Prof. Ariel Marari, a leading world expert on terror and political violence, who has held a series of key positions relating to world terror, tried to confront the question of questions this week: how is that a superpower, the only superpower in the world, was caught with its pants down.
Question: What does the world know now that it didn’t know Tuesday morning?
“It’s not that the world knows something it didn’t know before, but there is no doubt: the world has been dealt a blow to its consciousness. Among the scenarios, there was one called ‘catastrophic terror.’ But the truth is, it wasn’t taken seriously. This possibility was not internalized.”
Question: What do you mean by “not internalized?”
The American administration, in all its branches, made many preparations for ‘catastrophic terror,’ but this present occurrence is very unique. Regarding the method, there is nothing new here. It’s the same well-known method that has been in use for decades. The first plane ever hijacked was in 1931. The difference, this time, is in the results. As far as the results go, this is indeed ‘catastrophic terror.'”
Question: You mean they were ready for it?
“I say again, they never internalized this as a possibility. They said we’re working on it as a contingency plan, so that we have one. I, who dealt with this a lot, sat in working groups in which catastrophic simulation games were played, and had the feeling that this could perhaps happen in some undefined future. Certainly not here and now. The Americans have been dealt a hard blow, in their own home, on its most precious symbols.”
Question: And the writing was not on the wall?
“No. I did not consider it. If you’d asked me on Monday abut such an possibility, I wouldn’t have believed it. For years terror has been in a fairly static state. As far as the methods used, nothing had changed much.
What did we have, car bombs? Those have been around since 1947. Suicide bombers is also nothing new, and certainly not plane hijacking. So what is new here? Hijacking a plane to bomb it? Ahmed Jibril did this in 1970, with a Swissair plane, that blew up and fell into the sea, killing all the passengers. What is new here?
“But today we are talking about completely different dimensions. When you put it all together, the hijacking of four planes simultaneously, ensuring that the planes have an enormous amount of fuel, choosing destinations one of which is the most densely packed in the world (the Twin Towers building) and another target that is also heavily populated as well as a symbol of American military might (the Pentagon) the effect is far beyond what was common terror practice until now.”
Question: But if all the figures were known, how is it you didn’t think it would happen?
“A good question, for which I don’t have an answer. I can only apologize.”
Question: Binyamin Netanyahu spoke of it long ago. Now he also says that compared to what can still happen in the future, this attack was “small potatoes.”
“I don’t think it was ‘small potatoes.’ At the same time, when Netanyahu wrote his book a few years ago, I thought he was exaggerating. I must really be careful now.”
Question: He meant that within a short time, terrorists were liable to obtain a nuclear bomb and that then the situation would be much worse.
“The chances of a terror organization obtaining a nuclear bomb are not large, and they have no chance of producing such a bomb themselves. They can obtain biological or chemical weapons, but then they have the problem of dispersal. The Japanese cult had chemical weapons and no lack of funds, volunteers or technicians, but the number of those killed in the subway was only 12. Dispersing such weapons is problematic.”
Question: So what is new now? Is this war?
“Yes. This is definitely a new type of war. The person who did this broke new records. Until now, terrorists did not use all the capabilities at their disposal to cause the maximum number of casualties. There were limits they did not cross. George Habash’s Popular Front, for example, hijacked four planes in 1970, landed them, blew them up, but first took off the passengers. The person who perpetrated the present event had the goal of killing as many as possible. He must know — and he does know — that he has awakened the American giant from its slumber.”
Question: A giant that was asleep until today.
“Relatively. Relatively to other countries, the US was in fact very active in the war against terror. It has never rested until it has caught terrorists.”
Question: Would it be correct to say that Tuesday was an historic crossroads?
“Without a doubt. This is an historic crossroads for terror as well as for the war on terror. The world, in many senses, will be different now. The effect of this event goes beyond the significance of terror. It will have far reaching effects on all matters touching on international relations.”
Question: How will this be seen from the American aspect?
“In all sorts of ways. The US has a list of terror-sponsoring nations. American law states that the State Department writes up the list and America imposes sanctions on states appearing on the list. Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Cuba and North Yemen appear on it. And indeed, American companies do not do business with them. On the other hand, European countries laugh hugely at this. Germany, France, even Holland, trade with them and call this ‘dialogue.’ The Germans explain to the Iranians: ‘We are different than you in our perceptions, we think that what you are doing when it comes to human rights is wrong, but if you want to do business, we’re ready.’ Iran owes Germany several billion dollars in credit and technical aid. Now, no European country will be able to relate indifferently to countries that sponsor terror.”
Question: In other words, it will be easier for the US?
“Definitely. For example, take sanctions on Iraq, which the US has been struggling for years to keep. Now it will be a lot easier. Not only in western Europe, but Russia and China as well.”
Question: And will this have an effect on Russia leaking weapons to Iran?
“I think so. There is no doubt that the Americans will apply all their weight from now on.”
Question: Is it significant that this is a Republican government?
“In this matter it makes no difference. The American people, just like with Pearl Harbor, now has a sense of being at war.”
Question: Let’s change direction. The world is now denouncing, but over time will reach the conclusion that it has to find a way to live with terrorists. To make compromises with them. Just as it did in the past with the PLO.
“In the example of the PLO, you’re right, that is exactly what happened. The Palestinians committed terror attacks in Europe, and all the countries in whose territories they happened were quick to proclaim how inhumane this was but, under the table, made arrangements whereby they promised the Palestinians that they would let them open delegations in their country and even support them in the UN when they asked for observer status, on condition they not commit terror attacks on their soil. But there is no parallel here.”
Question: Why not?
“Because in those cases, the attacks were against Israeli or Jewish interests, and only because it was convenient did the attacks take place in Europe. This week the Americans understood very well that this attack was directly against them. To kill as many Americans as possible, to strike at the heart of the United States. This time the Americans are the victims. Tuesday, without a doubt, was the watershed. The world will view things differently now.”
Question: When it comes to terror?
“Every year the State Department prepares a report on international terror. And there, among other things, are figures on the number of all the victims of terror. Each year this number comes to about 300 casualties. A colleague of mine once said ‘what does terror in fact do except make a lot of noise?’ After all, more people die every year from bee stings than from terror attacks. But over 10,000 dead in the heart of New York and Washington is an incredible shock. The world will not be able to adopt the same policy in place up until now.”
Question: Let’s say it is known that an organization in Damascus is planning a terror attack. Then what?
“If the Americans know that there is an organization in Syria planning an attack against Americans, the Syrians will immediately be given an ultimatum that within 48 hours, or something like that, they must transfer these people to the US to stand trial.”
Question: And if the Syrians don’t?
“They will do to them exactly what they did to Iraq, when American intelligence had information that Saddam Hussein was planning to commit an attack against former President Bush in the course of his visit to Kuwait. They did not commit the attack, but as punishment, the Americans struck at Baghdad with cruise missiles.”
Question: Can you envision a situation in which the Americans do such a thing to Damascus or Teheran?
Yes. Absolutely. There are no question marks here. After the present attacks, the Americans will have a light finger on the trigger, in a way we haven’t seen before.”
Question: However awkward it is to say this, perhaps this tragedy is good for Israel?
“In every bad there is some good. We are in the middle of a terrible week, a hard week, the pictures are awful, so many innocent people killed, all of them random victims. But like the NBC correspondent said who held up the headline of the Washington Post: ‘Disgrace.’ The Americans now feel that their national honor has been terribly insulted. There has been a frightful blow to everything the US stands for as the leader of the free world. There is no question that what happened will give a good shake to the apathy and egoism of many countries, such as the shameful European attitude toward Libya, Iran or Syria. This blow, that was taken by America, has changed international relations in a very fundamental way.”
Question: And where is Israel in all this? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
“One could say cynically that if we now wanted to wipe Jenin off the map, the Americans would say ‘go ahead.’ I’m assuming that we won’t want to wipe it off, but there is no doubt that understanding for us will be much greater. Not just from the Americans, but the Europeans as well.
“Take Carmi Gillon for example. What will the average Dane say if we hone the following dilemma: assume that the FBI catches one of this gang and this person has information that the cell is planning something terrible, but the man refuses to say what and he cannot be touched, even with your little pinkie. Or else he begins to claim his rights, asks to call a lawyer, who shows up and begins to prattle about ‘my client wants this, my client doesn’t want that,’ and then he has to be released on bail, while in the meantime an attack takes place killing 20,000 people. Would the average Dane think it immoral in that case to shake the suspect?”
Question: How will this attack effect terror organizations?
“For them, this attack has opposing consequences. On the one hand, it set a new threshold, something to aspire to. Not only that, look, it’s not even that complicated. On the other hand, I think that terror organizations are on alert today. They realize very well that the mood in the world is in favor of dealing a blow to terror, a mood of broad approval for taking action against terrorists.”
Question: Can Israel now allow itself to do things it has not done until now?
“If this is a strategic decision, there is no doubt that now is a very convenient time. Incidentally, I personally am against entering Area A.”
Question: Will Hamas and Islamic Jihad think twice today before dispatching a suicide terrorist?
“Hamas was always very radical from an ideological aspect, but also very pragmatic. They always made considerations of profit and loss before undertaking action. For example, after the attacks in 1996, when the Palestinian Authority came down hard on them, froze their bank accounts, took over their mosques and shaved their beards to humiliate them, they stopped terror attacks.”
Question: What does this mean for the immediate future?
“I believe they will take a break. While the real inclination of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people is to rejoice and hand out candy, Arafat understood very quickly the political ramifications of this and began to make faces as if he was very sad and to send condolences. He realized that if he didn’t do this, he would be in big trouble with America.”
Question: So perhaps these events could be used as a means to obtain a cease-fire?
“If Arafat had any sense – something in doubt in light of all the strategic nonsense he’s committed in the course of his career — he could use this tragic event as a ladder to climb down from the tree. Because so far, he has climbed up the Intifada tree and placed all his political cards there, but not produced any gain. He has only caused suffering to his people, radicalized Israeli society, and there is still no sign that Israel is willing today to give him anything more than Ehud Barak was willing to give. Less, if anything. But I doubt he will have the courage and the long term vision to do so.”
Question: How can such terror attacks be prevented?
“This requires a series of answers. First of all, this was clearly an intelligence failure. Obviously it is not easy to obtain intelligence information on terror organizations, because it means infiltrating agents, and if it is a foreign organization, then it is not a simple thing. It’s particularly difficult when it comes to organizations that are very united ideologically, while geographically, like in the case of Bin Laden’s group, they are also very dispersed.”
Question: Could such an event also happen here?
“In principle, yes. You think Israeli intelligence has only had successes? Was a prime minister not assassinated in Israel? Have we not had terror attacks? Remember, the first plane to be hijacked was an El Al plane.”
Question: And how do you think we would react?
“I assume that if this happened here, God forbid, we would respond very harshly, including with territorial implications. And I also assume, that under these circumstances, Arab countries like Egypt and Jordan would not intervene.”
Question: Speaking of Israel, it is still more difficult to hijack an Israeli plane.
“Hijacking an airplane in the US is very easy, particularly domestic flights. In the US, the airlines are responsible for security, not the state. I assume this will change now. Pilots are also instructed to do whatever the hijacker says so as not to endanger the passengers. In the US they are not careful about keeping the cockpit door locked. On El Al, the door is locked and armored. There are guards on El Al. If there had been one guard with a gun, he would most likely have been able to stop their operation. Such an attack, with knives, could not have taken place on El Al.”
Question: As of now, no real organization has claimed responsibility. Bin Laden denies involvement. What interest does an organization have in committing these attacks if no one knows who they are?
“To cause pain to the Americans, to signal its supporters at home. For the Moslems, Bin Laden already has the aura of a true hero. But he knows that if he claims responsibility for the attack, then either Afghanistan will have to assassinate him itself, or serve him up on a platter to the Americans, or America will go to war against Afghanistan.”
Question: Indeed? If the Americans demand him and do not get him, will they go in and take him?
“I think that is what will happen. The moment the Americans feel they have enough proof, they won’t wait for a court ruling. They will issue an ultimatum to the Taliban, and the entire world will support them. They will demand Bin Laden and his helpers.”
Question: And if they don’t get him?
“The Americans have the power to hurt. Cruise missiles for example. They will make all sorts of special operations. Let’s say, for example, that they send in a force to hunt him down. This is not the same as going into the heart of Iran to rescue a group of diplomats. He’s stuck somewhere in the mountains. I assume that with an intelligence effort, they can send in a force to pluck him up and bring him to the United States.”
Question: Do you envision Israeli-American cooperation?
“Yes. We won’t rush to get involved in a war against Afghanistan, but I imagine, that whatever the Americans ask, they’ll get.”
Question: After this week, is terror in the world stronger or weaker? “Weaker. The world reaction will be so harsh, that it will weaken.”
Question: Is there a country hiding behind the wings? “That cannot be ruled out. If Saddam Hussein is indeed very ill, and knows he is about to die, he could have good reason to settle scores with the Americans. In other words, to ensure his place in history.”
Question: Could it be another country? “It’s hard to believe. It is really an act of suicide.”
Question: Let’s say it is Iran. Is this a cause for war?
“Yes. Enough senators have said that this was an act of war against the United States.”
Question: How soon will we see the missiles flying?
“As soon as the Americans have proof. I believe that within a few days we will know who was behind this.”
Question: Would you say Bin Laden is a dead man?
“Do you know the Arabic phrase — ‘every dog has his day?’ The Americans know it well. If he did it, his days are numbered.”
This artcile ran in Maariv on September 14, 2001