A number of recent developments in the war on international Islamist terrorism should raise serious questions about the nature of the terrorism threat and the seriousness of the responses to it. These developments in one week in August clearly show who the terrorists' targets are, and also what to do and what not to do about the threat.
First, how not to do things. On August 19, fourteen European tourists -- nine from Germany, four from Switzerland, and one from the Netherlands -- who had been kidnapped earlier in the year were released by their captors, the Algerian Islamist terrorist Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). These fourteen tourists were part of a larger group of 32 who were kidnapped in February 2003, of which 17 were freed in May by an Algerian military operation. One 46-year-old German hostage died in captivity in June.
This saga raises some obvious questions: Why were a group of European men and women ranging in age from 14 to 62 traveling without a guide in one of the most remote parts of the Algerian Sahara -- a country that has been convulsed by a civil war since at least 1992 (begun by factions of the Islamic Salvation Front) that has left some 100,000 people dead? And why did the Algerian authorities allow them to enter the country? Why did their own governments not post travel advisories on Algeria?
But there is worse still. Even after the Algerian military successfully liberated more than half of the hostages, it appears -- the details remain murky at this time -- that there was strong pressure on the military not to liberate the remaining hostages. The pressure appears to have come from Berlin, Bern and, possibly, The Hague. Instead, the terrorists were allowed into Mali, whose government was forced into the position of main negotiator.
According to past practice and current media reports (German and Algerian), the German and likely the Swiss government have paid a large ransom: as much as 1 million euros per hostage. This is unsurprising for the German government, which after all has a sad history of dealing with terrorists by appeasement and money. In 1974 it paid 2 million marks for the release of a citizen kidnapped in Chad; and according to reliable Turkish sources, it made a deal with the terrorist Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) to permit the PKK to operate freely in Germany in exchange for not engaging in violence there. To make matters still worse, the Khadafi Foundation, run by Moammar Khadafi's son, Saif al-Islam, claimed to have played a major role in liberating the hostages -- just as it had claimed in 2000 that it "mediated" the liberation} of French and German tourists kidnapped by another Al Qaeda associate, the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines. True or not, this raises questions. The prevailing rumor in Germany is that the Mali government paid the terrorists and that the tourists' home countries will compensate it via "development aid."
Turning now to the beginning of the same week, on August 11 Riduan Isamuddin, a.k.a. Hambali, Al Qaeda's leader for the Southeast Asian region and also leader of the regional Al Qaeda affiliate, Jamaa Islamyyia (JI), was captured in Thailand. Isamuddin was responsible for last year's Bali bombing that left 200 dead and the more recent bombing of a Marriott in Jakarta -- operations that resulted from a decision taken in February 2002 at a Bangkok meeting of the JI to shift its attention toward "soft targets" such as hotels and bars, and away from more difficult targets such as U.S. embassies.
Which brings us to the bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad on August 19, in which the UN's chief official in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Melo, a committed international civil servant, was killed, along with at least 19 others; at least 100 were injured.
UN spokesmen expressed "shock" at the attack, since the UN was only doing good works for the Iraqi people. This is a tragic example of blindness. Just as the European tourists acted in disregard of Algerian realities, the UN appears still to be unmindful of the reality of Islamist global terrorism -- even in the face of Osama bin Laden's numerous statements that he and his colleagues see the UN as an enemy, a Zionist and American tool, and thus a target (and a soft one at that). The problem is not only or primarily that Vieira de Melo was murdered: many UN officials have lost their lives throughout the world over the years. The problem is that the UN, by describing the Baghdad attack as "meaningless," is still missing the point. Which is that the UN -- no matter how consistently it opposes the United States -- remains an Islamist target. Because it is not Islamist, period. Perhaps the tragedy in Baghdad may awaken the UN, but early signs are not encouraging.
All of these recent events are easier to understand if seen in the context of some basic realities of Islamist terrorism and the global responses to it. First, close and persistent cooperation at the intelligence level works, as Hambali's capture in Thailand (a country that until recently had taken the very UN-like position that "there is no terrorism here") following his pursuit across Malaysia, Myanmar/Burma, Laos, and Thailand.
Second, paying ransom, no matter how disguised, is worse than counterproductive. The millions of euros the GSPC is rumored to receive will in no time translate into thousands of Algerians murdered, and Al Qaeda's being strengthened.
Third, and most important, the attack against the UN should make it abundantly clear that one simply cannot be "half pregnant" when it comes to dealing with international terrorism. This is not some sort of simplistic, neo conservative Manicheism but a fact of global life. There is, indeed, a global conflict between fundamental Islamists and the rest of the world. The Islamists' war is against the UN and hundreds of millions of peaceful Muslims, not just America.