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Fighting Al Qaeda's New Weapon

By

Osama bin Laden's election-eve missive appears to have backfired. Indeed, his wild claims that he will bankrupt America by forcing us to fund counterterrorism efforts -- along with the new warnings from "Azzam the American" that more attacks are on the way -- left many Americans scratching their heads.


The tapes do little to help us understand the severity of the terrorist threat against the United States. On the one hand, they demonstrate bin Laden's capacity to reach a global audience, getting his picture on every cable news channel, displacing election chatter on the nightly news and garnering attention on the Sunday talk shows. On the other hand, the fact that bin Laden has spent more time talking than fighting may reflect the toll the war on terrorism has taken on his terrorist network.


Since 9/11, bin Laden has had few victories to crow about. The bombing in Spain didn't keep that country or other NATO allies from sending troops last month to help out in Afghanistan. And the successful Afghan elections -- thoroughly repudiating the Taliban -- were hardly good news for the world's most notorious terrorist leader. Yes, terrorism is rampant in Iraq, but the political process is still moving forward and Iraqis line up every day at great personal risk to enlist in their security forces.


So far, since President Bush declared war on terrorism, bin Laden's greatest achievements have been eluding capture and circulating about two dozen audio and videotapes. Hitler did as much, spewing defiant speeches from his Berlin bunker almost to the end.


While the tapes offer no definitive proof that terrorism is either waxing or waning, they do underscore one key aspect of the struggle: the role of psychological warfare. Bin Laden's videos are propaganda, pure and simple, designed to weaken U.S. resolve and foster recruiting and fund raising for al Qaeda. Defeating terrorism means crushing its campaign to spread ideas and arguments as well as taking out its leadership, support networks and sanctuaries.


Americans tend to think of psychological warfare as a relic of World War II or the Cold War. The phrase conjures images of planes dropping leaflets over some foreign country or radio broadcasts spilling behind the Iron Curtain. Most people assume they are immune from the threat of psychological combat. Wrong. Today, the techniques and instruments that can support psychological warfare are diverse and readily available. (They include Web sites, e-mail, online media, instant messaging, chat rooms and television.) And they can be as easily deployed against America as they can against distant lands.


Prevailing in the struggle of ideas, as in any battle, requires a sound strategy and deliberate effort. The right strategy involves four points:

  1. Understanding the enemy. Through its efforts on the Internet, in the media and on the Arab street, al Qaeda is waging an aggressive, albeit perhaps desperate, war of words.
  2. Doing more to discredit the ideologies that feed terrorism. At the root of the current wave of violence against the United States and its allies is a blasphemous interpretation of religion that sanctions killing Americans and others, even moderate and orthodox Muslims who don't agree with lies that justify killing civilians, glorifying suicide bombings and other terror tactics.
  3. Continually making the case that there is a credible alternative to extremism and repression.
  4. Making it clear that the United States will never retrench or retreat. We must destroy any glimmer of hope among the terrorists that we will ever let them prevail in their fascist schemes.

These four points provide the core of a sound strategy for winning the struggle of ideas --and turning bin Laden into a media has-been.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation.

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire

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