One year after the terrorist attacks on New York City, Washington, D.C. and aboard United Flight 93, three speakers addressed a somber Chapin Hall audience on Wednesay. The discussion – moderated by Robert Kavanaugh, professor of psychology – focused on the causes and aftermath of last year’s attacks.
The panel consisted of John Gannon, a former deputy director of the CIA; Rohan Gunaratna, senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland and Bruce Lawrence, chair of the religion department at Duke University. Each panelist was allotted fifteen minutes to deliver prepared remarks, after which the floor was opened for audience questions.
Gannon began the program by discussing al-Qaida’s ability to carry out such a massive operation. He argued that using planes as missiles was not a particularly advanced strategy, but that the ease with which the terrorists were able to infiltrate and live within our society was remarkable. Accordingly, Gannon praised the new laws that make it easier for law enforcement to track the correspondence and finances of suspected terrorists.
He made it clear, however, that the government should not be given limitless authority. “As an American, I believe we need to debate,” Gannon said. “We cannot allow terrorists to force us to reevaluate our constitution.” He expressed concern that many detainees were being denied rights that are crucial to democracy: the right to counsel, the right to call witnesses and, in some cases, the right to a trial.
Turning his attention to why the terrorists chose the United States as a target, Gannon offered three thoughts. He suggested first that many in the Arab world are upset by the U.S. role in the Middle East peace process. Second, he contended that many believe that the U.S. supports oppressive governments in the Arab world and thereby “perpetuates a crisis of government.” Finally, Gannon argued that many see globalization as a process that helps the U.S. and harms everyone else, contributing to the growing economic, technological, educational and healthcare gap between the developed and undeveloped worlds.
Gannon closed his remarks by discussing the future of the war against terrorism. “We will fail if we try to do it by ourselves,” Gannon said, adding we would be foolish to try to win the war in a conventional fashion. Rather, he contended that if the government continues to improve at gathering high-quality intelligence, “terrorism will not defeat the United States.”
Gunaratna, the second speaker, discussed the ways in which al-Qaida differs from other terrorist organizations and its current ability to carry out terrorist objectives.
Al-Qaida is not like most Islamic terrorist organizations, Gunaratna said, in that it is not primarily concerned with the liberation of certain group of people within a well-defined geographic border. Comparing al-Qaida to terrorist organizations like Hamas, Gunaratna explained that it was not necessary for al-Qaida to strike more than one or two targets a year because its goal is to inspire other people and organizations to action.
Gunaratna then looked to the future, questioning whether al-Qaida still had the ability to carry out a mission similar in scale to the attack on the World Trade Center. Though “their infrastructure has been seriously damaged,” Gunaratna said, “the leadership is still intact.” The U.S. destruction of training facilities in Afghanistan makes it difficult for al-Qaida to carry out large missions but, according to Gunaratna, they maintain the ability to strike small to medium targets.
Gunaratna closed his remarks by discussing what steps are necessary to defeat al-Qaida. Gunaratna said al-Qaida’s seemingly limitless ability to recruit new terrorists make capturing Osama bin Laden a crucial aspect of the War on Terrorism. Bin Laden, because of his charisma and renown, has a unique ability to inspire young Muslims. “The ideology is still appealing,” Gunaratna said. “We need to counter their ideology.”
The final panelist, Lawrence focused on President Bush’s foreign policy in the wake of Sept. 11. Specifically, Lawrence expressed his concerns about the simplistic assumption that Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Cuba and Syria constitute an “Axis of Evil.”
Lawrence mentioned several objections to the above terminology. Focusing his attention on Iran, he reminded the audience that Iran assisted the U.S. in the war in Afghanistan, handing over a number of terrorists to Saudi Arabia.
Given that the U.S. is now considering declaring war on Iraq, Lawrence questioned the wisdom of alienating a nation whose support we would almost certainly need.
In a broader sense, Lawrence contended that that the term “Axis of Evil” makes it too easy to view Islam as the enemy. “For many evangelical Christians,” Lawrence said, “Islam becomes evil by association.” Lawrence stressed that in many of the countries President Bush has singled out, there exists a mass of silenced citizens who are desperate for democracy.
After the opening remarks by the panelists, the audience was given the opportunity to question the panel. Asked what foreign policy recommendations they had for President Bush, the panelists produced a variety of responses.
Lawrence, arguing that terrorists are often motivated by the extreme poverty by which they are surrounded, suggested a “war on poverty and misery.” Gunaratna argued that the most important goal should be to reform education systems in the Arab world, where education is often only Koranic. Finally, Gannon contended that it was crucial to “follow foreign trends to help detect threats.”
Another question pertained to how effective a job the U.S. had done of cutting off the money supply of terrorist organizations. Gunaratna explained that though $120 million was taken in the first three months after Sept. 11, only $10 million had been confiscated since then. Making things even more difficult, he added, is the fact that terrorist organizations have infiltrated one fourth of all Islamic-interest charities.
Despite the challenges facing the U.S. in its campaign to eradicate al-Qaida, all three panelists seemed reasonably optimistic about the nation’s future.
“If we compare the United States to the countries from which these terrorists came,” Gannon concluded, “we should be confident.”