It’s time to hit terror’s shining symbol

By Joel Brinkley

When the World Food Program suspended operations in south Somalia this month because Islamic extremists were hassling and murdering aid workers, 4 million people were threatened with imminent starvation.

“The situation for these people may become dramatic,” Giorgio Bertin, an African Catholic Bishop, warned a few days ago.

Who holds the lion’s share of blame for this? The easy answer is Somalia’s al-Shabaab militia, that Islamic extremist group. But look deeper, and a large share of blame falls on Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush.

How’s that? Think back to the days before the Sept. 11 attacks. Osama bin Laden was brewing trouble. Al-Qaida attacked the USS Cole, Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia and the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, among other sites. Bin Laden was the face of Islamic terrorism. There were few imitators; al-Qaida had the field largely to itself. In 1998 the United States offered $5 million for bin Laden’s capture — the highest bounty Washington had ever offered.

Then came Sept 11, 2001, and bin Laden became the world’s most prominent villain. “I want justice,” President Bush declared on Sept. 18. “There’s an old poster out West that said, ‘Wanted, dead or alive.”’

Inspirational symbol

The rest of the history is well known. Bin Laden had ordered the most serious attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor. The U.S. attacked Afghanistan, bin Laden slipped over the border to Pakistan and two years later Bush more or less dropped his interest, transferring his attention and troops to Iraq. Today, bin Laden still resides in western Pakistan — and serves as an inspirational symbol for Islamic militants worldwide.

Is it any wonder that Islamic terrorists inspired by him have sprouted like mushrooms in the forest after a summer shower?

The al-Shabaab militia in Somalia is one the vilest of these new sects. Its fighters are kidnapping and killing aid workers whose only mission is to care for the nation’s poor. It is imposing the most virulent form of Islamic law. The prototypical example of that, last year: Al-Shabaab adherents stoned a 13-year-old girl to death as penalty for telling police that she had been raped.

Well, on Sept. 10, 2001, al-Shabaab didn’t exist.

On Sept 10, 2001, Europeans were not particularly worried about Muslims immigrants. “Western Europe today has a Muslim population of 10 million to 12 million,” the journal Middle East Policy wrote in June 2001. “In a democratic Europe, an anti-Muslim pogrom seems quite unlikely.” What’s under way today is not a pogrom. But it’s close.

On Sept. 10, 2001, Jemaah Islamiyah, a militant Islamic group in Indonesia, was writing letters to the editor to make its points. The next year it began blowing up hotels.

Today, bin Laden must wake up every morning with a smile on his face for all he has inspired. Sitting there in Pakistan, this man mocks us. He does not need to plan new attacks, only issue a new tape every once in a while, as he did Sunday, lauding the attempted bombing of a plane bound for Detroit on Christmas Day. But it doesn’t really matter what he says. The point of these tapes is to show: I am still alive. The United States is powerless against us!

Capture or kill bin Laden

Right now, the most effective thing the United States could do to turn the tide in the so-called war on terror is to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, the terrorists’ shining symbol. We know where he is, more or less, in North Waziristan. Pakistan refuses to go after him. Last week the Pakistani military told Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that it would not attack North Waziristan “for 6 to 12 months.” Read that: Never.

Now the United States and NATO need to do the job, as President Obama has warned. Pakistan won’t like it. But nine years of working with them, at a cost of $14 billion, has produced few if any useful results. I’m not talking about an invasion. Infiltrate the region with special-operations forces, as the Bush administration did in 2008. Pakistanis screamed in protest.

Let them scream. Over almost a decade, we have given Pakistan every chance to do the job. Now it’s time to do it ourselves.

X Joel Brinkley is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times and now a professor of journalism at Stanford University.

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