State Spawners of Terrorism

Yet there is another group of countries for which the connection to September 11th is far more apparent. These are the countries from which Al Qaida and its allied movements actually sprung, the countries where their fighters are recruited, where their hatreds are cultivated, and where their aims too often are embraced.

No set of states has a monopoly on producing such people. Armed groups have terrorized civilians in countries as disparate as Colombia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Spain, inspiring misguided sympathy for countless reasons.

But the countries that have served as the political base for Al Qaida and as the source of foreigners fighting alongside the Taliban do form a distinct group, with a common feature. Most suffer from repressive state policies that breed resentment among their people, while shutting avenues for peaceful dissent. Ironically, most also happen to be America’s partners in the coalition against terrorism.

Saudi Arabia was home to 15 of the 19 September 11th attackers, and of course, to Osama Bin Laden himself. The Saudi monarchy has completely suffocated legitimate political dissent, while alienating much of its population through rampant corruption and arbitrary rule. Its practices have driven opposition into the only protected area –the mosque –in the form of a highly politicized and intolerant strain of Islam.

Egypt, too, has produced some of Al Qaida’s key leaders. Like Saudi Arabia, Egypt leaves its people with a desperate choice between no politics and extremist politics, between tolerating a repressive status quo and resorting to violence. It encourages the popular venting of anti-American sentiment as a surrogate for criticism of its leadership. By silencing moderate voices who favor political liberalization and non violent activism, it silences the very voices most likely to condemn political violence.

The United States has been cajoling the Egyptians and Saudis to spread the word through their state media that the war on terror is not a war on Islam. It doesn’t seem to be asking whether ordinary people will buy what their governments tell them. Indeed, by censoring and controlling the media, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have fostered deep cynicism in the Arab world about all official sources of information. In this climate, conspiracy theories about September 11th thrive, while the facts often are not believed.

Uzbekistan is the source of another militant group that fought with Al Qaida — the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU. How did Uzbekistan become a state-spawner? In part because its Soviet-style dictatorship has decimated its democratic opposition while imprisoning thousands of Muslims for practicing their faith outside state controls — policies the State Department has said are “radicalizing Uzbekistan’s disaffected and disenfranchised youth and driving them into the arms of the IMU.

Pakistan could well make the list as well. Many factors help to explain the rise of religious extremism there –from the channeling of state funds to schools affiliated with Jamiat-Ulema-I-Islam, a party with close ties to the Taliban, to the arrogation of the state’s Afghanistan and Kashmir policies by its military and intelligence services. But clearly, one key factor is that Pakistan has long suffered from either flawed democracy or no democracy. This has marginalized the moderate majority of Pakistanis who reject political violence. It has obviously done nothing to constrain radical groups.

Then there is Russia, which has helped to create in Chechnya the kind of wasteland for the rule of law and respect for innocent life in which groups like Al Qaida thrive. Chechen leaders who allowed chaos to reign after Russian troops left their province in 1996 are partly to blame; so is the Russian government for letting its soldiers brutalize civilians upon their return in 1998. In any case, it is no surprise that the pro-Bin Laden fighters who made a desperate last stand in Afghanistan included recruits from this small, distant, and equally desperate place.

One interesting thing about this list is that there is no overlap with the traditional U.S. list of sponsors of terrorism like Iraq, Iran and Libya, whose citizens were not among the September 11th attackers. Here is one possible reason: The state sponsors include increasingly pluralistic societies like Iran as well as rigid dictatorships, but in every case, the United States has disassociated itself from their ruling regimes. If their people are angry at their governments, they have no reason to redirect that rage at America. The state spawners, on the other hand, are without exception American allies.

President Bush has at least begun to address this dilemma rhetorically, stating in remarks to the UN General Assembly aimed at the Arab world that when “avenues for the peaceful expression of opinion . . . are closed, the temptation to speak through violence grows.” Secretary of State Powell has said that countries like Saudi Arabia need to “start taking a look in the mirror.”

But it’s not yet clear if the Administration has a policy to match those words. Will the $500 million in new aid it has allocated to Pakistan be tied in any way to the restoration of democracy and the rule of law? Will it keep U.S. troops and bases in Uzbekistan indefinitely if that country’s leaders continue rebuffing demands to respect human rights? Will it publicly urge the Saudis to follow the lead of others in the region, like Jordan and Kuwait, that have at least experimented with opening their societies? Will it continue buying Egyptian support with tacit acceptance of repression and unconditional aid?

The state-spawners will have a ready answer to U.S. pressure: “don’t try or you will threaten our stability.” By closing off their political center, they have deliberately created a political landscape in which it seems that the only alternative to their authoritarian rule is their overthrow by radical opponents. Yet from Morocco to Bahrain, Muslim countries have proven that political liberalization can strengthen both stability and tolerance. Can anyone really argue any more that the status quo is safer than change?

Of course, the easy thing for the Administration to do would be to focus solely on the sponsors of terrorism, to which America is already hostile. Dealing with state-spawners will be hard –because they are U.S. allies, because democratic values cannot simply be imported from the outside, and because in the short run, more open societies may give louder expression to resentment of U.S. policies, including America’s support for Israel.

But if, as the Administration never tires of reminding us, these truly are extraordinary times, calling for new rules and new thinking, then perhaps the time has come to adopt a more sophisticated strategy to attack the political sources of terrorism. With countless lives at stake as well as democratic values, let’s hope that it musters the vision to try.

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