THIS was another low, dark week in the history of terrorism.
In the light of this carnage, it is reasonable to ask - three years after the 9/11 attacks - if the world is now any safer. Or, indeed, if the invasion of Iraq has actually made matters worse by dividing the west, inflaming a new generation of young Jihadists, and creating a raft of no-go zones in Iraq where they can arm and train. In New York, President George Bush made fighting terrorism the theme of his election campaign, but how can such rhetoric be turned into reality? Just how can the west defeat terrorism? And is the solution military or political?
Let us begin by putting this week into context. Since 9/11, no terrorist outrage has taken place in the United States or Britain, suggesting that security is by no means lax. Britons who lived through repeated IRA outrages should not dismiss this success lightly. Feeling psychologically under siege is a bit different from actually having bombs go off, and might owe more to the advent of 24-hour news than terrorist successes. Even the bus bombings in Israel are the first for a very long time and, in fact, against a relatively "soft" target in the normally peaceful Negev desert region. In central Israel, the controversial security fence seems to have made it far more difficult for the suicide bombers.
While none of this is cause for complacency, it does say that the security situation is not as bleak as some pretend. It is also the case that the various terrorist outrages are not masterminded centrally, but are the work of a host of diverse grouplets (although the Chechen guerrillas have been in contact with al-Qaeda). In one sense, that makes them difficult to penetrate or destroy. On the other hand, it reduces their ability to mount outrages such as 9/11 or gather the industrial capacity to build "dirty" nuclear explosives. Over the next few years, as biometric passports become common, and as the new anti-terrorist security agencies in the US and Europe get into their stride, the tide will turn remorselessly against the Jihadists. But the next American president must succeed in capturing or killing Osama bin Laden, if only as a symbolic way of showing the Jihad is doomed to failure.
That said, the war against terror also requires a political front, and it is here that matters are more confused than 18 months ago. The current wave of terror emanates from the cultural and economic crisis caused by the painful transition to modern society in the Middle East and central Asia. Civil institutions are weak and democracy limited, after centuries as colonies of either Turkey or Russia. Young men are frustrated economically and lack a secure personal identity. None of this justifies terror, nor can terror be appeased (as the French have discovered). But it suggests that Mr Bush’s call to further the democratisation of the Middle East is central to beating terrorism in the long run.
The route to such reform is probably more through economic change (to create a viable civil society and middle class) than by lecturing the Arab world in a patronising tone. This means the European Union’s policy of pouring cash into the Swiss bank accounts of the corrupt Palestinian Authority needs to be replaced with an emphasis on free trade. It means the west needs to take advantage of the new oil wealth flowing into the region, as petroleum prices surge, to urge market reforms and create jobs for young Arab men and women.
For such a medium-term strategy to succeed and cut the ground from under the terrorists means resolving the crises in Iraq, Palestine and Chechnya. But neither early elections in Iraq nor an Israeli pull-out from Gaza will work unless Iran is brought into line. The security imbroglio in Iraq has many possible causes - the early disbanding of the Iraqi army, or the disagreements between the Pentagon and the State Department to name only two. But these failures have been actively exploited by the clerical regime in Tehran. It is Iran which armed al-Sadr and other insurgent groups. It is Iran which funds the terror groups in Palestine. It is Iran which fears a democratic Iraq on its border. And it is Iran which is racing to build an atomic bomb.
IF THE west wants to neutralise terrorism in the long run, the problem lies beyond bin Laden in his arid Afghan cave in the palaces and laboratories of Tehran. Not even Mr Bush will pretend there is a military solution to Iran’s meddling. But Europe and the US do need to unite diplomatically to put pressure on Tehran to stop developing nuclear weapons and to stop funding terrorism, especially in Palestine. If the United States and EU are seen to act in concert, the Arab world will join them in isolating the fundamentalist Iranian regime.
As for the Chechen crisis, it is obvious that Russia’s heavy-handed intervention throughout the Caucasus has not brought any peace or stability. Russia is entitled to protect itself, but a more united west needs to tell President Putin that his divide-and-rule tactics throughout the region are part of the problem. If countries such as Georgia can be stabilised and made democratic, the Chechen boil may eventually be lanced.
However, the actions of hate-filled terrorists prepared to hold hundreds of children hostage are a reminder that this terrorism must be defeated twice over: militarily in the here and now, and then by the spreading the concepts of democracy, economic liberalism and freedom of the individual.