Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, is an expert on the Middle East. He has served as an advisor to the U.S. government in various capacities, including during the Persian Gulf crisis.
Nawaf Obaid, an advisor to Hess Energy Trading Co., is a specialist on energy and politics in Saudi Arabia. He has been a consultant to the State Department and a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Affairs.
Mamoun Fandy, professor of politics at the Near-East South Asian Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, is an expert on Egypt and the politics of the Arab world.
Marina Ottaway, Carnegie senior associate and co-director of the Democracy and Rule of Law project, is working on a study of semi-authoritarian régimes in Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East.
The meeting was one of a series that the Carnegie Endowment is holding to examine challenges in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Marina Ottaway opened the meeting by noting that terrorism's deep roots in the Middle East and the nationalities of those involved in the recent attacks necessitate even greater attention to the region.
Professor Telhami's Presentation
September 11 had a sobering effect on many élites in the region. Many asked the question of whether they want to live in bin Laden's world. Moderate élites viewed the attack as one against their own governments and political positions. On the other extreme, the vast socioeconomic underclass had an opposite response. For the powerless masses, 9/11 was incredibly empowering because it showed that a few men with knives could cause dramatic, global change. This sense of empowerment, in turn, has frightened élites even more.
Most in the region cannot separate the horror of September 11 from their general hatred of American foreign policy. This group's opinions will be the most important for the U.S. to try to influence. Washington should do its best to empower moderate élites, who, at this point, have nothing to offer the masses. Militants exploit this deficit and, although they are minorities within Muslim societies, their statements resonate.
Two post-9/11 U.S. missions include:
1) The war against al Qaeda. Most in the Muslim world understand that the U.S. had to respond to the attacks in New York and Washington, but many simply do not believe al Qaeda was responsible. Even Arab Fulbright Scholars studying in the United States questioned al Qaeda's culpability.
2) The global war against terrorism. Many in the Muslim world have an incredible fear that the word terrorism is just a label for enmity towards U.S. policies. The U.S. and its allies should therefore focus only on organizations that target civilians and not limit their campaign to the Middle East.
Mr. Obaid's Presentation
Since 14 of the 19 September hijackers were Saudi nationals and much of the ideology espoused by bin Laden and his supporters has been attributed to a creed originating in Saudi Arabia, the American public now has a skewed view of that country. In general, post-9/11 commentary regarding Saudi Arabia has been blatantly incorrect and has therefore harmed U.S.-Saudi relations.
First, the Saudi government did not encourage or finance the 9/11 terrorists. In fact, since a primary objective of bin Laden is to topple the existing government in Riyadh, it would be foolish to claim that the Saudi royal family is funding al Qaeda. However, some Saudi charities have indirectly funded terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda.
Recent anti-Saudi publicity in the American press is harming U.S.-Saudi relations. While Saudi leaders have traditionally taken pro-American stances on many issues, profound shifts are taking place with increasing anti-Saudi rhetoric from American media and congressmen. A former Clinton administration official recently exacerbated the situation by releasing classified information regarding the Saudi government. Given the current environment, there is little chance that the U.S.-Saudi relationship will improve soon. Many Saudis wonder why their cooperative, pro-Washington policies rarely receive attention in American media.
Finally, recent portrayals of the Saudi government as abusive and in imminent danger of collapse from internal revolt are largely groundless. Although Saudis have tremendous grievances, the government is by no means violent, and some members of the royal family are even quite popular.
Professor Fandy's Presentation
The idea of using planes as weapons is neither new to terrorists nor an al Qaeda invention. In 1998, Ayman al-Zawahiri declared that his original plan to kill Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was to crash a plane into his reviewing stand.
The fact that most of the fighters in Kunduz are members of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, which is an Egyptian group affiliated with al Qaeda, helps explain the apparent tenacity of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters there.
Bin Laden is not the only important terrorist leader in Afghanistan. In fact, it was al-Zawahiri who developed al Qaeda, incorporating into it bin Laden and his money, not the other way around. Al-Zawahiri was just one of many who left Egypt by traveling to Jiddah, ostensibly for a hajj to Mecca, and instead traveled to Peshawar and, later, Afghanistan. Many of those responsible for the 1997 tourist killings in Luxor and assassination attempt on President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa also fled Egypt through Jiddah. The international community, particularly Britain, has long rebuffed Mubarak's calls for the extradition of such individuals, arguing that the Egyptian president is merely attempting to try political dissenters.
Most Egyptians were horrified by the September attacks, but their reactions to the U.S. response have been mixed. About 10% are outright bin Laden supporters, about 40% solidly support Mubarak and the U.S., and the remaining 50% are in the "bin lakin" group (lakin meaning "but" in Arabic), which ostensibly condemns the terrorist attacks but also finds many justifications for them.
Like Saudi Arabia, Egypt is perhaps feeling less appreciated by the United States since September 11. Several lessons that Egypt can provide the United States and its allies in the fight against global terrorism include:
1) Combating terrorism is a long and arduous process. Egypt's campaign against domestic terrorism lasted from 1987 to about 1995.
2) Mubarak himself had difficulty convincing many that his campaign was a war against terrorism and not a war against Islam. Many viewed the battle as one of a secular state versus believers.
3) In order to combat terrorism, governments must deny terrorists the opportunity to gain legitimacy from hijackable issues. Saddam Hussein and bin Laden claimed they were trying to liberate Palestine through their actions in Kuwait and New York, respectively.
Egypt has been very cooperative with the U.S. campaign against terrorism; two high-level visits between the two countries have taken place since the attacks in New York and Washington. In any event, it is important to note that terrorism will not end with the deaths of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.
Questions and Discussion
In response to a question regarding what specific steps the U.S. and its allies can take to encourage the proliferation of moderate Arab régimes (à la Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan), Professor Telhami restated his position that, in order to succeed, moderates must offer the masses with viable opportunities for positive change. "The war for ideas is always for the swing voters in the middle," he said. He added that, in his use of the term, "moderate" only refers to those who support compromise over violence.
An audience member challenged Mr. Obaid's denial of wrongdoing by the Saudi royal family, noting that the family and other Saudis have long funded madrasas. Mr. Obaid countered by arguing that there are no madrasas in Saudi Arabia; that charities, not the royal family, have funded madrasas elsewhere; and that all graduates of madrasas (including Mr. Obaid himself) are certainly not fanatical terrorists. Professor Telhami agreed with the latter point, arguing that the West has not differentiated between those schools legitimately teaching religious fundamentalism and those that teach hate. Instead, he said, the West should oppose any institutions, not just schools, that encourage violent attitudes towards Jews, Christians, and the West, in general. Mr. Obaid added that the Saudi government has taken steps recently to encourage education leaders to be more cognizant of the effects of what they teach.
Several audience members challenged Professor Telhami's definition of terrorist organizations, which they argued would exclude groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. He responded that people in the Middle East wonder why the U.S. condemns the aforementioned groups but not the IRA or various Latin American groups. Hezbollah, he noted, largely does not target civilians and, therefore, should not be included in a global definition of terrorism. Israel, of course, can pursue any action it deems necessary against Hezbollah, he noted, adding that not calling a group "terrorist" does not necessarily mean that Washington supports it. Professor Fandy agreed that a limited, global definition of terrorism was necessary.
In response to a question regarding what specific steps the U.S. can take in fighting the war for public opinion, Professor Telhami offered three suggestions: 1) Attack the supply side (terrorists, violent fundamentalists), with international help; 2) Act consistently; and 3) Do not ignore the demand side, since terrorists exploit despair. Professor Fandy suggested that Muslims in the U.S. act as liaisons between Washington and the Arab world. He also criticized U.S. officials for only giving their interviews in the aftermath of the attacks to the Al Jazeera television station, which has been among the most vocal critics of the United States, and ignoring other radio and television stations, many of which are more moderate and reach wider audiences. Professor Telhami countered that U.S. officials often spoke as they would for an American audience and suggested that perhaps it was good that few Arabs actually saw the interviews.
After an audience member questioned whether Washington-Riyadh relations were being noticeably harmed by post-9/11 developments, Professor Telhami claimed that "strategic imperatives" are not being challenged, at least at the moment. Professor Mamoun added that September 11 forced many Saudis who might have been leaning towards al Qaeda and other terrorists to support Riyadh and President Bush. "Desert people know the difference between a mirage and the real thing," he said, adding that the average Saudi believes that "if the U.S. loses, we all lose."
Synopsis prepared by Jeffrey Krutz, Junior Fellow with the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment.