So is Britain. But is the rest of the world prepared to join the war on terror?
Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT
It's the kind of muscle that only the most powerful nation on earth can flex. Preparing to strike back at the perpetrators of the devastating terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the U.S. air force rolled out squadrons of B-52 and B-l bombers, F-16 fighters and F-15 fighter-bombers, all bound for bases within striking distance of the Persian Gulf. The army prepared to deploy undisclosed thousands of troops— many of them from elite special operations units—while putting part-time reservists on notice at home. In Norfolk, Va., navy brass gathered to send off the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which, with 13 other warships in its battle group, was headed for the Gulf as well. They played tinny versions of Anchors Aweigh and New York, New York over the loudspeakers, and navy secretary Gordon England told the 5,500 sailors onboard that “were learning once again that freedom and liberty and the American way of life are not a birthright.”
Washington showed off its political might, too. President George W. Bush worked the phones and received assurances of support from traditional allies—Canada’s Jean Chrétien was among the first to make the pledge. Some foreign leaders and emissaries even flew into Washington to meet with Bush or Secretary of State Colin Powell. French President Jacques Chirac, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Sa’ud alFaisal, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri and even China’s foreign affairs minister, Tang Jiaxuan, all stopped by at the White House, as did Bush’s staunchest ally against terrorism, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. So when he addressed Congress on Sept. 20, oudining the threats posed by terrorists and his plan to fight back, Bush knew he wouldn’t have to go it alone. “Justice,” he stated bluntly in his speech to Congress, “will be done.”
Although it’s been difficult to turn their attention away from the atrocities committed in America, U.S. leaders are now focused on the rest of the world. They’re looking for help from anyone, allies or not, in locating and bringing to account the terrorist honchos and their henchmen. Understandably, Americans are still mad as hell—last week’s round-the-clock efforts by rescue crews at the devastated site of New York’s World Trade Center failed to unearth a single survivor. That means that, barring a miracle, the unconscionable attacks by hijackers who drove two commercial jets into the trade centre towers killed an estimated 6,585 innocent people, including as many as 35 Canadians. Another 189 died in the crash of a hijacked jet at the Pentagon outside Washington, and 44 others perished when a fourth airliner went down in a field in southwest Pennsylvania. Bush told Congress what he’d been telling the countries of the world: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
It’s a blunt pitch from a president who occasionally lapses into Wild West rhetoric; earlier in the week, he told reporters he wanted the No. 1 suspect in the attacks, Osama bin Laden, “dead or alive.” But Bush faces a complex 21st-century dilemma. Despite having all that firepower and all those diplomatic ducks in line, he was still restrained from firing a single shot. His allies are united in blaming the multi-millionaire extremist bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda terrorist network for planning the attacks. But the exiled Saudi-born terrorist is believed to be holed up in the desolate backcountry of Afghanistan—about as far away from anywhere as a man can get. It’ll take until sometime late this week for many U.S. warplanes and ships to get near enough to strike. And even though the world community is opposed to Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia, there is general sympathy for the plight of Afghan civilians.
Furthermore, even if bin Laden is neutralized, his Al-Qaeda organization is still out there—with cells in at least 50 countries, experts estimate—perhaps plotting ever-greater assaults. Then there are lesserknown extremist groups to contend with, such as the ones with potentially global reach that Bush named last week—the secretive Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Where do the allies send the troops? What coordinates should they program into their smart bombs? Good questions.
And never mind the photo-op smiles of visiting leaders. Many who start out as Bush-backers may yet, when military action is required and lives are on the line, back out. NATO members are supposed to regard an attack on any other member nation as an attack on their own soil, but some countries are privately lobbying for caution. For some its just traditional reluctance to get their hands dirty. But others have a keener appreciation for recent history. The logical site of any allied attack is Afghanistan, and European leaders remember too well how the hardy Afghans routed the invading Soviets in the 1980s. They remember the dozens of cruise missiles the U.S. launched at suspected bin Laden hideouts after the 1998 American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania—expensive and fruitless retaliations that did little more than further humiliate a so-called superpower. Only Blair was unequivocal in his support. “I say to you,” he told Bush, “we stand side by side with you now, without hesitation.”
Bush has pressing domestic concerns, too. American Muslims and other visible minorities suffered numerous racist attacks —a good-ole-boy Republican congressman from Louisiana named John Cooksey declared in a radio interview that anyone with “a diaper on his head” should be stopped and questioned. This despite Bush’s repeated declarations that America was at war with terrorists, not Muslims or Arabs.
As well, the FBI warned there may be more terrorist attacks in the near future. In its nationwide search for known associates, possible witnesses and even accomplices to the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. law enforcement authorities last week arrested four men believed to be connected to the terrorists. Among them was a onetime Toronto resident, Nabil al-Marabh, who was discovered working as a store clerk in suburban Chicago. The Kuwaiti, who is linked by Jordanian intelligence to bin Laden’s network, resided in Boston for many years but travelled frequently to Toronto to visit relatives. Al-Marabh twice applied for refugee status in Canada and was in Toronto as recendy as last summer, staying with an uncle, but was last seen there in July. As well, the FBI asked for the extradition of a Yemeni man detained in Toronto after he was found to be carrying three false passports. And French officials arrested seven people suspected of plotting terrorist attacks on U.S. interests in France.
The impact of the Sept. 11 attacks is still reverberating through the economy. On North American exchanges, share values plummeted by more than $ 1 trillion last week during a massive sell-off that saw New York’s benchmark Dow Jones industrial average drop by a whopping 14.3 per cent, the biggest one-week plunge since 1933. Reeling U.S. airline companies laid off tens of thousands of workers and still needed a planned $ 15-billion U.S. government bailout just to stay aloft. Air Canada faces similar problems. “The unspeakable tragedy of last week,” said Robert Milton, Air Canada’s chief executive, “has made a bad economic situation much, much worse for every airline—Air Canada included, particularly with our large share of the trans-border market.”
The entertainment industry’s biggest stars staged a remarkable telethon that raised millions to support families of terrorist victims. At an undisclosed location—the celebrities were edgy about security—Bruce Springsteen and Celine Dion sang songs, Jack Nicholson, Whoopi Goldberg and Tom Cruise worked the phones, and Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts encouraged viewers to pledge.
It all helped, but at the crash sites, the grim search for human remains had become demoralizing. Rescue crews had made only 183 positive identifications by week’s end. The areas were also crime scenes: at the Pentagon, the site was turned over to the FBI. After consulting with fire officials, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani told reporters that many bodies at the trade centre would never be identified, having been incinerated by the intense heat— some estimate it climbed as high as 1,000o C —caused by the explosion of jet fuel when the planes hit the towers. Down at ground zero, though, they weren’t giving up. “We’re trying our best to keep morale up,” said officer Bob Schnelle of the New York Police Department’s K-9 unit. “We’re all a little frustrated that we haven’t been able to find anyone. But we’re going to keep at it until they tell us to stop.”
In Canada, it was politics as usual. Before leaving for Washington for his scheduled Sept. 24 meeting with Bush, Chrétien was roundly criticized, at first for not appearing to respond quickly enough to the crisis and later for not including a stop at the trade centre site in New York during his U.S. trip. And he dodged questions about what Canada might do to improve security in the wake of the terrorist acts, and what role the Canadian Forces might play in the military actions ahead. “If security has to be increased to protect Canadians, it will
be,” Chrétien said when Parliament began its fall session last week. That wasn’t good enough for Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day, who called for anti-terrorism legislation modelled on a tough British law drafted to combat the Irish Republican Army. “This is not a time for halfmeasures,” Day insisted. “It is not a time to bring forward previously announced initiatives and relabel them as anti-terrorist measures.”
The Liberals, backed by the Bloc Québécois and the New Democratic Party, voted down an Alliance motion to duplicate the British approach. But Justice Minister Anne McLellan promised to move quickly to introduce a law that would make it illegal to raise money in Canada for terrorism. That’s a lot tougher than the legislation the government introduced last spring that would merely have made it easier for Ottawa to deny charitable status to groups that raise money for terrorism and issue tax receipts to the donors. McLellan told Macleans she’s braced for stiff opposition from some “ ethnic groups that fear their legitimate support for political activism in home countries will be outlawed.
Militarily, it was still unclear what part Canada would be asked to play. In fact, some Canadian officials took offence when Bush, in his speech to Congress, thanked 13 other countries by name for their support, but not his northern neighbour. The oversight was graciously smoothed over by Secretary of State Colin Powell the next day. As for Canada’s role, Defence Minister Art Eggleton says the U.S. plan will likely feature specialized forces in tighdy focused surgical strikes, not a broad ground war. Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, about 20 of Canadas CF-18 Hornets were placed on alert, and Eggleton pointedly mentioned the secretive counter-terrorism unit called Joint Task Force 2, made up of about 250 specially trained soldiers and based near Ottawa. “Whether JTF2 comes into play in this particular situation, I wouldn’t say at this time,” he said. “We have a number of assets and the Americans know what we have.”
By preparing for a scaled-down role for ground troops, U.S. authorities are recognizing the enormous difficulties of waging war in Afghanistan. Landlocked and remote, it’s a landscape of bleak deserts and huge mountains—the soaring peaks of the Hindu Kush and Karakorum ranges converge on the Himalayas. Making overland travel even more difficult, the passes and roadways are littered with thousands of deadly mines left behind by the Soviets. Then there are the Afghan fighters themselves. “The American army will meet with fanatical resistance,” said Ruslan Aushev, who commanded a Soviet motorized infantry battalion in Afghanistan. “The Americans can launch an attack that will look really dramatic and effective on television, but I don’t think the result will be the expected one.”
In the battle to win hearts and minds, the Americans are also acutely conscious of trying to spare the already oppressed populace of Afghanistan. Most Afghans are dirt poor, and a staggeringly high percentage of them suffer from chronic diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever. The constant conflict in the country has allowed tuberculosis to spread at an alarming rate, and the disease there kills an estimated 30,000 people a year. The country has the world’s worst infant mortality rate—15 per cent of children die before they reach their first birthday, compared with Canada’s 0.5 per cent. An average of 25 Afghans a day are killed or maimed by mines. And they’re terrorized by the brutal Taliban extremists who seized power in 1996. Political opponents are routinely executed and women are not permitted to attend school, work outside the home or walk unchaperoned in the streets.
Muslim leaders in Canada offer a gentler interpretation of the Koran, Islam’s holy book. At the B.C. Muslim School that adjoins the Jami’a Mosque in suburban Richmond, religious leader Imam Sheikh Zijad Delic condemns terrorism and rejects any notion that the slaughter in the United States was conducted in the name of God or for the glory of Islam. The attacks were “against humanity—its against the law of God, it is against any kind of logic,” says Delic, also the schools director of religious studies. He said the Koran prohibits suicide, and even in time of war it forbids the killing of civilians and wanton destruction of property or the environment. That view of the Koran as a book of peace and tolerance is backed by many scholars and the vast majority of the more than one billion Muslims worldwide, says William Cleveland, a Middle East historian at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. He calls the Sept. 11 attacks “simply the manipulation of religion and religious symbols for non-religious political and personal goals.”
But there are far more radical and deadly interpretations of the Koran. Typical is The Islamic Legitimacy of the Martyrdom Operations, written in 1996 by the Australiabased Islamic Youth Movement and disseminated on the Internet. It says, in part, that “the one who blows up the enemies of Allah by blowing up himself as well cannot be considered a suicide, and he is, Allah willing, a martyr.” Similar extremist interpretations inspire waves of Palestinian suicide attacks against Israel, as well as the holy war declared against America by bin Laden. “You cannot defeat the heretic with this book alone,” bin Laden has said of the Koran. “You have to show them the fist.” Bush is being careful, mobilizing his forces to demonstrate his determination to retaliate, but campaigning behind the scenes for a broad-based coalition against terrorism. To get Arab states onside, he pressured Israel and the Palestinians into declaring a ceasefire in their bitter battle. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, prompted by UN Middle East troubleshooter Terje Roed-Larsen, publicly condemned all military action, including “terrorist activities,” directed against civilians. Many of his constituents appreciated the reprieve from violence—even if it took horrendous acts of terror in America to convince the two sides to lay down their arms. “Perhaps out of something very bad, something good will finally come,” said a Palestinian carpet merchant in East Jerusalem.
In Europe, Bush is leaning heavily on Blair to bridge the diplomatic gaps. The British prime minister shares Bush’s antiterrorist zeal, but unlike his American counterpart, Blair is a natural and deft statesman who may be the key to keeping the NATO leaders on side. Domestically, U.S. authorities are moving quickly to shore up security and to track down anyone with information on the terrorists. Investigators are hoping to learn more about bin Ladens network, particularly how it’s financed, by tracing a suspicious series of complicated stock market transactions— put trades and short selling—of selected bank, airline and insurance shares. In both kinds of trades, investors only make money if the share values decline. In short selling, for instance, an investor willing to bet that a stock price will fall can borrow securities from a broker with no money changing hands, sell them to a third party at market value, buy them back when the price falls, repay the broker and pocket the difference.
In the weeks leading up to Sept. 11, there were dramatic increases in the number of those trades on European insurance firms such as Munich Re, Swiss Re and Axa, and on American investment banks such as Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter (the latter occupied more than 20 floors at the trade centre complex). On the Friday before the attacks, for instance, more than 10 million shares in Merrill Lynch were sold compared with four million on a normal day. In the last two weeks, the value of all of those company’s shares fell dramatically. Steven Emerson, head of counter-terrorist research institute Investigative Project in Washington, says bin Laden is sophisticated enough—and cold-blooded enough—to profit from his murderously effective plot. “Fiis network,” Emerson added, “is more than just crude, gun-toting terrorists.”
The allies would like nothing better than to cut off bin Laden’s money supply, and isolate the terrorists and the few countries willing to harbour them. But forensic accounting and diplomacy take time, and irate Americans are clamouring for action now. So, for the moment, Bush will continue amassing the forces of war. And as America works to forge a worldwide coalition against terrorism, it is fitting that the aircraft carrier that left Norfolk last week is nicknamed “the big stick.” That’s a reference to something the big ship’s namesake, Teddy Roosevelt, said in 1901. A century ago, that president observed, it was a good policy to “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” It’s a policy the new president is doing his best to follow.
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