The Taliban’s world is closing in. Progress may be measured in small increments — and certainly the cautious, risk-averse nature of the American military action is putting the shaky coalition at risk. Still, it does now seem likely the year 2002 will see the dawn of a new regime in Afghanistan. President George W. Bush has vowed to take the war to other states once “Phase 1” in Afghanistan is over. So, Mr. President: What’s next?
EVER SINCE Sept. 11, the seven nations listed by the U.S. State Department’s as state sponsors of terrorism have conducted themselves with a bit less swagger than usual. Iraq, in particular, appears to be laying low, apparently aware at last that the United States may be looking for just about any excuse to handle its unfinished business with Saddam Hussein. The wave of anthrax attacks in the United States may or may not be linked to Iraq’s sophisticated biological warfare efforts. Either way, it would not be hard to make the case that no war against terrorism could be complete while Saddam’s regime continued to mass-produce weapons of mass destruction.
Still, virtually no one in the Bush administration or in the wider world currently believes that Iraq is Act II on the War on Terror playbill. In fact, the abiding irony of the situation is this: there is no overlap between the State Department’s list of “rogue nations” - the Iraqs, Syrias and North Koreas of the world - and the likely targets of the next phase of this war. The U.S. government certainly is not publishing its plans in advance. But according to some military and diplomatic officials, the short list for “stage two” action at the moment does not include Iraq or any other state sponsor of terrorism. Instead, stateless groups operating bases in Algeria, Somalia and the Philippines are heading the list.
“It may be that Iraq ultimately comes into the sights, but not now,” said a senior defense official. “An attack on Iraq that sought to overthrow Saddam would be a coalition buster. There are other fish to fry first. Why risk all that trouble while other targets may be just as important?”
According to these officials, known guerrilla base camps in Somalia and in Algeria, along with assistance in the Philippine government’s fight with a bin Laden-connected group there, currently figure most prominently in war planners’ minds. In keeping with the new realities of “assymetric threats,” attacks on these camps would not — officially, at least — be attacks on those national governments. Yet U.S. military action in any of these places would be a far less clear-cut proposition than the current attacks on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
What are the targets?
As it did in Afghanistan, America disengaged from Somalia after getting its nose bloodied in 1993, when U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force commandos failed in an effort to snatch Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed, who had turned the humanitarian mission into a new phase of the nation’s civil war. The botched raid left 18 Americans dead and the United States made a hasty withdrawal. Facts later emerged to indicate that al-Qaida-trained mercenaries were among those who helped bring down U.S. helicopters over Mogadishu that day. In fact, after Afghanistan and Pakistan, U.S. intelligence sources point to anarchic Somalia as the place Osama bin Laden would be most likely to seek shelter if he were ejected from Afghanistan.
The presence of al-Qaida cells in Somalia — as well as in Kenya and in Egypt — came to light again when two U.S. embassies in East Africa were destroyed by truck bombs in 1998. A Western diplomatic source in Kenya says al-Qaida and associated Islamic militant groups are attracted to Somalia, in particular, because of its unusual mix of relatively good telecommunications links and an almost non-existent central government. Bin Laden, unlike nature, loves a vacuum. “There’s no domestic agency to track communications,” the source said. “Foreign intelligence agencies do, but it’s a tall order without a local partner.”
Since 1991, when Algeria’s military government cancelled a vote count that would have given power to a moderate Islamic movement, a more extreme group, the Armed Islamic Group or GIS, has waged a brutal campaign of terror against Algerian civilians that has taken some 100,000 lives.
French intelligence officials say many of the top GIS commanders trained at al-Qaida bases in Afghanistan and have set up similar facilities in the Atlas Mountains of western Algeria, as well as desert regions in the south. The GIS burst into western consciousness in 1994 when its members hijacked an Air France flight and threatened to blow it up as it circled the French capital. The plane landed to refuel in Marseilles, but French commandos stormed it and killed the hijackers. A wave of bombings in Paris in 1995 followed.
Since 1998, many GIS members accepted an amnesty offered by the Algerian government which has slowed the bloodshed. But a splinter group — the Salafi Group for Call and Combat — continues to sow mayhem. Should the United States decide to act in concert with Algeria’s government, it would find a ready ally in France. Air raids and commando assaults on the group’s remote bases would be the most likely scenario.
However, Arab Algeria could balk at open cooperation with America and its former colonial master, and the United States will have to confront the fact that Algeria’s own army often retaliated against suspected “terrorist villages” with as much brutality as its terrorist foes.
For decades, Muslim separatists on the Philippine island of Basilan have fought the central government in Manila, often using terror tactics like kidnappings of foreigners, bombings and beheadings. The country’s primary rebel problem, led by Marxist guerrillas on the large island of Davao, faded with the Cold War. Since then, a group with demonstrated links to Osama bin Laden — the Abu Sayaf Islamic movement — has raised the banner of holy war. Among other things, the arrest of Ramsi Yousef, a ringleader in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, revealed that Abu Sayef was involved in a bin Laden-inspired plot to blow up 11 jumbo jets above the Pacific and to assassinate then-President Bill Clinton.
Already, Manila has confirmed the arrival of a small team of U.S. Army “specialists,” most likely Green Berets, to help with counter-insurgency. The Philippine constitution, laden with post-colonial sensitivities, prohibits deployment of U.S. or other foreign combat forces. Then again, it wouldn’t be the first time that U.S. advisors in Southeast Asia wound up commanding troops.
APPLES AND ORANGES
The prominence of countries that have not regularly been tagged as terrorist states by the U.S. State Department prompts some defensiveness in counter-terrorist circles. “This is a whole new ballgame,” said a U.S. counter-intelligence source. “It’s a complicated equation, and there are good reasons why any state that isn’t on the list wasn’t put there.”
Afghanistan, for instance, was kept off the list for two reasons: one, because the United States never recognized the Taliban and the country’s legitimate government, and two, because the Drug Enforcement Administration wanted to pursue a policy of giving money to Afghan farmers so they would not grow poppies.
Other nations known to harbor terrorists who escaped the State Department’s public stockade include Yemen (where the Pentagon wanted to be able to refuel its ships); Lebanon (whose isolation is regarded by State Department diplomats as counter-productive) and, most importantly, Pakistan (a nuclear-armed nation and now a key “ally” against terrorism). Pakistan’s role in creating the Taliban and its policy of encouraging al-Qaida to train terrorists to fight against India in Kashmir should win it a special place on any list of state sponsors of terrorism, but politics often blurs reality.
“The (State Department) terror list is just one of a huge number of things shown to be a bit out of whack after Sept. 11,” said a former top counter-terrorism official. “The notion of ‘the state’ is no longer a viable way to define an enemy, and some enemies may exist inside very friendly nations.”
IN THE BULLSEYE?
It would be wrong to say all of the seven “pariahs” of official U.S. policy can rest easy. Cuba and North Korea, for now, are not relevant. For the rest of the list, however, these are nervous times. All of the other five nations are Islamic states - Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan and Libya. Interestingly, everyone of these five “rogue nations” expressed official shock and horror at the mayhem rained down on New York, Washington and Pennsylvania in the name of Islamic extremism. Clearly, several of them - most notably Iraq and Syria - worry that they may soon turn up in a television graphic as “America strikes back: Phase Two.” The odds on Syria increased two weeks ago with the assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), which is based in Damascus.
Iraq appears even more jittery. Officials interviewed for this story agreed that any move against Iraq would likely come only after “low- hanging fruit,” as one of them put it, was harvested first. Toppling Saddam is militarily doable, but not without toppling the low-key but important support America currently has in the Arab world.
“For now, despite what you’re hearing about splits in the administration, it looks like Saddam is safe,” said a defense official. “Eventually, is he on the list? Definitely. But the call right now is to take one thing at a time. There are more delicate, difficult things that need doing first.”
Michael Moran is senior producer for special projects at MSNBC.com. “Brave New World, his column on foreign affairs, appears regularly in MSNBC’s Opinions section.