Why Asad's Terror Works and Qadhdhafi's Does Not
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
[N.B.: The following reflects what the author submitted, and not exactly what was published. To obtain the precise text of what was printed, please check the original place of publication.]
The Middle East has special importance for terrorism. It is the region that hosts the greatest number of actors engaged in terrorism, and they promote the widest variety of ideologies. It also witnesses by far the most incidents of an international character. Further, most new trends develop first in the Middle East, then spread to other areas.
The adoption of terrorist methods by state authorities is perhaps the most important new development of recent years. Politically motivated violence against noncombatants has evolved in the Middle East from a tool used exclusively against the state into an instrument of state. In addition to helping clandestine groups fight the central authority, terror now serves weak states against more powerful ones. In this sense it constitutes a novel form of military conflict. This development makes terrorism politically far more important than it would be if it remained confined to small organizations hiding from the law.
The following survey offers a political-military analysis of the major Middle East sponsors of terrorism. The sample includes three states -Libya, Iran, and Syria - and one movement, the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Although obviously not a state, the PLO deserves inclusion here because, from the viewpoint of utilizing terrorism, it resembles a government more than it does the usual irredentist movement. Its financial means resemble that of a state and its wide diplomatic recognition (which is greater than Israel's) give it a unique international presence. Further, the PLO has controlled large areas of territory over extended periods, in both Jordan and Lebanon.
We begin with an assessment of the four sponsors' effectiveness, then consider the reasons for their very different records.
Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi's goal from the time he came to power in September 1969 was to make himself the most powerful leader of the Middle East. A man with extreme views and a turbulent temperament, he pursued radical solutions on a host of issues, including Israel, Islam, and the good society. (His views on the last were incorporated in the "Third Theory" that he expounded widely and tried to apply in Libya.) But three limitations frustrated his ambitions: the small and unskilled population of Libya, the difficulty of turning cash (from oil sales) into power, and widespread resistance to his views, especially outside Libya.
Terrorism offered one way to solve all these problems. Requiring only a few operatives, it solved the problem of demographic limitations. Because foreigners can be hired for operations, it allows money to be used to good effect. And it permits direct action far away, making it possible to become active and exert pressure around the globe.
Accordingly, the Libyan government began sponsoring terrorism shortly after Qadhdhafi came to power. Dissident Libyans abroad and Israelis felt Qadhdhafi's wrath most often, but so did Arabs who disagreed with him as well as Muslims and Westerners. By 1975-76 Qadhdhafi's hand was nearly everywhere - the Middle East and West Europe especially, but also in Africa, the Americas, and the South Pacific.
But Qadhdhafi proved himself better at creating mischief than achieving political goals. His agents killed people and gained attention, but they changed nothing in the process. Dissident Libyans continued to work against the regime in Tripoli; Israelis endured Libyan-sponsored attacks; Qadhdhafi's neighbors survived his persistent efforts at subversion; Muslim rulers outlasted his intrigues; and Western democratic governments maintained their principles. In short, terrorism's considerable potential eluded Qadhdhafi. Accordingly, his reliance on this tool decreased, beginning in the mid-1970s. It has not, however, been satisfactorily replaced by anything else. This failure goes far to explain Qadhdhafi's obvious frustration in recent years.
The Palestine Liberation Organization seeks to destroy the State of Israel and replace it with an independent Palestinian polity under its own control. Founded in 1964, the PLO began as a tool of the Egyptian government. The overwhelming defeat of three conventional armies in the Six-Day War of June 1967, however, prompted Arabs to seek an alternate weapon against Israel; and this is what the PLO offered, with its romantic notions of individual combat. With the support of Arab and Communist governments, the organization was quickly transformed from a minor movement into one of the most prominent actors in Middle East politics.
But it was militarily weak. So, rather than tangle with the formidable Israel Defense Forces, the Palestinians developed an alternate way to destroy Israel, based on terrorism. Inspired by the Front de Libération National in Algeria (and to a lesser degree by the Vietcong), the PLO hoped to make life so miserable for Israeli civilians that they would eventually give up and abandon the country. This strategy allowed, even encouraged, attacks on the innocent and the undefended - thus the PLO's long record of massacring children and other civilians.
The PLO viewed Israelis as foreign settlers who, like the pieds noirs, would opt to leave when the price got too high. But herein lay a basic misconception, for unlike the French in Algeria, very few Israelis have another home to return to. Further, Jews lived in Palestine not just for reasons of convenience and gain, as did the French in Algeria, but out of powerful religious and nationalist motives. The PLO's flawed understanding meant that its acts of violence failed to have the intended effect. Israelis were killed, but the political import of the deaths was not achieved.
Indeed, the PLO achieved very little through terror. The acts were spectacular, the attention enormous, but the results were insignificant. Concessions or changes in policy by Israel were not forthcoming. The organization has much to boast of, to be sure - its many diplomatic representations, the widely-accepted legitimacy, the great reserve of funds - but these resulted from its wide support among Arab states, not from the killing of innocents. The Palestinians had a strategic purpose for terrorism, but it was flawed, and this deficiency very much reduced the impact of PLO efforts.
The Islamic Republic of Iran strives to export its extremist and eccentric reading of fundamentalist Islam throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world. Seeking nothing less than a basic re-orientation of public life along strictly Islamic lines, it has used all methods available to achieve this goal.
On coming to power in February 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers hoped that moral exhortation would be sufficient to rouse Muslim masses abroad, thereby bringing down what it considered to be hypocritical Muslim regimes. The ayatollah's stirring rhetoric did have an impact, especially in the aftermath of the Mecca takeover in November 1979 (when Khomeini's angry response led to assaults on United States embassies in half a dozen countries). But words alone overthrew no government; so, to augment their efforts internationally, the Iranians by the end of 1979 began aiding foreign groups. These became engaged in anti-government sabotage and attempted coups d'état (notably in Bahrain, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia). But Iraq attacked Iran in September 1980, and the main goal for eight years was the defeat of Iraq. Lacking money and manpower, the luxury of sponsoring conventional efforts to change foreign regimes lapsed.
Instead, Tehran resorted to terrorism. This tool had the advantages of requiring little money and few operatives; at the same time, it made good use of what Iran had in abundance - devoted followers. (But even Khomeini lacked enough devotees, however, so his government had to develope a powerful new mechanism, the institution of suicide terrorism, to keep up a steady supply of recruits.)
Iranian leaders deployed the terror weapon with intelligence and strategic purpose. Consequently, Tehran achieved some of its policy goals through terror. It has made some other states - including Pakistan and Turkey - run scared. Many of the small Persian Gulf states bend over backwards to accommodate Iranian wishes and many Muslim states have appeased the ayatollah, hoping thereby to keep his agents away. Western influence has been reduced in several countries of the Middle East.
Iranian efforts have been concentrated on Lebanon, and rightly so, for a civil war has been raging there since 1975, making the country unusually open to Iranian influence. Anarchy in Lebanon offers virtually unlimited freedom of action and avoidance of responsibility; accordingly, most of Tehran's terror operations have emanated from Lebanon, which is also the site of its training camps. Further, years of war have bred extremist impulses, so most of the terror has been executed by Lebanese Shi'is. Too, the country's political fluidity offers the possibility of creating a second Islamic republic.
Iranian actions threaten Westerners with special menace. As an illustration of this, I should like to recount a personal experience that took place in March 1988, when I served as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. As one of my duties, I handled the Iran portfolio - attending meetings on this issue and negotiating on behalf of the United States. The commission annually passes a resolution introduced by a West European state which condemns the abuse of human rights in Iran. But that year, because of widespread Iranian terrorism against Britons, Frenchmen, Germans, and others, no West European state stepped forward to introduce the Iranian resolution. Oh yes, they would all vote for it; but, in United Nations terms, voting is not everything. Introducing a resolution is a stronger action, and customarily every resolution is formally introduced by a member state.
A slight sense of panic spread each time the subject of Iran came up at a meeting of the Western states. Two-thirds of the representatives would flee the room when the dread name was spoken, not wanting to be associated in any way with the resolution's introduction. The French delegate scurried from the room, smiling tightly as he claimed an (obviously bogus) "urgent" meeting. The Japanese ambassador muttered, "I want to escape." West German and Italian delegates slunk off without a word. Why did they take off like this? Because their governments feared more terror out of Tehran. When it came time to vote against the Soviet record of human rights abuses in Afghanistan, you could hardly restrain the Europeans, who eagerly looked forward to introducing the resolution. In short, they worried much more about crossing the ayatollahs than the Kremlin.
This is an effective use of terrorism. The widespread apprehension in the West in the wake of Khomeini's edict against Salman Rushdie proved the power of this threat on a far wider scale.
Finally, let us consider the Syrian government. Hafiz al-Asad aims to control or gain preponderant influence over all the territories that make up the region known as Greater Syria - Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan, in addition to Syria proper.
Asad began to deploy state-sponsored terror in a significant way a few years after his coming to power in November 1970, and his judicious use of this instrument has continued to be a very key instrument of his statecraft. Asad never boasts or indulges in media spectaculars and he always attends carefully to timing. He acts with great secrecy, leaving open the possibility of making public deals which improve his reputation. Asad's hallmark is the closely calculated, low key, and far-sighted use of terror.
Absent is the usually clear association between sponsor and operatives. Damascus controls a great number of groups; these, rather than the Syrian government itself, undertake the terrorist operations. Organizations acting on the Syrian behalf include the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, the Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK), the (Druze) Progressive Socialist Party, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Somalia, the Eritrean Liberation Front, or the many Palestinian groups he has brought under the banner of the Palestine National Salvation Front. Others too (such as the pope's assailant, Mehmet Ali Ağca) receive training in Syria. Many of these organizations are based in the Biqaa Valley of Lebanon (which is under Syrian control), which puts distance between them and Damascus.
Indirect sponsorship offers Asad several advantages. It allows him to call on a greater number of individuals and organizations; he can more plausibly deny culpability when agents are caught; and it permits him to play an intermediary role between the groups and foreign governments. He is able to maintain decent relations with many other states-even those whose citizens suffer his predations.
Asad's efforts have had considerable success, for his use of terror often affects the policies of other states. In the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is instrumental in preventing Arab states from adopting more accommodating policies toward Israel. In Lebanon, it helps Damascus control a majority of the country. In the Persian Gulf, it keeps the money flowing. With Libya and Iran, it boosts an otherwise frail alliance. By enhancing Syrian power, terrorism enhances Asad's value to the Soviet Union; in particular, terrorism against Turkey helps destabilize a key member of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance.
Nowhere, however, is the impact so great as it is vis-à-vis the Jordanian government. It can be argued that the entire Syrian-Jordanian relationship is dominated by the by the threat of terrorism from Syria. One round of attacks began in late 1983: in India (where the Jordanian ambassador was shot) on October 25, in Italy the next day (the ambassador wounded), in Greece during November (a security agent killed), and in Spain on December 29 (9mm submachine fire on two employees, one killed and the other wounded). Abu Nidal's group - based in Damascus - was implicated in all of these cases.
The attacks then abated, only to begin again when King al-Husayn and Yasir Arafat reached an agreement on February 11, 1985 to work together, a pact that the Syrian and Soviet governments strongly opposed. Consider what followed: eleven days later, a four-month sequence of terrorist attacks began. It included a bomb at the American Research Center in Amman; an explosion in an airliner of the Jordanian carrier, Alia; a hand grenade attack on Alia offices in Athens; a rocket attack on the Jordanian embassy in Rome; a rocket attack on an Alia plane in Athens; an Alia plane hijacked in Beirut and blown up; a bomb attack on Alia offices in Madrid; and the assassination in Turkey of a Jordanian diplomat who also happens to be the brother-in-law of the Jordanian commander-in-chief.
This campaign had Amman under seige; and it had a major role in the abrogation of the Jordan-PLO accord in February 1986.
Two observations follow from the patterns adduced here. First, when judged by their aims, the four main sponsors of terror have fared very differently. Qadhdhafi remains impossibly far from becoming the most powerful politician of the Middle East; Arafat has little prospect of founding a Palestinian state; Khomeini has some chance at expanding the Islamic Revolution; and Asad has proceeded quite far toward ruling Greater Syria. Significantly, this lineup from frustration to achievement exactly reflects their gains from terrorism.
Second, failure or success varied according to the coordination of means and ends. Qadhdhafi mattered least, for he had no strategy. The most extreme leader in this sample, he had only the vaguest of objectives. He reveled in violence for its own sake and was always active, even when there was no apparent goal. The PLO also accomplished little from terrorism (although quite a bit from its other activities), for it too pursued a mistaken strategy. Caught up in the rhetoric and drama of terrorism, it fabricated incidents out of whole cloth and persisted in the use of terror long after this weapon proved counter-productive.
In contrast, the Iranian government deployed terrorism as a means to shake up the region and even to challenge the United States. The Iranians had clear goals and terror promoted these. The Syrian use has been most crafty. Hafiz al-Asad knew what he wanted and used violence with skill. Asad became a major actor in regional affairs - he acted and others reacted - in large part due to the intelligent use of terror.
The critical factor here concerns the ability to connect means and ends. The failed leaders engage in murder for its own sake; the successful ones make terrorism part of a larger strategy. It is in this sense that Asad is the most competent, Qadhdhafi the least. Asad invariably has a clear sense of what he is trying to achieve; he uses terrorism just as he would any other instrument of state. Qadhdhafi, an extremist who cannot keep his attention for long on any single matter, has confused ideas or too many ideas, and so hardly plans. He wallows in carnage and mayhem and seems to enjoy them in their own right. Asad directs his fire on a few vulnerable targets, Qadhdhafi scatters his around the globe. One has specific goals in mind, the other seeks to set off revolutions.
Put differently, efficacy is inversely proportionate to the extremism of the leader. A passionate temperament makes it hard to control the terrorism tool; rather, it makes emotional indulgence more likely. The utility of a terrorist undertaking is largely determined by a leader's cunningness, vision, and his ability to relate policy to strategy.
These observations suggest one major policy implication for the West: when it comes to terrorism, pay more attention to Syria and Iran, less to Libya and the PLO. The PLO and Libya garnered early attention, for they had this field largely to themselves until the late 1970s. But by now they are has-beens; the entry of Syria and Iran make these two the sponsors that count the most.
Reader comments (2) on this item
Comment on this item
Support Daniel Pipes' work with a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes