to surrender. And as a military tactic, it failed. The warlords only surrendered when it was clear we had a nuclear weapon production capability.

Daniel Byman: Analysts define terrorism specifically as a non-state/group phenomenon. This may seem painfully semantic, but it helps narrow the category. As a result, militaries don't "do" terrorism.

When states do attacks on innocents, the question becomes whether it is a war crime or not.

People can make value comparisons of the two, but from an analytic point of view they are distinct.

Alexandria, Va.: Would you caution against travel to other countries during the conflict? If so, which ones in particular?

Daniel Byman: Most countries will be safe ... or, more accurately, you are more likely to die from an accident, a disease, or crime. A happy thought, I know.

Jordan may be risky, as would be several other Middle East states. Europe may be at greater risk, but the risk in any particular place is still very low. And bargain hotels as well, I suspect.

Washington, D.C.: Do you predict increased attack?

Daniel Byman: I think it is more likely that there will be attempts. Terrorism involves both offense and defense, and the defense right now is very high.

Somewhere, USA: In your view, how is the war on terrorism proceeding?

Daniel Byman: Well, though far from perfect. On the bright side, there have been many arrests and disruptions of al-Qa'ida. In addition, even if there is a major attack tomorrow, we have gone over a year and a half without one on Americans (though Bali was particularly painful) -- a success by another means. That said, radical Islam is alive and well, and al-Qa'ida and its future incarnations are probably still recruiting many new radicals.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company