‘He is plainly some crazed moral retard’.
That stuck it to him. Or not. Yet on the night of 9/11, as I sat in a BBC Radio studio helping to dissect the bleak events of that day, it was the only response I could summon to the Al-Qa’eda ‘representative’ the Corporation had thoughtfully allowed on air. Make no mistake, I loathe such extremists. And such extremists had been around and preparing for a very long time. On that same radio show I was asked about the long-term ramifications of the attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon. War, I replied. War in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I hate to say I told you so. But I told you so, and I told you often. It was obvious to any who cared to look or think that the threat posed by mass terrorism was on the rise, that Osama bin Laden had a penchant for the spectacular, that the window-dressing response of Clinton in throwing a cruise-missile at an empty adobe hut somewhere in Afghanistan was risible as it was pointless.
For over a decade before 9/11 I had warned in lectures and in print of the encroaching menace of more nihilistic terror outfits inspired by a concept of the purity of violence and committed to destruction as the endgame in itself. Their lethal potency and scale of ambition were on the rise and our vulnerability invited attack. A propaganda coup was called for. So the evolution from using traditional bomb, bullet, and booby-trap toward employing something far more sinister began. The rest, as they say, is grim history and an awful lot of video-footage.
In 1990 (Jane’s Defence Weekly, May 12) I wrote: “Commentators argue terrorists will follow established and predictable norms in tactics, target selection and choice of weaponry. This may be a mistake in that it encourages a preconception of future threat developments and limits flexibility in developing an adequate security response…Terrorist groups will search for new targets and customized forms of atrocity.” Two years later (Jane’s Intelligence Review, November 1992), I added: ‘Few of us should imagine that modern terrorist groups would refrain from doing as much damage as possible with whatever means are available’. For good measure, in 1997 I published the thriller Dead Headers to illustrate the kinds of scenario I believed would be soon upon us and to argue the case for pre-emptive strikes to ‘dead head’ the terror organizations before they could act. Well, we didn’t. They did. People died.
It is not that I or others who voiced similar concerns were especially prescient or blessed with the gift of foresight, simply that western governments and their intelligence agencies were shamefully myopic and slow to react. They should have seen it coming. They should have had the balls to introduce protective measures at home and clamp down on Islamic radicalization and extremism (an affront and anathema to any western liberal democracy). They should have had the brains to go after the terrorist leaderships abroad before ever resorting to the expense in both lives and resource of a full-on military land campaign. On almost every count, they failed.
I have never been overly squeamish at the notion of extra-judicial executions for terrorists. These players make their bed and their choice—have become outlaws and combatants as soon as they cross to the dark side—and are therefore fair game. Negotiation and political engagement were never their agenda. Targeted killing of them should be ours. It is a proportionate act taken in self-defense; it is discriminate and designed to prevent greater loss of life down the line; it is just.
On its own, this hard-hitting and kinetic approach provides no cure-all solution. But as part of a layered defense it has its place. Of course there should be process, diligence and careful planning and the minimizing of civilian deaths. And, naturally, there are flaws. Few should forget how Israel—with its Wrath of God operations against the Black September movement—was blind to the larger picture and the preparations by Arab states for the 1973 launch of the Yom Kippur campaign. Fewer still should be unaware of the possibility of backlash and increased Pakistani militancy caused by CIA Reaper-drone attacks on Taliban and Al-Qa’eda targets in Waziristan and the tribal areas. During WW2, Britain’s Special Operations Executive developed a toxic lavatory paper in order to assassinate senior Wehrmacht officers and Nazi Party officials (an entirely new meaning to the term ‘wiping out the enemy’, I suppose). It was never deployed for fear of causing indiscriminate casualties. We should learn that lesson. Better the finesse, fentanyl (synthetic opiate) and exploding telephone handsets favored by Israeli kidon units than a brute sledgehammer to crack these particular nuts. There is ever room and need for hearts and minds.
Forgive my tough stance and reluctance to swallow whole the line One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. If that is what you want to believe. Maybe I was conditioned by having an uncle who—as a burns surgeon—operated on victims of both the King David Hotel bombing in Jerusalem in 1946 and the Birmingham pub bombings almost thirty years later. Or perhaps it was knowing as a teenager three friends of mine who lost their fathers (a diplomat, a surgeon, a judge) to the murderous instincts of the Provisional IRA. I sometimes wonder how many of the ineffably brave members of the New York fire and police departments who gave their lives to aid others at the World Trade Centre, by default or inclination supported the IRA through contributions to Noraid and Sinn Fein. Irony can be a bitter and bloody thing.
Total casualties from acts of terrorism remain relatively low. That is not for want of trying on the part of the extremists. And with the skills-set of the terrorists growing and the bottleneck in availability of nuclear fissile material likely to ease in the years ahead, we are in for a challenge. Intelligence-gathering often demands still waters in which to fish. Occasionally, we need to dynamite the pond.
There was a scene in Dead Headers in which I wrote of a terror attack on New York.
In its aftermath, the silence spread across Manhattan and west throughout the land. It would not last. The Emergency had only just begun.
Some details were inaccurate, a common complaint with all prediction. My chief error was to describe the actions of a suicide-bomber in blowing himself up inside the Statue of Liberty. I judged that the readers would not believe me had I demolished the Twin Towers.
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