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Jewish World Review March 22, 2004 / 29 Adar, 5764

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Consumer Reports

How to win the terror war ... 10 minutes with terrorism expert Steven Emerson | When it comes to terrorism, Steven Emerson has every right to say he told us so.

The award-winning investigative journalist and international terrorism expert spent the last half of the 1990s warning, very presciently, about militant Islamic activities in the United States in PBS documentaries such as "Jihad in America" (1996) and before Congressional hearings.

Before 9/11 hit us, what Emerson mostly got for his digging was slander from mainstream media for being an "Islamophobe" and death threats from Islamic thugs. NPR blacklisted him, which is probably a good thing. Here is what he was saying in May of 2001:

"Al-Qaida is ... planning new attacks on the U.S. .... (It has) learned, for example, how to destroy large buildings.... Al Qaida and other terrorist groups ... have silently declared war on the U.S.; in turn, we must fight them as we would in a war.''Not surprisingly, the executive director of the Investigative Project and author of "American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us" gets more respect today. I talked to him by phone Wednesday from his offices in Washington, D.C.

Q: Is America safer today from an attack by terrorists than it was on Sept. 12, 2001?

A: Up until the Madrid bombings, I would have said definitely safer, not safe. I think the Madrid bombings showed the ability of (Osama) bin Laden's organization to reconstitute itself thoroughly under our radar screen.

Q: What have we done best here in the states to defend ourselves from al-Qaida or their ilk?

A: I think the joint approach of seizing terrorists' assets, of freezing the conduits, the bank accounts and front groups, as well as prosecuting terrorist sleeper cells and the financial coordinators, has been absolutely critical to the success in the war on terrorism.

Q: Where have we failed in fighting this war?

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A: In looking at the war against militant Islamic fundamentalism, there are two components. One is the criminal attack on those who are violating the law by either carrying out attacks or assisting those who carry out attacks.

Second is the political component, which consists of a need to discredit those who perpetrate or justify militant Islam generally under false cover by pretending to be a moderate or a civil rights group when, in fact, they are essentially providing coverage for Islamic extremists.

It's not illegal to be an extremist. It's not illegal to even call for the death of America. Therefore that wouldn't be covered by any type of criminal prosecution. However, that requires an active willingness to confront them politically, and that's where we have failed miserably and increasingly so since 9/11 — with radical Islamist groups pretending to be something they are not.

There has been a willingness, unfortunately, by the head of the FBI as well as by various political leaders, to embrace the militant Islamic groups and legitimize them without confronting their radical agenda or asking them to unequivocally condemn and repudiate Islamic extremism.

Q: Why haven't we seen an act of terrorism in the United States since 9/11? Are we lucky or good?

A: There are various factors. The moment this interview appears or a question like that is asked, you can get bit. An attack can occur like it occurred in Madrid, without anyone knowing or having an inclination about it. That's No. 1.

No. 2 is the fact that the U.S. has done a pretty good job within the continental U.S. of interdicting cells, shutting down groups and doing preventative maintenance. The prosecutions and investigations have been on target. No. 3, the operational network of bin Laden has been severely interrupted overseas as well as in the U.S. And No. 4, these guys have a different timeline. They're not on ours.

Q: They're patient?

A: Yeah. They can wait for years.

Q: Were the attacks on the trains in Spain a sign that we are not able to stop terrorists when they want to strike?

A: Yeah. The fact that they could pull off such an attack, even though several of the people arrested were actually under investigation, shows the incredible ability to reconstitute themselves.

Q: What's it going to take to defeat these Islamist militants around the world? Or are we in for a global war without end?

A: Traditional wars have armistices to sign. There's not going to be one to sign here. There's a military component, a religious component and a political component. In a sense, the military component is the easiest.

The most difficult is to essentially discredit the militant Islamic movement. There is a real disconnect between those who support suicide bombings and justify terrorism and American values that abhor any type of political violence. Unless there's going to be a willingness to challenge the extremists, not appease them, then they're going to flourish.

Do I think that we're going to be successful in discrediting them? Not necessarily in the short term. To a certain extent, we need to embark on a genuine effort to embolden authentic, moderate Muslims, not the ersatz ones who say they condemn terrorism, but then, if asked if they condemn Hezbollah, they say, "No, it's not a terrorist group."

We need to promote the moderate interpretation of Islam by emboldening and empowering Islamic reformers to instigate a self-criticism within the Islamic world. I'm often asked what the panacea is here, and the answer is, we need to see an Islamic reformation. Then I'm asked how will we know there is a reformation, and I say, "One very telling indicator will be the appearance of many Muslim comedians."

Q: Will capturing or killing Osama really matter much?

A: No. It'll matter in one sense, in that he's the leader. On the other hand, bin Ladenism will long outlive him. The Madrid bombings will probably never be connected to him directly and therefore indicates that a whole new generation has been created. If anyone believes falsely that somehow arresting him or killing him is going to end the problem, they are going to be lulled into a false sense of security.

Q: Do you have any complaints or criticism of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East because it incites or attracts terrorists to us or our country?

A: No. First of all, if Israel were to cease to exist and a Hamas state would replace Israel, there would probably be a greater amount of Islamic terrorism against the United States. That's No. 1.

No. 2, I think the U.S. is hated not just because of our foreign policy, but because of the separation of church and state and the dominance we have. And the fact that these Islamic movements perceive themselves to be in a subordinate role, and they blame the U.S. or the West for this. It's really their own doing.

Unless the U.S. retreated entirely into its borders, unless the U.S. allowed radical Islam to start prevailing, unless the U.S. stopped assisting democracies and pro-Western regimes, unless the U.S. stopped combating the jihad movements around the world, unless the U.S. stopped protecting itself, then the U.S. is still going to be hated.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald