OAS LECTURE SERIES OF THE AMERICAS
“The Fight against Terrorism and the Promotion of Democratic Values”
OAS - Washington - June 22, 2009
I would like to begin by thanking OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza for having invited me to speak on the fight against terrorism and the promotion of democratic values, as part of the “Lecture Series of the Americas.”
It is an honor and a privilege to address such an audience here at the headquarters of the Organization of American States, on a subject of such critical importance. For terrorism poses a challenge to democratic order and the basic values it entails. Yet the necessary response to this menace is neither legitimate nor effective unless it takes place within the confines of law, with strict respect for democratic values. The title of my speech leads us to this reflection. The two concepts may appear to be contradictory, but they should not be.
Terrorism is blind violence, the propagation of terror, the ideology-driven intent to defeat democratic order. It is the strategy pursued by al-Qaeda against the West and those it accuses of supporting it, namely, so-called heathen or apostate regimes. Al-Qaeda has instigated a global Jihad, the most violent manifestation of which was the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. From the North to the South, that continent paid a heavy toll for the terrorism of al-Qaeda, as well as other terrorist organizations. And, it is still up against this threat. We will come back to this later on.
However, terrorist violence should not give license to carry out retaliatory measures outside the rule of law, in violation of the basic principles of human rights, or measures whose “exceptional” nature is claimed to be justified by the seriousness of the threat. To give way to this would in fact be tantamount to playing the terrorists’ game. Of course government authorities are the guarantors of their citizens’ security, which is a fundamental freedom, a freedom that they are expected to guarantee. When they are confronted with terrorist violence, they are expected to react with great decisiveness, but not with the weapons of their adversary, regardless of how serious the situation is, or of the pressures of public opinion or their political impact. These considerations should not hold sway over crisis management, a strong, resolute management, without concessions, but with respect for the fundamental values that underpin our institutions.
A strategy of this sort is questionable and even reprehensible from a moral standpoint. Above all it is ineffective in the long run, since it will necessarily entail often extreme corrections on the part of the government, and especially the Judiciary, that are politically difficult to manage. It will also trigger opposition both domestically and internationally. This is a debate that the Executive Branch cannot escape in a transparent, globalized, and reactive international environment characterized by the increasing development of modern means of communication and information.
In President Obama’s investiture speech, he referred to the danger that terrorism presents to the United States and democratic order, and he clearly confirmed his country’s determination and commitment to “defeat the forces that seek to promote their objective through terror and the massacre of innocent people.”
Once he was in office, he wasted no time in adopting two presidential orders, one to close Guantanamo Base and the second to prohibit the severe interrogation techniques used by the CIA. And, when he ordered the publication of the “memoranda on torture,” which were drafted between 2002 and 2005 by lawyers in the previous administration, a subject of controversy in Washington, he justified his decision by saying: “Our nation is stronger and safer when we deploy both the full measure of our power and the power of our values, including the rule of law.”
France, for its part, has always believed that the fight against terrorism should take place within the rule of law, and should never impinge on our fundamental values. Its legal system is consistent with these requirements. This system, which we will analyze further on, has facilitated an operational synergy and implementation of a proactive strategy that has enabled us to foil many attempted attacks, while fully respecting the law.
Aware of how important it is for France to have an anti-terrorism policy, the French Government initiated a far-reaching public discourse involving numerous consultations, that gave rise to the appearance in 2006 of a white book on domestic security in the face of terrorism. This white book stresses the need to deal with all aspects of the terrorist threat using legal means.
“In combating terrorism,” it states in the preface, “our best weapon is our democratic principles.... To set aside these values would be to play the terrorists’ game. To give in to the temptation to make an exception would mark the beginning of losing the battle. Let’s be faithful to our values: they are our greatest advantage in fighting terrorism.”
We believe that this approach is not only valid for France. It should be shared by all countries affected by terrorism, whatever its nature or origins. The new American administration is resolutely following this path. It has not, however, relinquished the fight against this scourge. This fight is one of that administration’s priorities, while new threats emerge with the deterioration of the situation in the Pakistani-Afghan area.
Latin America has not to date suffered directly from the action of radical Islamic networks linked to al-Qaeda on its soil. This is a situation that could evolve in the future. It is not exempt from terrorist threats with the activist approach of particularly violent terrorist organizations, some of which are partly linked to organized crime.
I have neither the pretension nor the desire to propose a model for fighting terrorism. There is no approach that would work universally. Every country must find its own way, based on its history, its particular socio-cultural environment, its institutions, its regional setting, the geopolitical situation it faces, and of course the type of terrorist threats it must counter.
However, the requirement that any anti-terrorist action should be legal in nature is a constant that should be part of any national approach. This is all the more important in view of the fact that terrorist threats are globalized and there are increasing links and relations among the different terrorist organizations and criminal groups.
Islamic terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda and other organizations espousing its ideology, no longer have a sanctuary, even though they are always looking for Jihadist states, formerly Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, or Iraq, and today Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, and North Africa. Their networks are present on all contents. Geopolitical factors difficult to assess may affect the state of security in Latin America by potential interrelations with existing groups stemming either from endogenous terrorist organizations or from structures of transnational organized crime.
Thus, if you will allow me, I will center my talk around radical Islamic networks linked to al-Qaeda that I have come to know professionally since 1994. They are responsible for the vast majority of attacks perpetrated in the world, especially in Europe and the United States. I will show that they can in future extend their field of action, either directly or indirectly, to Latin America.
However the terrorist threat evolves in either the northern or southern half of the Americas, if all OAS member states prepare a national plan, an anti-terrorist policy allowing for effective, coordinated action with full respect for fundamental values and the necessary international cooperation, they will be able to better control the development of terrorist organizations and the criminal activities benefiting them. This is the approach advocated by the European Union, even though justice and security are the sole purview of the member states.
I will briefly discuss the main characteristics of the French system of response strategies and progress achieved in this area by the European Union. Despite the difficulties involved, especially in the political arena, as seen in the arduous efforts to adopt the Lisbon Treaty, Europe has made remarkable headway in its fight against terrorism and organized crime, with the European arrest warrant and joint investigative teams. Although these institutional mechanisms may not serve as a model for OAS member states, they can at least be used as a focal point for reflection by them. The transnational dimension of the terrorist threat requires a response that cannot be exclusively national.
I. The Islamic terrorist threat: beginning, evolution, and current situation
The Islamic threat did not arise at the time of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. The collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, dramatically experienced by the entire world on television, sensitized global public opinion to the struggle doggedly pursued against the West, and primarily against the United States, by al-Qaeda, in the name of Jihad.
The September 11, 2001 attacks were not an isolated event, much less an accident of history. They are part of the evolution of a threat, and its outcome, a threat that arose in the ruins of the bipolar world, in Indonesia, Egypt, and Algeria, and that was notably underestimated, if not concealed.
Here as elsewhere, it is extremely difficult for countries to anticipate a potential threat. Prior to September 11, 2001, the United States did not believe in the possibility of an attack on its soil by al-Qaeda. Yet, in 1993, the World Trade Center was the target of an earlier attack--680 kilos of explosives that were supposed to shake the building’s structure. The results were serious, but fortunately limited in comparison with the expected outcome: 6 deaths and over 1,000 wounded. The investigation would establish the responsibility of the head of the Egyptian Gama’at Islamiya, the blind Sheik Omar Abdel-Rehman, a refugee to the United States, and Ramzy Youssef, the nephew of Khalid Cheikh Mohamed. The latter was also implicated at the same time in a plan to attack 12 commercial airplanes over the Pacific.
Especially in December 1999, Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian member of al-Qaeda, better known as the « Millennium Bomber, » had received instructions during his stay in Afghanistan to launch another terrorist operation targeting the United States, this time the Los Angeles Airport. It was a harbinger of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
We had discovered the beginnings of this operation as early as 1996, as part of an investigation of Islamists who were operating in France and had been involved in trafficking of counterfeit Moroccan passports. This investigation enabled us to uncover a vast international network based in Canada, but with branches in Europe, the Far East, and even in Australia.
Searches conducted in Canada led to the seizure of documents attesting to the plan, a plan that did not draw the attention of U.S. authorities. As the head of that investigation, I gave my full assistance to the U.S. Department of Justice, and, implementing requests for mutual judicial assistance, provided them with all the particulars of the inquiry they needed, also serving as an expert witness at the Seattle Federal Court where the trial of Ahmed Ressam was held.
France, as a matter of fact, has always been in the vanguard in the fight against radical Islamism. It is not that it has been more successful or better informed than other countries, but it has been more conscious of the danger posed by this emerging threat. Since 1993, our country has confronted this new threat with the networks of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which were structured in Algeria after the « Front Islamique du Salut» was banned in March 1992. In 1994, this extremist Salafist organization became involved in a spiral of violence targeting French nationals and the civilian population.
Using a Jihadist strategy adopted from al-Qaeda, the GIA hijacked an Air France plane flying the Algiers-Paris route in December 1994. The commando was neutralized during a stop-over at Marseille airport. The investigation into this hijacking revealed that the plan conceived by Jamel Zitouni, the head of the GIA at the time, was to have the plane explode over Paris, probably against the Eiffel Tower. This would have been the first use of a civilian aircraft as a weapon of mass destruction, seven years before September 11, 2001.
Six months later, the GIA staged a series of deadly attacks in France, primarily in the Paris subway. Since that time, the French authorities—and especially the Judiciary—have mobilized against radical Islamic networks operating in our territory. Our European partners that participated in this campaign did not have the same perception of the threat, especially the British, who adopted a prudent, or even « wait-and see » approach. Rachid Ramda, one of GIA’s top leaders, arrested in England in execution of an international arrest warrant for his alleged role in the 1995 attacks, was not extradited until 10 years later, after the London attacks.
However, Great Britain and mainly London became the hub of the ring that transported European Mujahideen to Afghanistan. Some of the prime movers in the Islamic movement, such as Abou Qutada, Abou Hamza, and even Ayman El Zawahiri, headed these networks and their terrorist schemes from the British capital.
Inquiries conducted in France on the structure of these Afghan rings revealed the key role played by military training camps run by al-Qaeda. It was in Afghanistan that, beginning with the creation of the “Global Islamic Front against the Jews and the Crusades” in 1998, Osama Bin Laden planned all the attacks and attempted attacks against the United States, the ones targeting the American Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, against the American ship “USS Cole” in Yemen in 2000, and the attack that Ahmed Ressam was supposed to execute for the passage to the third millennium.
The European networks had several missions. There was a mission for logistics and recruitment of new members, and an operational mission to carry out the attacks in Europe.
In 2000 a vast network of radical Islamic militants based in Germany, France, Italy, and Belgium was dismantled. It had been planning a massacre on the square of the Strasburg Cathedral.
Two years later, another network, whose members were trained in northern Georgia in camps headed by Abou Moussab El Zarkaoui and by Chechens placed under the authority of Chamil Bassaiev, was neutralized in France as it was getting ready to launch chemical attacks in Paris.
The American military intervention in Iraq considerably heightened the activism of these networks, which became not only more radicalized but also more widely dispersed, more polymorphous, and highly evolved, in terms of both their structure and their operational relationships with other groups operating in other countries.
Thus, in 2003 Iraq emerged as a new “Jihad land,” and became more attractive than the pre-2001 “Jihad lands” of Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, and Kashmir. Moreover, these new Jihadist recruits, after an initial phase of terrorist operations in Abou Moussab El Zarkaoui’s networks in Iraq, received orders to return to Europe to perpetrate attacks. The prospect of suicide attacks in Europe is no longer a matter of speculation.
The current situation is still worrisome. The terrorist threat at the hands of networks affiliated to al-Qaeda has not declined. It has diversified. These networks have found new sanctuaries, in the Pakistani-Afghan border area, in the Horn of Africa, and in the Maghreb, as well as in the Sahel region.
Furthermore, the boundary between transnational crime and Islamic terrorism has become blurred with increasing interaction between criminal organizations and terrorist networks. This new situation could affect Latin America.
Although in 2009 Iraq is no longer the most active front for Islamic terrorists, the Pakistani-Afghan area has become a new crisis point, with the Taliban offensive in northwestern Pakistan and the renewed attacks within Pakistan by al-Qaeda related terrorist groups.
At the same time, clandestine Pakistani organizations, such as Lashkar-E-Tayiba, are exporting terrorist violence to other countries in Asia and Europe, and even to Australia. Today this organization is identified as the one that commandeered the Bombay attacks.
Another source of special concern is the situation in Somalia, where two Islamic organizations close to al-Qaeda, the “Al-Chabab” and “Hizbul Islam “movements, are trying to bring down the Mogadishu government by force. Recent information has also disclosed the infiltration of al-Qaeda members from Pakistani tribal areas into Somalia and Yemen.
Another focal point is of particular concern for North Africa and Europe. Since 2007, the “Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat,” an offshoot of the Algerian GIA, has allied itself with al-Qaeda, creating a new terrorist entity called “Al Qaeda in the Islamist Maghreb Countries” (AQMI). This new organization directly linked to al-Qaeda is bent on creating unrest in Algeria and the Sahel-Saharan zone where its units are established, primarily in Mauritania. It is also seeking to infiltrate West Africa, and especially Senegal.
But the metastatic spread of terrorist hotbeds in the world is accompanied by a new phenomenon, and that is the rapidly accelerating and expanding links between transnational criminal groups, mainly illicit drug traffickers, and terrorist groups affiliated to al-Qaeda. This situation affects all continents. In the Pakistani-Afghan area, the Taliban and al-Qaeda obtain most of their resources from trafficking of heroin derived from the poppies cultivated in Afghanistan.
As in the Horn of Africa, the bounty of the pirates operating in the waters outside Somalia threatens to end up in the hands of terrorist groups operating in Somalia and Yemen.
In North Africa, recent reports refer to opportunistic, commercial relationships between Tuareg traffickers implicated in the new African ring trafficking cocaine from Colombia and AQMI cells operating in the Sahel.
In Europe, finally, radical Islamic groups are supplied with arms and explosives by criminal organizations based in the Balkans.
For Latin America, the situation appears more complex. To date, there are no radical Islamic networks linked to al-Qaeda in the American subcontinent. These structures are found to the North, and the United States has dismantled terrorist networks linked to al-Qaeda since 2001, mainly in Virginia and Ohio.
But geopolitical factors, together with the situation in the Middle East, such as a worsening of the nuclear dispute with Iran or new tensions in the Sham region, could have repercussions on security in Latin America. This was the case with Argentina in 1992 and 1994, with the attacks against the Israel Embassy and the building housing the Argentine Mutual Israeli Association (AMIA).
Lebanese communities living in Argentina or in the “Three Borders” region that are involved in trafficking of different kinds could be activated by terrorist networks originating in the Middle East. The links between the African cocaine route and AQMI referred to earlier illustrate the new type of contacts between drug traffickers in Latin America and al-Qaeda. Of course these commercial relationships develop sporadically, without a common political agenda.
Moreover, although there is no evidence for such a development, one cannot rule out that a shared hatred toward the United States could facilitate the formation of objective coalitions between radical Islamic groups and criminal organizations, or even local terrorist networks, operating in Latin America. Isolated links manipulated from outside by radical Islamic groups seeking to obtain a political benefit, terrorist acts staged in Latin America, acts that are rarely heard of as they are not claimed, would add to the security problems resulting from the growing activity of criminal organizations, and especially drug cartels.
II. Strategies for fighting terrorism: the French example
Faced with this growing threat that poses a challenge to the rule of law and seriously endangers our public and individual freedoms, the state has the duty to defend us. Organizing a response is a royal prerogative, an obligation on the part of government to take decisive, concrete action. There is no justification of any kind for terrorist violence in a democratic state.
The fight against terrorism is a struggle that requires political courage, especially when the threat, albeit real and serious, is all the more difficult to quantify because it manifests itself in violent acts. This is a situation familiar to the United States prior to September 11, 2001.
In the absence of deadly attacks, it is difficult for public opinion to accept any restrictions to their freedom, even if they are limited and justified by the efforts to combat this scourge. This paradox has to do with the fact that risk prevention, which is the objective pursued by counter-terrorist services, is not a very attractive political issue, since the assumption is that the risk is not realized.
Thus, it is difficult in this context to demand additional resources, more legal or material resources. This is precisely the case in a number of European countries. However, to take the opposite extreme of opting not to fight terrorism is neither acceptable nor justified from a security standpoint. Europe and especially France have never accepted the American concept of the “war against terrorism,” which was used to authorize many deviations that are now condemned by the Obama administration. This is not a relevant concept, because terrorism is not a war per se that requires use of primarily military means. Terrorism is a type of indirect, asymmetrical strategy used by non-state organizations to promote an ideology or to make good on a claim or demand. In some cases, as in Afghanistan and the tribal areas or in Latin America, where organizations such as FARC or the “Shining Path” have become armed militias, use of military force may be well founded. To counter Islamic terrorism, different means need to be employed, and priority should be given to intelligence.
The French example that I will briefly explain appears to me to be a good system. It is both effective, reactive, anticipatory, and respectful of the fundamental values and principles of our Republic. It was never an issue of public debate, and all of the majority groups in Parliament on both the Left and the Right have supported it.
It is true that France has extensive experience with terrorism, separatist terrorism in Corsica, the fallout in France of ETA’s terrorist action in Spain, Palestinian terrorism during the Cold War, that of the extreme Left with the Direct Action group during that same time, and since 1993, radical Islamic terrorism linked to al-Qaeda.
In 1986, after a series of particularly deadly attacks in Paris committed by an organization close to Hezbollah, the French Parliament profoundly amended our criminal procedure by giving France a legal system devoted to fighting terrorism. This arrangement is based on the centralization of terrorist cases in Paris, where they are investigated, tried, and judged. The situation is unprecedented in Europe.
Moreover, police custody was extended to the maximum period for temporary or preventive detention, increased to three years in the case of persons accused of terrorism. Other legal provisions completed this law, provisions regarding night searches, authorized in certain circumstances, recourse to intrusive measures such as public sound systems in private places and vehicles, or internet surveillance.
In addition, in 1994 and 1996, as part of the reform of our criminal code, terrorism became the subject of a separate chapter devoted to it. To avoid the pitfalls of defining an act of terrorism, legislators described as “terrorist” common law violations already established in our Code (attacks on persons and property), whenever “they are intentionally related to an individual or collective enterprise whose purpose is to seriously disrupt public order through intimidation or terror.” Legislators did, however, add two specific provisions, the association of terrorists and terrorist actions affecting the environment.
The crime of association of terrorists has proven to be a legal weapon well-adapted to control of logistical and financial activities of networks operating upstream of the action. It makes it possible to develop a preventive strategy, as it allows the Judiciary, using its regular procedures, to detect and neutralize clandestine groups whose objective is to facilitate a terrorist operation, even when the operation is not known or the objective has not yet been determined.
This proactive strategy, which has enabled France to foil a number of attempted terrorist acts since 1996–the date of the last terrorist attack in France–has been successful because of an operational synergy developed among all the anti-terrorist stakeholders, including first and foremost the intelligence services, and especially the Department for Surveillance of the Territory (now known as the DCRI), and specialized judicial structures. I would add that the effectiveness of this arrangement has been reinforced by intensive international cooperation in Europe, but also with other foreign partners, especially the United States. This cooperation is meant to cover both mutual judicial assistance and extradition. On the latter issue, progress is expected in both Europe and the Americas, and especially in common law countries like Great Britain and Canada.
The fight against terrorism in all of its forms is an obligation on the part of all governments in both the Americas and other continents. This struggle is at the top of national political agendas. What used to be considered as belonging solely to the domain of security, along with fighting crime, has today taken on major political dimensions.
For since 2001, terrorism has invaded the political sphere. The Bush administration’s decision to intervene militarily in Iraq, in the name of the “war against terrorism,” is especially relevant here. Nobody today contests the fact that this phenomenon affects relations among countries and has taken on a geopolitical dimension. The profound transformation of the very foundations of the international system, together with the emergence of new threats, such as radical Islamic terrorism, transnational crime increasingly associated with it, and new health or ecological risks, has led France to redefine its concept of defense by incorporating national security in it.
These changes gave rise to the publication in 2008 of another white book on “defense and national security,” which is required because of “the uncertainty in the world we live in, a world that has not necessarily become more dangerous, but is certainly more unpredictable, more unstable, and more contradictory than the one designed ...” at the end of the Cold War, to quote the book’s introduction.
Thus, this book introduces a major innovation in the definition of our country’s strategy. It sets forth, and I quote, “not just a defense strategy, but also a national security strategy.” Its purpose “is to protect against risks and threats likely to endanger the life of the nation,” and especially terrorist risks. It presents a dynamic, voluntarist approach to the protean threats confronting us, and primarily international terrorism.
his approach entails an effort to anticipate and prevent the threat, and a rapid, appropriate, and uncompromising response to the terrorist threat, by mobilizing the panoply of government means and international cooperation, as already indicated.
However, it prohibits the recovery for purely national considerations of terrorist manifestations and activities or their instruments that are still used for terrorism, for political purposes. Thus, France remains faithful to its traditions, as it has always placed its strategy to fight terrorism in a context of full respect for its fundamental values. I believe that this is the approach that should be adopted by national communities in their efforts to counter the challenge presented to lawful governments by terrorist organizations, and especially those affiliated to al-Qaeda, that gravely threaten the peace and stability of the world and our basic values.
Thank you for your attention.