January 19, 2010
When Terrorists Have a Falling OutBy Lona Manning
Forty years ago, violent radical groups wanted to destroy America, but they ended up destroying themselves...with a little help from the FBI.
We have faced down zealots before. Think of the passionate uprisings now consigned to the history books. Where are the Boxers, who numbered in the hundreds of thousands? Where are the Thuggees? Why is "terrorist bomber" no longer synonymous with "Italian" for the New York Police Department?
But, you might reply, the Western world has more scruples than it did back in the days when the British lashed sepoys and blew them to kingdom come. And the modern jihadist movement has a much larger pool from which to recruit. Forty percent of British Muslim students favor introducing sharia law, for example. But the jihadist movement, like any organization that is authoritarian, paranoid, and nihilistic, carries the seeds of its own destruction.
No doubt there are bitter battles within al-Qaeda over tactics and strategy, as well as clashes of ego disguised as ideological differences. One al-Qaeda foot soldier now in Yemen had a "falling-out with other al-Qaeda members" in Afghanistan, and he fears it would be "risky" to return where his old comrades regard him as a "traitor." Hmmm...a "falling out." Did he borrow somebody's second-best AK-47 without asking? Whatever the cause, he now fears for his life.
Violent intramural disagreements among Muslim radicals of various stripes provides further hope that the jihadist movement is incapable of mustering enough organizational strength to pose an existential threat to a nation determined to repel it.
Osama bin Laden supposedly squats in a cave somewhere in Pakistan or Afghanistan. He's no longer where the action is. He was reduced to publicly pleading for Islamic unity when al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia inexplicably failed to win over the local Sunni populace by "detonating chlorine truck bombs outside schools."
Consider how organizations work -- or rather, consider how human beings behave in organizations. Think about how City Hall feels about the State Legislature, how the Legislature feels about Congress, and reflect on how the branch plant feels about headquarters. Even when the different departments are one floor apart and not miles away, think about how shipping gripes about accounting and everyone gripes about the mail room or the IT department. Your immediate supervisor may be a shade less fanatical than Osama bin Laden -- I couldn't say. But it is a truth universally acknowledged that when an organization has different departments, those departments complain about each other.
Now comes a charismatic imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, U.S.-born and educated, who turns out to be the spiritual mentor of the Fort Hood shooter and the Underpants Bomber. Anwar al-Awlaki is the Hot New Guy on the jihad front now, and bin Laden is day-before-yesterday's news. Maybe bin Laden issued a communiqué about Fort Hood or the Christmas Day incident -- did he approve? disapprove? -- but if he did, it didn't make the evening news.
The Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda, just like in Mesopotamia and the rest of frail humanity, is subject to the same jealousies, rivalries, and misunderstandings that arise in any large, far-flung organization. And somehow, the rise of Anwar al Awlaki has got me thinking about Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, and how the alliance between the two radical celebrities became a deadly feud in a matter of months.
The radical movements of the late '60s were non-democratic because democracy was a bourgeois institution. The alpha males with the most violent line of rhetoric grabbed the leadership positions and helped themselves to movement women who were used as chattel.
Discipline in the Black Panther party was enforced with beatings, whippings, and occasionally rape and murder. Their breakfast program for children, still cited today as an example of their good intentions, was financed through extortion of Oakland businesses, who were threatened with arson and boycotts if they didn't pony up. When bookkeeper Betty Van Patter questioned the misuse of funds intended for a Panther-run school, she ended up floating in San Francisco Bay.
Those who left the movement were denounced as government agents. Stokely Carmichael, another prominent revolutionary who briefly allied with the Panthers, found it prudent to leave the country.
Forty years after the fact, it's comical to read a conversation between President Obama's friend Bernadine Dohrn and Carl Oglesby of Students for a Democratic Society, in which she asks him, "Where are you going to be when the bombs start going off?
But at the time, the authorities couldn't afford to be complacent about violent sabotage and the cold-blooded murder of police officers. American cities were in flames, with catastrophic economic consequences.
J. Edgar Hoover responded with COINTELPRO.
The FBI's counterintelligence program deliberately inflamed the divisions within the Panther party by playing on their tactical disagreements and fear of government infiltration, as well as encouraging the friction between the Panthers and other black groups through planting false rumors and sending anonymous letters. COINTELPRO's mission was to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of the Black nationalists." The FBI also spied on the SDS, the Weathermen, and other radical groups, including far-right ones.
COINTELPRO's chief popular historian is none other than ousted professor Ward Churchill, and you'd be hard-pressed to find an online reference to COINTELPRO and the Panthers which doesn't parrot the line that the innocent idealistic Panthers, with their breakfast programs for children, "who carried guns only for deterrent and symbolic purposes," were driven to violent acts by government provocateurs. According to PBS, for example, FBI-fomented "discord ... led to the murders" of two Panthers by a rival gang known as United Slaves at the University of California" (described here).
But let's do a thought experiment.
Suppose the FBI decided to foment "discord" between the Lutheran Ladies Choir and the Catholic Women's Auxiliary. Suppose they sent anonymous letters to the Lutherans saying "those Catholics say your coffee is too weak" and whispered to the Catholics that "those Lutheran gals say your bingo game is crooked, man." Would this "create discord"? Sure, it would get ugly -- real ugly -- but not this kind of ugly:
COINTELPRO did not take a handful of peace-loving, free-breakfast-serving idealists and turn them into torturers and murderers. But like Archimedes, the FBI knew where to stand to lever the vanity and brutality of the Panthers into open warfare.
Counterterrorism expert Jeffrey Breinholt has suggested that by helping to turn the raging fury that was the radical movement upon itself, COINTELPRO saved innocent lives, "although its efforts were somewhat overshadowed by very real and demonstrable excesses[.]"
In fact, Breinholt wrote, government and judicial scrutiny of law enforcement techniques in the Vietnam era resulted in "a series of legal reforms that are firmly institutionalized and are now a permanent part of our legal landscape. They make a return to [COINTELPRO-like tactics] virtually impossible. This should be reassuring to all but those who are inclined to believe the worst about federal law-enforcement."
But how bizarre and disquieting it is that as the president struggles with the current face of terror, he has accepted political help from the unrepentant veterans of the last wave of terrorism to threaten the country. (Dohrn and her partner Bill Ayers were last seen in Egypt with Obama fundraiser Jodie Evans, demanding to bring humanitarian aid to Hamas.)
Though today's jihadist is motivated by his uncompromising interpretation of Islam (as opposed to zeal for the Panther 10-point program or the Weather Manifesto), he is similar to the violent radicals of the '60s in his utter contempt for the West and its civil and legal traditions.
So let's hope that there are undercover agents working on today's university campuses, where radicals woo disaffected young men to become the next Christmas Day Bomber. Millions of people in the Arab world may go on blaming the West for all their troubles, perhaps for generations to come, but the jihadists' threat may be countered and defeated in time, as long as there is a will to do so.