This article originally appeared as an essay in 1987 while Mr. Begg was assigned to the United States Navy as chief speechwriter in President Reagan’s second government. It appears here as it did then for the reader to consider how remarkably things remain the same as they were two and one-half decades ago.
“Assad, Hussein, Mubarak, Hussein, Jerusalem calls to you, usurpers of the throne of God.”
With this cryptic message delivered in broken English from the cockpit of TWA flight 847 in June, 1985, Moslem fanaticism took yet another torturous, calculated swipe at its primary enemy, The Great Satan, the United States of America.
It is well to remember, however, that while America was the target in that particular episode and that an American Navy man was publicly murdered before the final curtain fell on the tragedy, the hijackers’ message was aimed not at the West, but rather at indigenous Middle Eastern rulers deemed moderate, decadent or modernist.
The particular rulers singled out for mention by the hijackers were Hafez Assad, President of Syria, King Hussein of Jordan, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. It is somewhat curious that the first and last of these – Assad and Saddam Hussein were castigated by the hijackers as pro-western. Assad, in particular, is widely believed in Washington circles to be a primary benefactor of many terrorist groups, most operating in Lebanon.
This article specially addresses Middle Eastern terrorism, although of course the author is not unmindful that terrorism is not confined to that troubled sector. In fact, terrorism is more the rule than the exception in many parts of the world. Witness Northern Ireland, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Latin America, small indigenous separatist elements such as the ETA or Basque nationalist movement in Spain, and what is perhaps the largest organized terrorist state in the world, the USSR. One can, unfortunately, go on and on with a recitation of such a litany of the violent.
Today we are engaged in a new, very deadly world war with groups small in number, vacillating in their support and allegiance to crown or country and, concomitantly, posing an extremely frustrating logistical problem for those nations which must confront this elusive enemy.
While politicians speak of peace, we are at war. We are fighting a world war directed against modern life, technological advancement and what has for centuries in the West been called progress.
These accoutrements of modern life which we hold dear hold no thrill for the anti-modernists who have declared a unilateral and all-out war on the modern world. In the eyes of the fanatics who wage war against advanced society, not merely the military of the modern world are targeted for harassment, torture and death; we are all vulnerable.
On October 28th, four months after the TWA hijacking, a 69-year old American, Leon Klinghoffer, confined to a wheelchair and enjoying a Mediterranean vacation with his wife aboard the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro, was savagely beaten, shot and thrown overboard during the takeover of the ship by four members of a splinter group of the Palestine Liberation Front. Klinghoffer’s body later washed ashore near the Syrian port of Tartus—a grim tribute to the efficiency and wantonness of his killers. Klinghoffer’s crimes—to be American and to be Jewish, to be part of a group of well-to-do passengers engaging in a high-priced Mediterranean cruise, were proof positive of true decadence and indulgence in modern frivolity and deserved the death penalty.
The West and the rest of the progressive states are not without recourse in these matters, not totally defenseless in the face of terror. In fact, in the aftermath of the Achille Lauro hijacking, the United States acted with deliberation and expedition. On President Reagan’s orders, the EgyptAir Boeing 737 carrying the hijackers to a safe haven in Tunis was intercepted at night by United States Navy F-14 fighter aircraft and forced to land in Italy. However gratifying that retaliatory response may have been, the West is a consistent and steady loser in the war against modernity.
That we should be losing the war is no real surprise. The enemy is elusive, attacks primarily civilian targets and is not, in any strictly formal sense, the agent of an established state. All this tends to render our diplomacy, overwhelmingly superior fire power and our military know how useless and the enemy knows this.
Identifying the Terrorist
In fact, the enemy appears to know a great deal more about us than we do about him. That this works in his favor is axiomatic. What is also an axiom is that if we are ever to systematically crush the world war of terror now ongoing, we must first learn more about our enemy and then develop a coherent, international prescription.
First, who is the terrorist? Where is he when he lies inactive and protected? And—most important of all—what does he really want to accomplish, beyond the excitable rhetoric and random violence?
A bit of theory history will prove useful at this point. The First Great War left many things in its wake when it groaned to an exhausted end in 1918. I deliberately say “end” and not “conclusion” because more was left unresolved than resolved, particularly regarding the formulation of new national boundaries and the dissolution of three great, yet by then antiquated empires—those of Russia, Austro-Hungary and the Ottomans.
It is the dissolution of the Ottoman, or Turkish Empire which is of interest to us because with its dissolution, come helter skelter, the unleashing of some of the most fanatical and barbaric brands of Mohammedanism the world has ever known. To be sure, the Ottomans were themselves fascistic and of a strongly fundamentalist religious bent. However, they kept a certain order in the lands then known simply as Persia to the Western mind. From its founding in 1603 until the end of the First War, the Ottoman Empire was a ruthless, yet comparatively stable state. After the war, the pent-up fury of those forces kept in check by force from the Ottomans, sprung free. Their freedom is our scourge today. It is those forces, loosely drawn together, which comprise the frontline threat to the modern world.
The unfettered forces of the fundamentalist Muslims represent many and disparate interests. They are joined together in a commonality of spirit only in their mutual hatred of the West—America in particularly; Israel, as America’s puppet, vassal state in Persia; moderate Arab states; and above all modernity which all four of the other objects of hate collectively represent.
So the terrorist is first and foremost a man from a radically different culture, fervently religious and dedicated to making his particular part of the world pure and completely free of the contamination of foreign influences. The desire for purity and this rejection of modernity extends to the brutally absurd.
Shortly before the Shah of Iran knelt and kissed the soil of the airport in Teheran, a movie theatre in that embattled capital was burned to the ground with some 600 patrons inside—the doors nailed during the performance. A Muslim mullah, or religious leader, explained with an increasingly evident loss of patience to an incredulous Western media that it was the theatre itself, not the material in the movie being shown that was in conflict with Islam. Moving pictures represented modernity and the decadent West. The revolution that was to follow the Shah’s departure was to be a revolution of fire—a first designed to burn out and exorcise all vestiges of modern Western intrusion.
While the radical Arabs do not speak with one voice—there are nearly 50 competing power groups with different agendas in Lebanon alone—they agree that the West’s influence in the region must end. These groups are willing to accomplish this exorcism in the most violent of manners. Hosni Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was dramatically murdered by Muslim extremists at a military parade. Sadat’s crime? Being a party to the Camp David Accords, which were designed to establish some semblance of Arab/Israeli rapprochement. This was an unforgivable sin to those who view Israel as blight in the Holy Lands of the Muslims. Completing the composite of the Middle Eastern terrorist is this important ingredient: he is quite willing to die for his goal of establishing a Pan-Arab Islamic Republic in the Middle East.
An enemy who is fanatical, elusive, dedicated and who actively seeks death for the cause—heaven awaits God’s martyrs—is a dangerous man indeed. There is no simple solution to the challenge he presents the West. But he has thrown down the gauntlet and civilized society must respond.
Who gives succor, training, arms and support to the terrorist while he lies inactive? His chief benefactor is Ayatollah Ruhallon Khomeini and his Islamic Republic Iran. While the make up and membership of Arab terrorist groups is extremely fluid and volatile, all seem welcome in Khomeini’s Iran. The Libyan government of Moammer Khadafi also supplies solace and support and fresh men for the ranks of God’s martyrs. In a less direct sense the Syrian government of Hafez Assad provides similar support as well as a Soviet connection. While much is made of Assad’s indebtness to Mother Russia, it is unclear exactly what Moscow gets for its support of Assad and its increasingly heated courtship of Iran. The best guess is that the Kremlin gets little more than Washington in its courtship efforts with these states. The shared premise both here and in Russia is that all the world is Red or Red, White or Blue.
The disquieting fact seems to be that while these radical states will not discourage our courtship, they are primarily teases. They do not intend to go to the altar with either of us. They despise the modern East at least as much as the modern West. Regardless, there is no question that when the terrorist goes on holiday, he is welcome as a rich uncle in Iran, Libya and Syria.
We know something about who the terrorist is and where he goes for guns, money, rest and relaxation. But what does he really expect to accomplish? The reality is that increasingly, beyond the vagaries and blandishments of creating a Pan-Arab Middle East, the new terrorist really has no goal beyond his basic job description: to create terror. Ten years ago when the
P.L.O. and Yassar Arafat ruled the roost in the international terror industry, there was a discernible power structure known to most Western intelligence agencies and a defined goal—the destruction of Israel.
Today, the myriad splinter factions within the P.L.O. itself, to say nothing of the sectarian factionalism among Moslems, make it far more difficult for Western intelligence to keep track of these groups. What is more, their goals are unclear. Some of these groups hate each other with a virulence equal to their hatred of the West. The much vaunted Islamic Jihad, or ‘Holy War’ is peopled mainly by aimlessly disaffected Shiite Moslem fanatics. They have learned from the wars of 1967 and 1973 that Israel can and will crush a united Arab onslaught. They seek now to wreak mindless, random violence on their many enemies. The Shiites, however, are a minority in the Arab world and have been at frequently violent loggerheads with their more dominant Sunni Moslem brethren for nearly a thousand years.
What helps to fan the fires of Pan-Arabic fervor in Iran is that of the 750 million Moslems in the world. 42 million reside in Iran—92 percent of these are of the Shiite sect. However, worldwide, only 20 percent of Moslems are Shiites. Obviously, the Khomeini regime has a hard row to hoe if it is to be successful in improving its brand of Moslem fundamentalism throughout the Middle East. For seven years Iran has been bogged down in a debilitating war with Iraq, mostly as a result of Khomeini’s insistence that his country’s sons will bring his brand of Islam to prominence or be God’s martyrs in the effort.
Given the state of instability in the peaceful lands of the Middle East and the chaotic condition of the more warlike ones, what, realistically, can the United States and the Western Alliance do about the problem of global terrorism which has its base in those lands.
Some would suggest massive military intervention. For many reasons, some logistical some political, this solution is impractical and unwise. The primary problem with such a solution is that it fails to take into proper account the fragility of the governments in the region and the elusive, freelance nature of the enemy.
Others would suggest that in America ought to withdraw altogether from the region and, with the exception of our continued staunch support of Israel, forget about the problem. This may seem an easy and attractive way out of the woods, but it is a misguided for at least two crucial reasons. First, since World War II, the United States has enjoyed Empire status. With that status comes awesome power and equally pressing duty. A major power does not opt out of a region simply because the going gets a bit tough. Second, we cannot opt out of the Middle East calamity even if we desire to. The terrorist wants to cause us grief and misery and he will do so if we maintain a physical presence in the area or not.
What then to do? Since we no longer maintain military bases in the region but continue to engage in commercial enterprises, American transportation becomes a target to terrorism throughout the region from Gibralter to the Straits of Malaca. How then does the United States protect her sea lanes and her shipping? I refer specifically to our unarmed vessels and the support ships which are so vital to our combat readiness and projection of global power. They present a challenge that armed ships do not.
With regard to armed ships of the line, the Department of the Navy has certain contingency plans to combat and frustrate terrorist actions. While the particulars of these initiatives are of course highly classified, the generalities are not. Some of these actions include: Physical Security Measures; VIP Protection Initiatives; Modernized Material and Organizational Measures; Crisis Management Planning; Indication and Warnings Initiatives; Terrorist Investigations; Specialized Individual Actions and Precautions; Installation and Personnel Threat Assessments; and Terrorist Specifically Counterintelligence Measures.
Additionally, the Navy has undertaken, in conjunction with various federal agencies, specific anti-terrorist programs designed to protect civilian ports and commercial shippers. These include: efforts to implement and test now, tighten security measures at all shipyards; the rules of combat engagement for Navy ships have been revised to specifically address the new sort of war we are not asked to wage; the Marine Corps has formed a special reaction team to work in conjunction with the FBI in situations involving terrorist actions; it is now a standard practice for all Navy ships to plan for potential terrorism in any port before entering; and more .50-caliber machine guns and ammunition for these weapons have been outfitted on Navy ships.
These initiatives have been undertaken in the knowledge that terrorism is different from classic piracy—a condition navies have had to confront since ships first sailed.
While in the case of classic piracy and politically inspired terrorism, the object of the enemy is to seize your ship, the new Department’s Military Sealift Command realizes that there is not a ‘distinction without a difference’ between the two acts. Counterterrorism measures must be custom tailored to meet today’s demands. America cannot rely solely on largely antiquated anti-piracy measures to combat the modern Holy War of Islam with which we must now grapple. This is especially true for the Military Sealift Command (MSC), which is charged with providing supplies and support and pre-positioning ships laden with material in strategically important parts of the world. Officially stated, the primary mission of MSC is to provide sealift for strategic mobility in support, of national security objectives.
MSC fulfills its mission through the peacetime activation of strategic sealift forces drawn from two principal sources. U.S. government-owned ships and ships chartered from the U.S. Merchant Marine. In time of war or national emergency, the vast majority of required additional shipping must be chartered or requisitioned from the U.S. flag fleet. These merchant ships will augment a small fleet of Navy owned ships maintained in an inactive or reduced operational status for use in war.
Throughout history, the U.S. Merchant Marine has been called our ‘Fourth Arm of Defense’. The U.S. Navy was born on Oct. 13, 1775 when the Continental Congress voted to requisition a merchant vessel, The Black Prince, and renamed her Alfred—the first ship in our nation’s fleet. Without the arming and supply delivery capability of U.S. merchant ships which crossed the Atlantic in both World Wars for example, our effort in those conflicts would have been futile. Moreover, many mariners give their lives in defense of our nation. For example, in the second war, the merchant marine casualty rate was exceeded only by the at sea sacrifice of the USMC—with in excess of 6,000 civilian mariners lost. During the conflict in Korea, the MSC fleet swelled from 92 to 467 ships.
Likewise in Vietnam, it operated a force which escalated from 85 to over 400 ships supplying our armed forces from 1965-1975. The SS Mayaguez incident involved the seizure of an American flag-ship by Cambodian troops in 1975. Six MSC mariners volunteered to board SS Mayaguez to help get her underway when USMC forces liberated her on orders from President Ford.
Today, MSC operates integrally with U.S. Navy fleets providing the supplies, intelligence and scientific data that keeps ships deployed for extended periods. MSC considered itself to be a vital part of the Navy and proud of its heritage of valor.
What systems similar to those designed to protect Navy ships, supply and support vessels are underway to protect civilian transportation? Without giving away the store certain initiatives, which can be discussed publicly are designed to curtail and mitigate offensive terrorist actions against ships chartered to MSC from the Merchant Marine and U.S. Naval Ships (USNS) assigned to the command.
Chief among these are various forms of counterintelligence designed to address the problem earlier discussed—that the enemy knows more about us than we do about him. If we can become at least as informed about our adversary as he is about us, we can begin to tilt the scales in this new world war in our favor.
Training of MSC crews, both civil service and the crews of those time chartered ships under contract from the private sector to MSC, will also prove invaluable. Basic training to encourage all crew members to be on their guard may seem like pretty standard fare, but until recently such training was either inadequate or non-existent. Having aboard ship certain personnel trained in the nuances of terrorist thinking and behavior is also a valuable new initiative. And surely avoiding whenever possible those ports and sea lanes that are terrorist ‘hot spots’ is a necessary precaution in today’s highly volatile world.
A Worldwide Threat
Terrorism is not about to go away. It poses perhaps the greatest challenge to the free movement of people and shipping in history. Short of all out war, the elusive modern terrorism which emanates primarily from the Persian Gulf, is the single biggest threat to the fabric of civilized society. There are no simple solutions, no singular solution.
But what must be unequivocally understood is that this is a worldwide problem. The civilized nations of the world, in particular, the United States and her partners in the Alliance and even to a certain extent the Soviets, must recognize that modern life is the target of the terrorist. Those who savor modernity, who appreciate its magnificent potential, cannot permit the advance of primitive savagery, murder and hijacking. We must hold fast to our better values and fight the darkness with the light. One of the primary problems with terrorism has been the vacillation and equivocation on the part of the mighty nations who are it targets. We say one thing regarding our policy towards terrorism, but do another when confronted with the actual beast.
We owe such a coordinated and willful response to the terror tactics of the new world war to Navy diver Robert Dean Strethem, who was butchered on TWA flight 847 because he represented America and modernity and all the other forces which, in the crazed view of his Islamic captors, are ‘usurpers of the throne of God’. If we resolve to begin such a response, someday the back of the terrorist will be broken and Stethem and the many other victims will not have to reject the conscious, violent retreat into the darkness of primitivism.
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