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Extremists entrenched in Arab world

| Sunday, Sept. 30, 2001

CAIRO, Egypt - The network of terror that shook America on Sept. 11 is rooted in medieval times.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, an extremist Islamic sect terrorized its foes in Syria and Iran with daring murders. Led by a mysterious figure, 'the old man on the mountain,' it matched religious fanaticism with methodical planning, secrecy, and the ability to meld into any society it attacked.

Christian crusaders carried home the legend of the 'Assassins' - a corruption of the Arabic term 'hashshashin,' or hashish addicts - who hid in mountain castles and attacked Muslim and Christian leaders alike.

As Middle Eastern scholar Bernard Lewis wrote, 'the loyalty of the Assassins, who risked and even courted death for their Master ... made their name a byword for faith and self-sacrifice before it became a synonym for murder.'

The terrorists following Osama bin Laden and other masters today share many of those characteristics, as well as the goal of overthrowing the Muslim ruling order.

For some Middle Eastern governments, the choice now is to side with the United States or with their own people's sentiments. The risks are more political instability or terror at home, according to many analysts.

'Governments with internal Islamist oppositions have been willing to let sleeping dogs lie,' says Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert with the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. 'As long as groups do not directly threaten the governments' grip on power, governments have been content to let them operate, for fear that attacking them would arouse significant opposition.

'Now,' he predicts, 'governments will have to choose between taking on some of those groups and appeasing U.S. demands. Many will find difficult days ahead.'

'STREETS WILL EXPLODE'

Egyptian newspapers reflect much of the Arab press in calling a U.S. strike against bin Laden or Afghanistan's Taliban rulers as an attack on Islam.

'If the Americans strike one of the Arab or Islamic countries,' says Mustafa Bakry, editor-in-chief of a pan-Arab weekly newspaper, Al Usbua, 'the Egyptian as well as the Arab and Muslim street will explode in anger.'

Al Usbua is considered influential on popular opinion and, according to some observers, on Egyptian officials.

Bakry, like most Arab journalists, academics and politicians, demands that the United States prove bin Laden's guilt before hitting back. He and others want terrorism and the goals of an international coalition to be defined.

'Are the objectives of the alliance only of a military nature?' asks Gamal Sultan, head of international affairs at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Among the possible aims feared here are a tipping of the region's power balance still further in Israel's favor or the replacing of governments that Washington considers troublesome.

But defining terrorism 'could be very difficult, because we consider the Palestinians as freedom fighters,' explains Mohamed Shaker, chairman of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs. He and Sultan fear some governments may label political opponents as terrorists, to rid themselves of rivals.

SUPPORT FOR ISRAEL AN ISSUE

One risk cited repeatedly here is that U.S. retaliation will give the more dangerous fringe elements in Arab nations a pretext to lash out.

'The attack on the United States is really embedded in American policy toward the Middle East and the peoples of the Middle East,' argues Walid Kazziha, a political science professor at American University in Cairo. Arab resentment of U.S. policies, particularly support for Israel, is creating a backlash, he says.

As the Palestinian uprising against Israel grew bloodier and more violent over the past year, anti-U.S. fervor heated up. Arab governments seen as U.S. allies have been increasingly criticized, at home and abroad.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah - the country's de-factor ruler in place of his ailing brother, King Fahd - is widely described as angry that Washington has not resolved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Prince Abdullah, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and other Arab leaders warned Washington for months that a solution to the half-century-old conflict is necessary to reduce regional tension. Before Sept. 11's terrorist attacks, Mubarak pleaded with U.S. officials almost weekly to take a more active role.

Now, Arab officials and analysts say, U.S. pressure on Israel is the price of enabling Arab governments to support the U.S. war on terrorism.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has rejected such a trade-off. Six days after the Sept. 11 attacks, he told Israel's parliament: 'The Arab countries are demanding - in order for them to join the coalition - that Israeli pay a diplomatic and security price. And this they cannot receive.'

Without a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kazziha and others reply, Arabs will remain antagonistic toward and suspicious of U.S. motives.

'Hunting and smoking out' bin Laden in such a highly charged atmosphere, Kazziha warns, will create 'hundreds of bin Ladens' who 'not only threaten the American way of life, but the people in the region, too.'

EGYPT, JORDAN VOLATILE

As the largest Arab nation and the first to make peace with Israel, Egypt is a strategic U.S. ally. Instability here would vastly complicate U.S. policies.

Egypt's President Mubarak has called repeatedly for an international conference to deal with terrorism globally. His recommendation makes him popular at home, says Mahira El Mallawany of Al Azhar University, Cairo.

But Mallawany and others are concerned U.S. military action will ignite an always-volatile region.

'This is the kind of war where the U.S. needs to define its targets ahead of time and present reasons why they have chosen them,' says Sultan. 'If the U.S. wants to topple the Taliban, it needs to talk publicly about it.'

Many Egyptians might welcome the Taliban's demise because of its radical interpretation of Islam, but 'the public associates with them because they are Muslims,' Sultan cautions. 'You need the people's support to win this war.'

If the war is portrayed as against Arabs and Muslims, he says, it could 'destabilize this region ... even topple some of the regimes that are not stable enough to withstand widespread opposition.'

Palestinians make up half of Jordan's population and are angered by the fate of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the yearlong uprising against Israel. Outrage over U.S. attacks on another Muslim state could threaten Jordan's King Abdullah, who has proclaimed unequivocal support for the U.S. war on terrorism.

Destabilization in Jordan would have a domino effect in the region, Sultan declares.

Others see that as farfetched. 'I doubt there will be an explosion,' says Sherif Elmusa, a political science professor at American University in Cairo. 'The opposition has been decimated in these countries over the years.'

He believes people 'will be unhappy, and it will further increase the chasm between the people and their government - but the government still has the power.' During the Gulf War, he points out, the Arab streets in Egypt, Jordan and other countries did not explode in anti-American protests.

RISKS FOR SAUDI ARABIA

The oil-rich desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia, another key U.S. ally, is integral to any war on terror.

It has pledged to support the United States, cut diplomatic ties with the Taliban, and reversed an earlier decision not to allow the United States to use a new military command center in Al Kharj to mount attacks.

But the religiously conservative, politically introverted Saudi government is very much at risk of being destabilized, several analysts say.

Saudi Arabia is a keystone to U.S. strategy. As the keeper of Muslim holy sites in Mecca and Medina, it holds considerable influence in the region and among Muslims worldwide. It also is the keeper of the world's oil markets - the primary force behind stable prices and supplies.

Saudi approval of U.S. military objectives can help provide a legitimate cover for other Muslim nations to join the international coalition.

It also is likely to put the Saudis at risk. Bin Laden's network has declared that governments supporting the United States will be targeted.

That is no idle threat to the Saudi ruling family. Bin Laden, an exiled Saudi multimillionaire, is suspected of directing terrorist attacks in his homeland in 1995 and 1996, including the bombing of a U.S. military barracks. He has proclaimed overthrowing the royal family as one of his goals.

The alleged role of several Saudis in the U.S. attacks further raises the level of anxiety in the capital, Riyadh.

'The fact that Saudi nationals were involved in such tragic events is perhaps more significant for Saudi Arabia than the United States itself,' according to Simon Henderson, an expert on Saudi Arabia and an adjunct scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 'because Riyadh has to worry about the potential for radical Islamist terrorism in the kingdom that could destabilize the Saudi government.'

WHO'S ON TERROR LIST?

Uncertainty over who will be classified as terrorists and singled out for retaliation is a concern regionally, and nowhere more than Syria and Lebanon.

Many Lebanese view Hezbollah guerrillas as liberators who forced Israel to end its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon. But the radical Shiite group is on a U.S. terrorist list; it killed more than 300 Americans in various attacks, including 1983 bombings of a U.S. Marine barracks and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.

Syria, along with Iran, has supported Hezbollah for two decades.

'Any attack against Hezbollah would be negatively felt by the Arabs - and Iran, which has a key role in this entire effort - and would seriously break the consensus to bring in bin Laden,' says Michael Young, a Lebanese political analyst in Beirut.

Young does not foresee a U.S. attack on Syria or Lebanon. He believes threats of action by U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz are an attempt to warn Syria that the United States is watching its actions.

Some analysts here wonder about the significance of U.S. officials omitting Hezbollah and the Palestinian guerrilla groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad from a list of terrorist groups whose financial assets will be frozen.

But many Lebanese still worry that their bloody past is about to return.

'SENSITIVE NERVE'

Sherif Elmusa, the professor from American University in Cairo, says each country and leader will be driven by self-preservation.

'Governments will act in a pragmatic way,' he declares. 'Their first thought will be for security of the regime. If they are put in a position to do something, they will calculate what the cost and benefit is, and they will act accordingly.'

Nevertheless, Elmusa says, serious opposition is clearly mounting among Arab publics - regardless of their governments' positions - to what the United States appears to be planning.

He contends U.S. officials so far have not been 'very clear, and they need to explain what they are going to do.' Otherwise, he says, the consequences will be much worse for all involved.

'I am very concerned for the future of the region because of this,' agrees Gamal Sultan of Cairo's Al Ahram Center. 'We have the Arab-Israeli conflict, the problems with Islamic groups, and poverty.

'And now this touches on religion, and it hits a very sensitive nerve.'

Betsy Hiel is a Cairo-based correspondent for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. She can be reached at hielb@yahoo.com .

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