This commentary appeared in Los Angeles Times on January 7, 2001.
Prosecutors contend that the four are confederates of Osama bin Laden, the
man who is believed to have masterminded the embassy attacks and ordered the
bombing of the U.S. warship Cole in Yemen last October. In addition to the four
currently on trial in New York, another suspected terrorist in the case awaits
a separate trial, one has already pleaded guilty and three await extradition
from Britain. Thirteen others have been indicted but remain at large. Meanwhile,
six others await trial in Yemen for their alleged participation in the bombing
of the Cole.
In the past, policymakers have debated whether terrorism should be treated
as crime or as war. The rhetoric of U.S. officials clearly has put terrorism
in the realm of war, and the United States on occasion has used military force
to deal with it. But the difficulties of waging war on terrorists have pushed
policy in the direction of a law enforcement approach.
Here, we have achieved a measure of success. Although only a handful of terrorists
have been captured and returned, trials demonstrate that terrorists can be brought
Trials also keep terrorism in the realm of crime, stripping terrorists of
political pretensions, depriving them of legitimacy. Yemen's president is no
fan of U.S. policy in the Middle East, but in trying Yemeni nationals his government
has decided that neither sympathies with Islam nor differences with Washington
Trials offer opportunities to build the public case against terrorism and
specific terrorist networks. The trial in New York will move much material from
intelligence folders into the public domain--how much will be a matter of contention.
The New York trial will enable U.S. authorities to make the case against Bin
Laden's network and justify, albeit after the fact, the U.S. decision to bomb
his training camps in Afghanistan. The danger here will be prosecutorial zeal
that blames Bin Laden for events in which his involvement is tangential or merely
Trials in U.S. courts are necessary to support U.S. requests that other nations
accept the risks and bring terrorists to trial. It is hard to imagine Yemen
trying terrorists if the United States itself were unwilling to do so.
Trials create a community of cooperation among the nations willing to prosecute
terrorism. For a country like Yemen, legal action against terrorists can be
politically painful, and imprisoning terrorists brings the risk of retaliation.
This only underlines the point that cooperation in matters of intelligence and
security aimed at prevention is preferable, which is what we seek.
Trials also can be used to support diplomatic efforts against governments
that support or provide asylum to terrorists. The revelations that emerge from
the trial in New York will increase the heat on Afghanistan's Taliban, which
already faces political and economic sanctions if it does not turn over Bin
Dealing with terrorism as a criminal matter is not without frustrations. Gathering
evidence and apprehension are difficult. Foreign governments do not always cooperate.
We get the terrorist operatives, perhaps some lieutenants, not the leaders.
Case-by-case prosecutions may not provide an adequate response to an ongoing
terrorist campaign. And trials offer no immediate satisfaction--the attacks
on the U.S. embassies occurred 2 1/2 years ago.
Military action offers an immediate response option but few lucrative targets.
It also can isolate the United States diplomatically, fuel anti-American sentiments,
exacerbate already volatile situations and derail diplomatic initiatives. International
cooperation in imposing sanctions on the Taliban in Afghanistan seems preferable
to useless bombing of mountain hide-outs.
That does not mean giving up a military option. The diplomatic benefits can
exceed the military results. It can stiffen the resolve of wavering allies,
create incentives for cooperation and warn adversaries that supporting terrorism
is not risk-free.
Law enforcement, military action and diplomacy are not separate corridors
of action but, rather, instruments to be orchestrated.
The ultimate objective of counter-terrorist strategy is not the incarceration
of every self-proclaimed martyr--there are simply too many. Neither can the
objective be to end terrorism or deliver a knockout blow to some distant evil
empire. Instead, the objective is to isolate terrorists, encourage international
cooperation and disrupt terrorist operations--a more sophisticated response
to achieve more realistic goals.
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