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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON TERRORISM

Let Muslims Deal With Bin Laden

Reports from the Middle East indicate that the Taliban is thinking of putting him on trial.

November 06, 1998|MANSOOR IJAZ and JAMES A. ABRAHAMSON | Mansoor Ijaz, an American of Pakistani descent, negotiated Sudan's counterterrorism offer to the Clinton administration in early 1997. Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson was director of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative from 1984-89

The U.S. government's indictment this week of Saudi militant Osama bin Laden on charges he masterminded the bombings of U.S. embassy facilities in Kenya and Tanzania last August is not likely to reduce the terrorist threat posed to American citizens and may very well inflame Islamic radicals to renew attacks on American targets. Alternative solutions such as embracing the emerging efforts within orthodox Islam to self-police its most radical adherents should now be encouraged by the West.

Recent news reports in the Middle East suggest that Afghanistan's Taliban militia and the Saudi government are negotiating to bring Bin Laden to trial. The proposal to try him under Sharia (Islamic) laws before Saudi and Afghan religious leaders in connection with another incident, the murder of 19 U.S. airmen in the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, would be a meaningful self-corrective action if the trial establishes the extent of Bin Laden's complicity rather than disintegrating into a kangaroo court.

The Taliban move to self-police Islamic radicals, if in fact true, may well be the result of a need to establish the legitimacy of their medieval Islamic rule more than their brotherly desire to harbor a like-minded "Jihadi" (Muslim holy warrior).

Trying Bin Laden and offering to eradicate Afghanistan's world-class poppy fields--which the Taliban reportedly offered in return for United Nations' recognition, according to the London-based pan-Arab daily Al Hayat--demonstrate how Islamic fundamentalists can barter when they see a threat great enough inside their ranks to damage the future of fundamentalist Islamic movements.

The U.S. Tomahawk missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan, carried out in response to the embassy bombings, may or may not be the reason for the Taliban's reported move to try Bin Laden. More likely, it is the result of a harsh realization that Bin Laden's motivations and hatred of everything American or Israeli erode orthodox Islam's moral authority, which no longer can justify killing masses of innocent men, women and children.

Still, if the West would like to encourage fundamentalist Islam to contain terrorism, it will have to provide more tangible support. The most prudent path for modifying radical behavior may be to encourage Islamic transformation from within. Indictments or further missile strikes may only increase hatred for the U.S. and fuel the terrorist agenda against American targets.

Unfortunately, the Clinton administration has yet to understand what underlies the hatred of America from afar. Military retribution and unenforceable judicial actions are short-sighted and politically expedient, inflaming rather than subduing terrorism.

For example, even after news of the Taliban's efforts to try Bin Laden, State Department officials warned Congress recently that more missile strikes against Afghan targets (and presumably other alleged terrorist targets as well) were "options available" to the U.S. Further, we know from congressional testimony that several of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were not informed of the Afghan and Sudan strikes until just before they were carried out. Perhaps, if consulted in a timely manner, these military leaders could have provided the information and perspective that might have helped the U.S. avoid the embarrassment it now faces over doubts about whether the bombing of the Sudan pharmaceutical plant was justified, doubts that have made the Sudanese government appear more of a martyr than a terror monger. The result: Islamic radicals feel even more emboldened in their threats to Americans on U.S. soil, and U.S. military power has been eroded as a foreign policy tool.

The time has come for an American anti-terrorism strategy that embraces Islam's efforts to police itself. First, the U.S. should openly recognize the legitimacy of Islamic fundamentalists to live under governing laws as dear to them as our Constitution and Bill of Rights are to us. Second, instead of indicting Bin Laden in the U.S., the U.S. should send a delegation of eminent American Muslim clerics and scholars representing America's 6.5 million Muslims to attend an Islamic trial of Bin Laden. Simply observing self-corrective forces inside orthodox Islam through American Muslims may provide an arms-length mechanism for constructive U.S. engagement in an internal judicial process.

Finally, the U.S. should encourage broader diplomatic ties with Afghanistan. Just as France, Germany and other European Union countries embrace moderate forces inside Iran, which could lead to a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, so too must the West find the moderate voices inside Afghanistan's ruling tribes and strengthen their will to change from within.

Relying on U.S. military might and ineffective judicial proceedings to combat terrorism can result only in creating more of the kind of demons the U.S. so desperately seeks to destroy.

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