Europe facilitated spread of terror as govts just didn't care – Alan Dershowitz
Terrorism is a threat that no one in the world can hide from, as everywhere, there is the danger of extremist attack – something that was not here just 40 years ago. How it was allowed to grow, to become a reality? Who is to blame for the growth of the terrorist threat in the Middle East? And how can it be defeated? We ask these questions to a prominent lawyer and author. Alan Dershowitz is on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevarnadze: Alan Deshowitz, it’s so great to have you on our show today.
Alan Deshowitz: Thank you.
SS: Alright, so the recent wave of terror attacks in Europe, it has left the whole world in shock. Do you think there was a way to prevent them?
AD: Yes, but it would have required action twenty or 30 years ago. Europe ignored terrorism until it came to its own borders. In fact, Europe, Western Europe, was complicit in terrorism. Terrorism in Middle East, when jews were being attacked, Israelis were being attacked, Americans were being attacked, even, in Lebanon - Western Europe not only ignored it, they were complicit in it. Italy freed Achille Lauro murderers; France, Britain, Germany freed the terrorists at the Munich Olympics. Europe failed to understand that terrorism against anybody is terrorism against everybody. So in large part, Western Europe is responsible for the current wave of terrorism, now directed against it.
SS: I just want to make sure, when you say “the Western Europe”, you mean the governments and people who are in charge…
AD: Oh, only the governments, I am not criticizing the people at all.
SS: So, you said France has the worst record of any country in Europe on terrorism - virtually, every terrorist who has been convicted and sent to prison in Paris, has gotten out. So do you feel like it’s a failure of the French security services and the justice system in the first place?
AD: It goes well beyond the security services. It was the failure of Western European governments and, I point the finger at people, the citizens of Western Europe, who didn’t seem to care about terrorism as long as terrorism didn’t affect them directly. There was a kind of Eurocentric selfishness that helped to encourage terrorists in the Middle East, not only to engage in terrorism in the Middle East, but remember, they blew up synagogues in Italy and France and many other parts of Europe - and countries didn’t seem to care, as long as it was directed against israelis, jews, americans, but not french, italians - they were essentially making a deal with the devil: they said “leave us alone, we’ll leave you alone, we’ll export terrorism”, but now terrorism has become imported to the very countries that facilitated and encouraged it 20 or 30 years ago.
SS: So you’re saying, basically, that most of the attacks were aimed at either jewish people or american - but there were many instances, I mean all the bombings in London metro or Madrid - I don’t think they were particularly directed at jews or americans.
AD: Those were relatively recent. I am talking about when terrorism was established as a “legitimate method of dealing with protests” - there was no european concern. Start with the Olympics in Germany, move to the hijacking of airplanes - those were acts of terrorism that foretold what was going to happen: and Europe just didn’t give a damn.
SS:You’ve said many times that international community would actually be much better off if no nations were ever to give in to terrorists.
AD: That’s right.
SS: But when we’re talking about “giving in to terrorists”, does anyone really ever wanted to give in to terrorists?
AD: Yes. Countries that are willing to say “we’ll give in to your terrorists, just leave your terrorists out of our country”. Yes - that was very commonly a European approach.
SS: Can you name me the nations that you are actually thinking about?
AD: Sure. Germany, for freeing the terrorists who murdered the Israeli athletes at the Olympic. Italy, that freed the Achille Lauro, Great Britain who freed hijackers, France who was worried much more about its own borders than international terrorism...virtually, every country in Western Europe is guilty of complicity in the early terrorism that set a foundation. The UN…
SS: So we’re talking about early terrorism and setting a foundation - we’re not really talking about the recent events that took place in the last 5 or 6 years?
AD: Those were consequence of the early terrorism. Now, we’re seeing what happens when you tolerate and accept terrorism and reward it.
SS: You can’t always answer to what your predecessors did, right? These people, who were in power recently, they did everything they could do to prevent further terrorist attacks…
AD: I’m not sure about that. I think they did everything in their power to prevent terrorist attacks against their own people and within their own countries.
SS: We have countries like Italy, Germany, and other countries in the world too, are actually ready to pay for the lives of their citizens - is that wrong? Like, cutting a deal with terrorist to release the hostage from your country, paying ransom - is that wrong?
AD: It’s very complicated. It would be much better ever, under any circumstances and no cooperation, ever paid ransom - but that’s not what’s happening. So you have situations when some countries are doing it, others are not, some are doing it openly, some are doing it beneath the surface, some allow corporations to do it, some will prosecute you if you pay for it - we have a mixed picture which simply encourages terrorists to pick and choose who to hold as hostages.
SS: But just this particular example - paying ransom for hostages. What do you think of that? Is it justified or not?
AD: There’s two sides to that issue. If it was my relative, I would probably want to pay, if I were a government - I would refuse to pay. So, it depends on whether you talk about governments or individuals. You can’t pose it as a moral question, it’s an institutional question. The morality cuts both ways, I can see arguments on both sides; but from a government’s point of view - government should not be rewarding terrorism.
SS: Just to make sure - so you think countries should accept the loss of their citizens in the name of what? Greater good?
AD: The name of preventing further attacks...no, in the name of saving others of their citizens; that is, sometimes, tragically, you have to sacrifice one citizens to save many many others. We do that every day, when we send soldiers into combat. So, these are hard balances that have to be struck.
SS: But, I’m sure, like, you, as a lawyer, thinking as a lawyer, you would not agree to that - because you’re a great lawyer, and if you wanted to, you had the power to give to hope to a murderer, if he chose you as his representative?
AD: Because there’s a process, there’s a fair process…
SS: ...Yeah, but then when someone is taken hostage by ISIS - he should be refused the hope for his life?
AD: No, I think, that if I were, as I said, a relative of his, I would do everything in power to rescue him, but then you have to ask yourself - what should the government policy be? I think there would be fewer hostages in general if governments refused to pay ransoms.
SS:Talking about governments in general and how they act towards terrorism - should nations and countries be sanctioned or chastised for, for example, creating conditions where terrorism could thrive? I am thinking, particularly, Iraq. Saddam Hussein, as horrible of a man as he was, and I’m sure not many people would disagree with that, he ruled Iraq, at the time when Iraq was not a terrorist hub - it became a terrorist hub precisely after American invasion. So, who is to blame, in your opinion?
AD: Again, it’s a very complicated situation. We’ve come in the last 15 years to appreciate tyranny over terrorism - that is, we have no come to appreciate, for example, the current leaders of Egypt, who are in many ways, authoritarian, but they have reduced the amount of terrorism. We have to appreciate, perhaps, even, some of the rulers of other Middle East countries that suppressed terrorism. We may some day come to appreciate - hard to believe it - Assad in Syria, and of course, we have very mixed feelings about how we tolerate authoritarianism in the name of reducing terrorism. The world is a complicated place, moral choices are not easy. President Roosevelt once was asked about the tyrannical leader of Central American country - and somebody said “but he’s a son of a bitch!” and president Roosevelt said “Yeah, but he’s our son of a bitch”. That kind of balance is struck by virtually every country in the world.
SS: When you look at the countries, each country has its own ambitions, goals - it’s so difficult for the states to agree on the most simple things. And when you take something as complicated as terrorism, is it even possible to create a united front against terrorism?
AD: I think the closest analogy we can have is to the XVIII and XIX century pirates - when pirates used to endanger all kinds of seafaring people, and all countries in the world essentially united to try to prevent piracy - and it really destroyed piracy over the years. I think if every country in the world held a firm, firm position against terrorism, refused to recognised any country that was founded on terrorism, refused to accept terrorists as a legitimate political partners - it would have gone a long way to abolishing terrorism as a tactic. Instead - we reward it.
SS: So you’re saying it’s not necessary for countries to actually help each other in fighting terrorism, but they must be like a sort of Geneva convention on terrorism that every country on their own should follow - is that what you’re saying?
AD: Geneva conventions don’t work, unfortunately. Countries have to get together and agree to implement a joint commitment against terrorism - that hasn’t happened.
SS: You’ve said that it’s time for Obama to actually face the issue of terrorism head-on. What is he not doing, or what is he doing wrong?
AD: I think the U.S. has done a fairly decent job in stopping terrorism. First, it has not paid ransoms, second, used targeted killings against terrorist leaders, with some success, it has apparently destroyed as many as 6,000 ISIS fighters - but any country can do more. I think, though, that the Obama administration has done a better job than other European countries in fighting terrorism.
SS: But do you feel like that, maybe, the U.S. took too long to respond to the threat of the Islamic State, and the bigger question is - why was it overlooked by the international communities’ intelligence services?
AD: The intelligence services have not proved their worth when it comes to fighting terrorism and fighting islamic extremism. We missed too many signals, too often and that includes all services - that includes Israel, U.S., Great Britain, Russia - all the most famous intelligence services missed a lot of signals, because that kind of terrorism grows indigenously from within, and it’s very-very hard to identify.
SS: So now we have this powerful American army that’s spearheading the bombing campaign against the Islamic State today. Why isn’t it winning?
AD: Well, it is winning, I think. I think it slowed down ISIS, I think it’s killed 6 thousand of its fighters and many of its leaders, it has used drone attacks and targeted killing - it’s a long fight, it won’t be won overnight, but I think, clearly, the trend has changed and ISIS is now somewhat in retreat.
Sophie Shevarnadze: So, when you look at ISIS and how they operate - they obviously capture hostages and take over towns, they go into villages - but they spread and integrate among civilians. So, is it possible to combat them without heavy civilian casualties?
SS: No, it’s not, and the world has to recognise that. The world singles out Israel for condemnation - it was the first to have to fight this kind of terrorism that hides among civilians. Every time HAMAS fires a rocket, it commits a double war crime - it targets Israeli civilians from behind Palestinian civilians. That’s the paradigm for the future. That’s what ISIS is going to be doing, that’s what terrorist groups are going to be doing - and by singling out Israel for condemnation, as the Goldstone report did, as the UN has done - it ties the hands of Western democracies, the U.S. and others in trying to fight terrorism. You cannot fight terrorists who hide among civilians without there being some civilian casualties - that’s why drones and targeted killings are much better than carpet bombing and generalised attacks.
SS: Do you think the “no boots on the ground” strategy is a good strategy in the long run?
AD: No, I don’t. I think boots have to go on the ground - again, going back to Israel, Israel tried very hard to avoid sending troops into Gaza this summer and tried to do all the attacks from the air, but when they discovered the network of tunnels, that could only be attacked from the ground,they had to send boots on the ground, and that ended up in destroying the tunnels. It is very hard to win a war only from the air. You need ground support, and I think the U.S. coming to realise that, they’re now talking about advisors but advisors turn into fighters fairly quickly.
SS: You keep up bringing up Israel - do you think Israel should join the world in the fight against ISIS?
AD: Yes, I think it is, I think it is providing intelligence on the ground; right now, ISIS poses a threat to all stability in the Middle East, and I think all the countries in the world have to fight against ISIS, it endangers everybody. So now you have countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia implicitly working together against the common enemies - ironically, the common enemies include not only ISIS but also Iran; so you have Iran that hates ISIS, ISIS hates Iran, Saudi Arabia hates both ISIS and Iran; Israel, you know, it’s in a situation that’s very complicated in Middle East.
SS: Just recently, eight Israeli men were actually arrested and charged for aiding ISIS - do you feel like ISIS is making its way into Israel?
AD: Without a doubt. These were 8 Israeli arabs who were arrested for, in some ways, wanting to go and fight along ISIS. ISIS is very popular among some radical muslims in every part of the world - it doesn’t recognise geographic borders: Belgium, who would imagine that a peaceful, nice country like Belgium has the highest rate of people who going to fight for terrorist groups in the Middle East?
SS: We have ISIS now in Libya and Egypt - do you feel like someone who’s so attached to Israel, that it’s planning to attack Israel?
AD: Without a doubt. I don’t it’s a first priority. I don’t think ISIS’ first priority is to go after Israel, A, because Israel has a strong army, and B, because ISIS’ goal is to change Islam and to create a caliphate within Islam and so it’s primary targets are muslim countries, not the nation state of the jewish people.
SS: But would that be the next step for them?
AD: Of course, and that would help gather support among muslims who hate Israel and who might be on the border of whether to join ISIS or not. Saying that you’re against Israel is always a good recruiting tool.
SS: Do you feel that’s what Huntington was talking about? The whole clash of civilisations thing?
AD: You know, he was on to something, but whenever you come up with concept like that, it’s always going to be over-generalised. I don’t think we’re seeing a clash of civilizations, I think we’re seeing a clash of extremists and we’re seen a clash of whether one accepts terrorism as a legitimate form of protest or one accepts more the Martin Luther King, Ghandi approach to non-violent protests.
SS: You mentioned something pretty interesting in the beginning of the interview, saying that tyranny over terrorism - and now we got to choose. In the 40 years that the Assads were in power in Syria, the Israeli borders on the Golan heights were pretty quiet.
AD: That’s right.
SS: Okay, so now we have the Al-Nusra Front there, taking hostages, killing people, attacking peacekeepers - do you feel, maybe, Israel should be helping the Assad regime right now to stabilise the country?
AD: I don’t think Israel should be involved in either helping Assad or helping the terrorists who are trying to topple Assad. I think Israel should protect its own borders and keep a careful eye, but I think everybody in the world has come to understand that authoritarianism, though evil, maybe a less bad evil than what replaces it. We’ve seen that all over the world - we’re seeing it perhaps in Libya, today, we have seen it in Iraq, we certainly saw it in Iran. Shah has now become more appreciated figure than he was before Khomeini came and essentially toppled him.
SS: When it comes to the Syrian civil war, I get this impression that it just keeps all sorts of Islamic fighters busy fighting each other, including Hezbollah, for instance - so, do you feel that maybe the Syrian civil war is good thing for Israel?
AD: No, I don’t think so. First of all, it also increases their ability to become good fighters. It’s a reality, what’s going on in Syria, and it cuts both ways - look, if Israel had a choice, it would probably prefer to go back to the days when Assad ruled and controlled the borders. It was better for Israel, it probably was not better for the people of Syria. There are very few free lunches in the world. Almost all of these events are bad for some, good for others, and unpredictable, ultimately, in their impact on world peace.
SS: There’s an Israeli-based research group with close ties to IDF and it says: “Iraq and Syria are a swamp in which ISIS and other jihadi organisations thrive. Rooting out ISIS will be impossible until the swamp has been drained”. Who created the swamp?
AD: First of all, it’s a way, way overstatement. Metaphors, generally, hide the truth rather than reveal it. I don’t think “swamp” is a good metaphor. Look, if Israel didn’t exist, if it had never come to the creating, the Muslim and Arab countries would still be fighting each other with the same ferociousness that they’re fighting today. Today, there’s a common enemy, there’s an excuse - it’s called Israel. But if that didn’t exist, we would still see the kinds of tensions, to use this metaphor, this kind of “swamp” that we’re seeing now in the middle east.
SS: Right, but I’m just going back to the original question - who do you think created or aided to create the conditions for this to happen in Iraq and Syria?
AD: I think, mostly, Arab and Muslim leaders that failed to liberate women, failed to educate their populations, failed to give them a forward-looking view of life, failed to give them an incentive for peace - I think it’s a failure of an Arab and Muslim world in large part. Tragically, probably, one of the greatest forces for educating people and educating women, in particular, was the Shah in Iran, who was a tyrant in some respect, and liberator in other respects. These are always complicated factors, but I think the primary responsibility, and there was a UN report recently about that, is the failure of Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East to move forward to help their own people.
SS: You brought up Shah for the second time - but he was also overthrown by the help of Americans…
AD: Not by the help of Americans, by the help of some Americans - Jimmy Carter, who made terrible decisions about foreign policy…
SS: Okay, but it was the American government at that time; I’m not sure everyone was agreeing with that, but, you know, he was representing America, as an American president…
AD: He made a lot of mistakes.
SS: So, it seems like in Iran, for me in Iraq right now, even in Afghanistan, you know, when you look at Al-Qaeda - I mean, who were the mujahedins? Do you know what I mean?
AD: There’s no question - the U.S. bears considerable responsibility for the creation of Taliban, of some of the circumstances in the Middle East that led to unrest - it’s a complicated world, and every time you move one chess-piece - I hate metaphors, again, because chess is a nice game, but rules… - but every time you make a move in a world, you don’t know what the implications are going to be 5 or 10 years from now. I mean, the mujahedin turned out to be a disaster, not only for the U.S. but for Russia as well. I mean, the whole Cold War between Russia and the U.S. created surrogates that are now battling and causing some terrorism in Russia and terrorism in the Middle East, and terrorism against the U.S. So, history takes its toll.
SS: What kind of an end to the Islamic State campaign do you envision?
AD: I don’t see it dramatically coming to an end, there’ll never be a peace treaty, or a day when we announce “we’ve defeated ISIS”. I think it will be a slow process, and we’ll see newly emerging groups that will take over from ISIS. ISIS has developed a tactic for how to publicise itself, which made it very popular among some people. I think we’ll see a diminution over time, but Islamic extremist terrorism is a phenomenon that will continue for many-many generations.
SS: Alan Dershowitz, thank you so much for this wonderful interview.
AD: Thank you.