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By Stan Crock B. Raman, director of India's Institute for Topical Studies, wrote an online column on Sept. 11 wondering why Osama bin Laden was silent on the anniversary of his greatest triumph. On the two previous anniversaries, the al Qaeda leader had taken the opportunity to laud the men who "changed the course of history" and "the confusion caused to the enemy" by their actions, Raman wrote.
This year, Raman notes, the world heard from bin Laden's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, but not the big man himself. Raman offers three possibilities: Bin Laden is dead, or injuries he received in Tora Bora have caused his health generally and speech specifically to decline so much he could not tape a speech, or he's in the custody of the U.S. or Pakistan, his capture to be unveiled just in time for the November election.
DIFFERENT OBJECTIVE. Raman doesn't know. And unless bin Laden is in custody, Washington probably doesn't either. And that's the problem. America knows too little about the most serious threat it now faces. According to the Associated Press, Mike Scheuer, the once-anonymous CIA official who penned Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror, griped in a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee in early September that no systematic effort has been undertaken to beef up al Qaeda expertise among covert CIA operatives since September 11.
The CIA isn't the only group at sea. When think tanks and the government hold terrorism war games, the hostile "Red" teams too often think like Cold War opponents rather than like today's threats. Westerners have trouble understanding or thinking like Islamic jihadists. President George W. Bush says the clash with bin Laden started on September 11. In a speech bin Laden gave in January, he said it started centuries ago.
The experts who do seem to understand jihadists don't provide a cheery outlook. Take Rand terrorism expert Brian M. Jenkins, a former Green Beret who served in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic. In a recent presentation, Jenkins gave a sobering analysis. He said the jihadists have a different goal in mind from insurgents and terrorists in the past. Israeli terrorists, Irish Republican Army terrorists, and Chechen terrorists all wanted independence. Their ambitions were territorial.
CHILLING VISION. Not so the jihadists, Jenkins argues. "Strategic objectives don't dictate action," he says. "Action is the objective." The ultimate goal is not to take ground -- though bin Laden would like to kick out the Islamic world's apostate rulers and Western invaders as well as restore the caliphate. The real goal is to build a larger following for jihadism. Planning, recruiting, and staging spectacular incidents such as September 11 -- the process itself -- furthers the goal of expanding membership. Action fosters unity and provides inspiration.
This is a chilling vision because unlike Chechnya, Iraq, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there's no vision, no potential political resolution, for ending the jihadist threat. Removing foreign troops from the Arab world wouldn't necessarily satisfy bin Laden and his followers, who really want a clash with the West. "For the dedicated jihadist terrorist, there's no compromise, there's no dialogue," says Jenkins. "This is a battle to the death."
While the military part of America's anti-terror campaign can pay some dividends, it's not enough. Sure, Jenkins says, removing the Taliban from power in Afghanistan disrupted al Qaeda's activities -- especially its talent search and bonding -- and made it decentralized and less efficient. But it still has sufficient cadres to conduct operations. Estimates of the number of jihadists worldwide range from 800 to 18,000. Given the spectrum, it's clear that people don't really know. But even at the bottom range, that's enough to cause a lot of havoc.
LONG-TERM PAYOFF. President Bush keeps on calling the campaign against jihadists a war and appears to remain steadfast in his belief that a military solution exists. The Administration has paid lip service to "softer" tactics, such as public diplomacy, and it even hired a Madison Avenue executive to head the effort -- something that makes sense if you want to sell shampoo to soccer moms. But if the Administration took this effort seriously, it would hire someone who knew more about Islamic and Arab culture and could figure out how to reach and sell to that market.
Indeed, Jenkins and even conservative thinkers such as Adam Garfinkle, now a State Dept. official, think military action is just a small part of an ideological struggle that goes far beyond the typical "hearts and mind" problem. Jenkins warns: "I don't think we have successfully engaged the enemy on the ideological grounds."
Nor does Garfinkle. In a new book he edited, A Practical Guide to Winning the War on Terrorism, he recommends persuading indigenous elites to stigmatize the murder of civilians, stopping the flow of money, refuting the distortions of U.S. policy and motives, and working patiently at social, economic, and political reform in Islamic communities. Garfinkle admits that in the face of terrorist threats, it makes more sense to focus on the first three as the last will be too difficult to achieve quickly. But even the first three are unlikely to have any immediate payoff.
NO GUARANTEED OUTCOME. Attacking the cult of violence "is something that's probably going to take us years to figure out how to do and decades to do it," Jenkins says. He compares the likely time frame to the length of the Cold War, which was also an ideological face-off.
America won that battle, he notes. But Jenkins is less sure about this one. "The outcome of this is by no means guaranteed," he says. "This is a true struggle." Until Washington focuses with single-minded attention rather than with a single-minded solution, the struggle will bephill. Crock is chief diplomatic correspondent for BusinessWeek and is based in the Washington bureau