Opinion

The Great Debate

Swift U.S. jury verdict gives lie to Gitmo

The government’s charges against Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law looked pretty thin. Washington was basically claiming that the Kuwaiti imam had made a few inflammatory speeches — one praising the September 11 attacks and another warning that more attacks on tall buildings were soon to come. It didn’t sound like much, given that the charges were providing “material support” for terrorism and conspiring to kill Americans.

But less than a year later, 48 year-old Suleiman Abu Ghaith stands convicted on all counts, following a jury trial in a U.S. federal court. Over the three-week trial the government managed to convince a jury that the cleric’s actions — giving a handful of speeches for al Qaeda, some on camera seated next to bin Laden — made him responsible for the September 11 attacks, the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, and the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, a Navy ship docked in Yemen. Abu Ghaith didn’t even make his first videotaped speech until September 12, 2001.

It’s an odd quirk of U.S. conspiracy law. If someone joins a conspiracy, though it may be years after it started, he’s still liable for all the murder and mayhem his co-conspirators caused, even if it was long before he came along.

That’s what happened to Abu Ghaith. The jury may have believed he only gave a few speeches helping al Qaeda after the September 11 attacks, which is when he says he first met bin Laden, but Abu Ghaith is legally responsible for every American who bin Laden and his compatriots killed before that.

Some people assert that the U.S. conspiracy law is too broad. More surprising is that some people think the U.S. federal courts are too lenient.  Suspected terrorists should not be granted “the same rights as U.S. citizens,” insisted lawmakers such as Representative Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, when Abu Ghaith was arrested.

Keep terrorism trials in U.S. courts

On Friday morning in downtown Manhattan, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law appeared in a federal courtroom to be charged with conspiring to kill Americans. In a sober, orderly proceeding that lasted a total of 17 minutes, Judge Lewis Kaplan explained to Suleiman Abu Ghaith his rights, appointed his defense lawyers, read the charges against him, recorded his plea of “not guilty,” ordered the prisoner’s continued detention and announced that he would set a trial date for the case in 30 days.

Prosecutors have already turned over the bulk of their unclassified evidence against the defendant. Abu Ghaith, who was transferred to New York from Jordan on March 3, is reportedly cooperating with federal authorities and providing important information about al Qaeda.

It was, in others words, an ordinary, orderly federal court arraignment in an international terrorism case. Almost 500 such defendants have been convicted in U.S. federal courts on U.S. soil since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Running al Qaeda

This piece originally appeared in Reuters Magazine.

We now have the first public release of goodies from Osama bin Laden’s redoubt at Abbottabad: 17 letters to and from bin Laden and his crew that spell out vision, plans and tactics for the global jihad. The letters span a decade and outline the dimensions of a would-be caliphate – a truly global theater of war conceived, plotted and executed by bin Laden. They also reveal bin Laden to be a highly accomplished orchestrator of a global network struggling with the challenges of collaboration. Three issues consume him, and they happen to be the classic political tasks in the management of collaboration.

First, and most important: keeping everyone on track. For bin Laden, the primary management task was clearly holding everyone to a solitary vision, staying true to values (Islamic law, as he read it), and aligning deeds with words. Across his network bin Laden had little command or control over who operates in the name of Allah or even al Qaeda. As a result, nothing bugged him more than dummies among al Qaeda’s formal franchisees, loose affiliates or allies getting distracted from killing Americans; or butchering innocent Muslims; or blowing chances for alliances he sorely wanted to create. Bin Laden’s advisers were astounded, for example, when al Qaeda in Iraq attacked Catholics in an attempt to pressure Coptic Christians into releasing prisoners. It’s as if, one wrote, someone took Sunnis hostage to pressure Shias – “Does this satisfy any sane person?” The sheer horror of the geopolitical and historical error left bin Laden’s deputies shaking their heads.

Second: managing franchise relations. Getting second-rung leadership right is important for any enterprise, and for al Qaeda that meant assuring the brand and building network capacity for terror. Bin Laden was careful about deciding who would be anointed with two powerful gifts – his blessing of leadership, and formal affiliation of groups to al Qaeda central (a term he heard used by the media and, amazingly, appropriated). Bin Laden was no pushover. In fact, the letters show that he was hands-on and prickly about all such organization matters, going so far as to require memoranda of understanding with affiliates. As for appointments, bin Laden was a stickler for a good résumé that detailed education, battlefield experience, and religious training.

The danger of symbols

By Peter Baumann and Michael W. Taft
The opinions expressed are their own.

Ten years ago this Sunday, 19 madmen used commercial airliners as guided missiles to perpetrate what became the most influential act of terrorism in world history, generating mass fear, confusion, sorrow and rage on a scale that will not be forgotten. With the passing of a decade the reality of the attack—the smoke and the flames, the blood and the destruction—have receded into memory. Now the September 11th attack has become a concept, a symbol of the apex of terrorism in the new millennium.

Human beings evolved the capacity to generate symbolic thought over millions of years, a feat which allows us to predict and plan for potential threats and opportunities. For example, we put money in a 401k knowing that many years in the future we will have this money to live on. This aptitude is one ability that has made the human species uniquely successful among life on earth, as no other animal is capable of such complex future planning,

There is a downside, though, to this human capability: how we evaluate potential outcomes. If we are hunting for food and see a caribou, we get excited. Our emotional system signals us that an opportunity is present and it’s time to go after it. If, on the other hand, we see a bear, we become afraid, because our emotions are signaling it’s time to escape. This emotional evaluation system is probably similar in all animals, but the difference in humans is that we use this response pattern to judge imaginary scenarios as well.

The 9/11 generation

By David Rohde
The opinions expressed are his own.

In a speech last week at the American Legion convention in Minneapolis, President Obama rightly hailed what he called “the 9/11 generation,” the five million Americans who served in the military over the last decade.

“They’re a generation of innovators,” he declared. “And they’ve changed the way America fights and wins at wars.”

The following day, at a ceremony marking his retirement from the military, Gen. David Petraeus affirmed Tom Brokaw’s similar praise as the two men toured Iraq in 2003.

We cannot stop at Osama bin Laden


By Robert M. Morgenthau
The opinions expressed are his own.

Every American must applaud the demise of Osama bin Laden. But even as we celebrate the success of the mission, we cannot afford to gloat. As any veteran law enforcement official can attest, the end of so long a manhunt only marks a new beginning. Rather than rest triumphant, with momentum on our side, we must redouble our efforts.

As one who has supervised investigations that often lasted years and spanned continents, I know there is an unusual opportunity here to reduce the influence of fanatics and make the world a safer place for democracy.

Al Qaeda has been deprived of its leader, but the terrorist organization has not been eliminated. Consider the power structure. The organization has lost its charismatic commander, a despot who ruled as all criminal leaders do: by fear. But bin Laden’s death will not automatically spell the end of his terror network. When a criminal boss is taken out an internecine struggle often follows. We must exploit this sudden split in the ranks. Headless, al Qaeda is uncharted territory. The coming days will bear much new traffic, as the old lieutenants and adjutants jockey for new positions.

from Bernd Debusmann:

Egypt, America and a blow to al Qaeda

These must be difficult times for Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The uprising that swept away Hosni Mubarak after 18 days of huge demonstrations, none in the name of Islam, does not fit their ideology. In the war of ideas, al Qaeda suffered a major defeat.

Its leaders preach that the way to remove "apostate" rulers -- and Mubarak was high on the list -- is through violence. Al Qaeda's ideology does not embrace the kind of people power that brought down the Berlin wall, forced Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines into exile, and filled Cairo's Tahrir Square with tens of thousands of peaceful protesters day after day.

They waved the red-white-and-black flags of Egypt, not the green banners of Islam, in peaceful demonstrations that amounted to "a huge defeat in a country of central importance to its image," in the words of Noman Benotman, the former leader of a Libyan group often aligned with al Qaeda. "We are witnessing Osama bin Laden's nightmare," wrote Shibley Telhami, an Arab scholar at the University of Maryland.

The Underwear Bomber and the war of ideas

- Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own -

Who is winning the war of ideas between the West and al Qaeda’s hate-driven version of  Islam?

It is a question that merits asking again after a  23-year-old Western-educated Nigerian of privileged background, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attempted to murder almost 300 people by bringing down a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day with  explosives sewn into the crotch of his underpants.

The administration of President Barack Obama, averse to the bellicose language of George W. Bush, has virtually dropped the  phrase “war of ideas.” But that doesn’t mean it has ended. Or that Obama’s plea, in his Cairo speech this summer, for a new  beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world  has swayed the disciples of Osama bin Laden, whose 1998 fatwa  (religious ruling) against “Jews and Crusaders” remains the  extremists’ guiding principle.

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