One of the blind spots in the global war on terrorism is the unwillingness of the United States to integrate the Palestinian terrorist organizations into the matrix of groups with which we are at war. This is explained by way of definition–the conflict we are engaged in with our Coalition partners is against the global terrorist network. The cluster of terror groups targeting Israel–Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) among others–are not globally networked. They are a local or regional problem, and not part of the fundamentalist threat aimed at the United States. Thus, they are not on the radar screen. So goes the explanation.
This reasoning is a fig leaf at best–and I direct readers to Michael Ledeen’s invaluable The War Against the Terror Masters for a full explanation why. Some of these groups have active networks that reach every continent, and into the United States. And almost all of them receive support in one fashion or another from Syria and Iran. In fact, they have for decades. And while the United States may choose not to involve itself overtly in cutting these strands of the international terrorism web, the recent suicide bombing in Haifa, which killed and wounded around 70 people, demonstrates that this is a threat Israel cannot afford to ignore.
The Israeli attack on the Ayn al-Sahib terrorist training camp in Syria was the first of what the Israeli government has called “expanded military operations” against terrorism. Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said that Israel “will take whatever measure is necessary to defend our citizens regardless of the geographic location of these training camps,” including strikes in Syria and Iran. Syrian officials claimed that the Ayn al-Sahib camp had been previously used by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) but had been abandoned for the last seven years. The Associated Press reported that “for the past decades the valley of olive and fig groves has only been used by picnickers and walkers.” (It is strange that the Mossad, which is blamed for masterminding every event in the Mideast, if not the world, cannot figure out the difference between a terrorist base and an olive garden.) Most press reports are marking the location of the terrorist camp as “deep within Syria.” The tone would be much different if the stories described the camp as being close to the Syrian border with Lebanon, along the main access road between Damascus and the Bekka Valley. A 1997 report described Ayn al-Sahib as “the most important base of [the PFLP] and ranks as one of the preeminent training camps where it houses extreme fundamentalists from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Algeria. The training is run by officers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. They are instructed in street fighting, plane hijacking, hostage taking, and blowing up specific targets–Israeli, American, European, and other targets in certain Arab countries.” Clearly, this was no place for a picnic.
But let’s say the PFLP had closed down that facility. Their spokesmen seemed to know immediately exactly how much damage had been done in the attack, but that aside. The Israeli strike was aimed at the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the group that carried out the Haifa bombing. The PIJ is rumored to be planning to relocate their headquarters operations out of the Palestinian Authority, in response to the very effective Israeli tactic of targeting their leadership in retaliation for attacks on Israeli civilians. The PIJ may recently have set up new quarters in Ayn al-Saheb, and this was Israel’s way of telling them they can run but they cannot hide. Whether any PIJ members died in the attack has yet to be revealed.
The attack was also a message to Syria, and to other countries who use terrorism as an instrument in executing their international strategy. The old paradigm of state sovereignty will not deter military or other action taken in pursuit of violent non-state actors. Terrorists can no longer exploit the rules of the international system established to govern relations between states. In this, Israel is following the U.S. lead. Syrian sovereignty is not worth any more than Taliban Afghan or Hussein Iraqi sovereignty was when those regimes chose to facilitate international terrorism. Any other state pondering whether to allow Islamic Jihad or other terror groups to find safe haven must know that it will neither be safe nor a haven. Israel’s new policy–called “escalation” by some, but “expansion” is a more accurate term–places countries that harbor terrorists in a position either to deplore the presence of terrorists on their soil and thank Israel for helping out; to acknowledge their support for terrorism; or to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist, complain to the U.N., and keep on supporting violence against innocents, which seems to be the Syrian approach.
On a related note: When the Israelis bombed the French-built Iraqi “Osirak” nuclear reactor in 1981, the U.S. official response was critical but privately there was a sense of relief. Had Israel not taken that farsighted action, the “imminent threat” that the president’s critics believe is required before decisive action can be taken against rogue states would have been well evident even by 1991. And rather than reviewing evidence of Saddam’s WMD program last week, Congress might be looking at the results of a WMD strike, and asking, Why didn’t somebody do something before the threat was imminent? Rogue states and terrorists don’t play by the rules. The international system was set up to maintain the peace, not facilitate terror, and no civilized country under siege should feel constrained by the norms its deadly enemies despise.