Recurring Lesson for U.S.: Despair is the Real Villain

Fighting poverty seen as first step in waging war on future terrorism

BEIRUT – Security guard Jamal Al-Masalmy trudges the sour
streets of the refugee slum Shatila, one of 20,000 Palestinians
here with no legal job, no political representation, no property

They lug sloshing water into teetering brick buildings. They
bootleg electricity from overloaded wires. They pick through
garbage heaps for plastic, tin. Children beg, tiny hands tugging.

“No future,” 33-year-old Al-Masalmy concludes, seething as he
retires to smoke in the back room where he sleeps on a cot.

He blames the United States – not Lebanon – “because you are
the superpower.” Americans “see on television what happens to
Palestinians” and “nobody talks about it.” Instead, Americans
support Israel, occupier of land he views as Palestinian.

He’s against killing innocents. But if a terrorist recruiter
asked him to attack Americans?

“Maybe yes. Maybe no,” he says before the light bulb flickers
off and his cigarette burns, an orange dot hanging in the dark.

Al-Masalmy embodies the potential for terrorism that grows
daily in political frustration, anger, poverty and despair.

Worldwide, legions of educated but underemployed men such as
Al-Masalmy, resentful of American power, give extremists such as
Osama bin Laden a ready pool of recruits.

And extremists operate everywhere. Many draw support from
militant Islamist organizations that oppose pro-Western
governments and America.

While the United States stands committed to a war on
terrorism, and the U.S. military is ready to go anywhere, security
for civilians may require more than a crackdown.

It may require sustained efforts to stop terrorism at its

Nearly six months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S.
government has barely begun to mobilize on this front. President
Bush has concentrated on responding militarily to the immediate
threat posed by terrorism. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says
the best defense is a good offense.

Bush has proposed an expansion of the Peace Corps. The State
Department distributed several thousand cassettes of Muslims
preaching peace, and the president called for children to
communicate by e-mail across borders. The U.S. is among many
countries providing humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.

Yet the administration has offered few new efforts for
reducing poverty, engaging with Islamists to win hearts and minds,
and encouraging democracy that could offer political options that
relieve frustrations.

The billions earmarked for fighting terrorism go mostly to
the military and homeland defense.

“Force alone is not enough’ to ensure security

Some U.S. diplomats contend a broader campaign is crucial.

“We need to work with our friends, particularly our friends
in the Middle East, to demonstrate that we have a shared interest
in offering people a sense of hope – whether it’s economic hope,
whether it’s political hope by encouraging participation and
greater openness, or whether it’s a resolution of (conflicts),
which I know are of longstanding concern to people of this
region,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns said.

Such goals “have acquired even greater importance” since
Sept. 11, said Burns, the top U.S. adviser on Near Eastern
affairs, during a recent visit to the Persian Gulf.

Economic help in particular must give “tangible results” in
narrowing a “rich-poor gap … so that people have a sense that if
economic growth occurs, it’s going to be spread fairly across
society,” Burns said.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who
supported the military campaign in Afghanistan, agreed. “Force
alone is not enough,” Albright said recently in Denver. “America
is against terrorism, but what none of us should ever forget is
what America is for.”

Allies in Europe and the Middle East also seek broader efforts.

In Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak for years confronted
Islamist insurgents with force, authorities found they eventually
had to address causes of violence.

“Certainly economic development is very important,” said Gen.
Sherif Gala, first deputy in Egypt’s Interior Ministry. Egypt
launched poverty-reduction projects in the sugar cane fields along
the Nile River, where terrorists once drew recruits.

The result “is to raise the potential for the normal person
to raise his standard of living,” Gala said. Egypt reports no
terrorist attacks since 1998.

A sustained U.S. campaign that targeted roots of terrorism
“would be cheaper, less dramatic and, yet, more effective” than
military action, said veteran U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke,
former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

One key, Holbrooke said, is “to find credible Islamic
leaders” – an alternative to militant ideologues who exploit the
religion – to help build a new sense of hope.

Militant Islam, emerging over the last 80 years, nudges
thousands of disaffected young men toward violence.

It grew out of urban neighborhoods such as the teeming Imbaba
section of Cairo – row upon row of brick apartments separated by
narrow unpaved streets.

“We’d go to the streets and teach,” drawing crowds, Sheikh
Ahmad, an imam there, recalled of the early 1980s.

Radical Islamists assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat
in 1981 and also tried to overthrow Mubarak.

Like rulers across the Middle East, Mubarak – with $2 billion
a year in U.S. aid – cracked down. This drove many Islamists to
Britain, the United States and other Western countries. Some
claimed refugee status as victims of human rights abuses.

Displaced and sometimes alienated in apartment towers or on
university campuses, some took refuge in small, makeshift mosques
where they nurtured an ideology casting Western society as evil.

One group in Hamburg, Germany, plotted the Sept. 11 attacks
on America.

Crackdown on militants leaves frustration, fear

Today in Egypt, there isn’t much room for militants to operate.
The government controls all mosques. An estimated 15,000 Islamists
are in jail, U.S. officials say.

Only government-approved imams lead prayers.

Sheikh Ahmad spent years in jail before authorities released
him. Bearded in the fashion of devout followers, he read a
newspaper recently in the back-treet corner poultry shop he runs.

“Now I am a moderate one,” Ahmad began, speaking on condition
his full name not be printed. He teaches the Koran informally to
neighborhood children, he said. And he fumes. “I am a university
graduate. I expected to be a Muslim teacher. Now I can’t find a
good job. It’s difficult here. Everything is under control.”


“Sure,” he said, looking up and down the street as women
peered out doorways. “I can’t talk about it.”

Militant fundamentalist ideology still thrives worldwide,
said Khaled Salah, 31, an Al-Ahram newspaper political editor
whose uncle was executed for his role in a jihad group’s weapons

And around the Middle East, he said, frustrations are peaking
– about unaddressed needs for housing and health, constraints on
opposition politics, Israeli tanks parked in the middle of
Palestinian communities.

“We can’t do anything. We can’t do anything. This is the
problem. This is the real problem,” Salah said. “It’s a critical
situation here. We need democracy.”

He said the U.S. approach to cracking down on terrorism –
“you treat everybody with rockets, bombs” – may ignore other, more
effective strengths.

“America has the most advanced civil society in the world. It
needs to teach people in Egypt who can be leaders and implement a
civil society here.”

Salah has applied for professional exchange programs in the
U.S., so far without success. He believes experience in America
could boost his local clout. He said that for the cost of a
missile, the United States could instruct hundreds of journalists
from across the Arab world in how to run independent media.

Islamist groups trying to reach out in peace

Across the Muslim world since Sept. 11, U.S. authorities have
brought pressure to bear on dozens of Islamist organizations that
they say helped fund terrorists. But some Islamists now say
they want to join the political mainstream, distancing themselves
from violence, building relations with the West.

For example, the Islamic Presentation Committee in Kuwait
City is trying to enlist U.S. soldiers, deployed for training in
the Kuwaiti desert, for cross-cultural discussions, said Abdel
Latif, spokesman for the group.

Many Muslims see America primarily in “images of materialism:
“Baywatch,’ Madonna,” Latif said.

“They fear that they might lose their religion, be
materialized. People are trying to cope with the overpowering
sense of emphasis on gaining wealth. They want to somehow live as
a Muslim. They also want to be part of these things. You need to
try to understand them. And people here don’t know about the
United States.”

Another potential starting point for Americans is working in
schools to prevent terrorism.

In Jordan, U.S. diplomats four years ago had a hand in
beginning one effort.

They sent an experienced middle school teacher, Muna
al-Shami, 45, to the U.S. on an exchange to study local

During her two-week tour, she dropped in on a city council
meeting in Troy, N.Y. People, including elderly women, were
arguing about garbage collection.

Al-Shami was amazed at “the forcefulness” with which
Americans expressed their opinions to council members, “putting
forth their point of view yet without causing injuries.”

This ability to act politically without resorting to violence
seems to be lacking in Arab societies, she said.

Back in Jordan, she took action, forming a group of about 100
teachers interested in developing “civil society.” They began
talking about teaching 11- to 14-year-olds “to participate in
public life” nonviolently, she said.

“When you are trained to use evidence, objectivity, your
emotions will be more under control.

“You can write letters, you can go to the press. You can hire
a lobby. It is important to equip your citizens with knowledge of
how to express themselves concerning issues they’d like to change
in a peaceful manner. You alleviate the sources of frustration.”

Al-Shami led about 20 teachers in a training seminar recently.
On her presentation board she wrote phrases in Arabic: “legal
knowledge,” “public policy” and “activating the role of the

One of the teachers spoke up. Poverty in his town has led to
begging in the streets. Is this the kind of social problem that
his students could research?

The teachers planned a curriculum. Students could discuss
poverty, then interview beggars. Then they could call local
government officials to find out its policy toward beggars. Then
students could design a social action plan.

“I cannot give you a guarantee now that this program will
stop violence,” al-Shami said. “But if these efforts are started
and consistently maintained, then I can give you a guarantee.”

The problem, U.S. embassy officials in Amman said: no funding.

Hard to gauge success of different kind of war

Nobody’s sure whether efforts to “drain the swamp” of the
poverty and frustration that breeds violence would succeed.

And the horror of what happened Sept. 11 may cause militants
to think twice about terrorism.

Months after the attacks, men on streets from Africa to
Central Asia express sympathy to visiting Americans.

“Everyone feels it’s no good to make terrorist actions like
that – even against nonbelievers,” Sheikh Ahmad said in Cairo.

Even in Beirut’s Shatila slum, Palestinian refugee Al-Masalmy
said: “It’s bad work, what happened in America. We don’t like
killing people.”

But then he adds a caveat – one still heard so often in
discussions about how to stop terror.

“Conditions here are very tough. And the other side, he kills

How we fight

The United States seeks to prevent terrorism from taking root.
Among the approaches under discussion:


“Extending compassion” by expanding the Peace Corps.

Humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and other countries.

Democratic institutions, to give people a voice in government.

Economic assistance.

Encouraging moderate political and religious leaders.

Some terrorist groups, Al Qaeda, many countries

The name of Osama bin Laden’s group means “the base.”

Founded in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, it is one of the two
main members of the International Front for Fighting Jews and
Crusades, an alliance bin Laden unveiled in 1998 that he said was
formed to kill Americans and destroy U.S. interests around the

The Egyptian Jihad, or Holy War, Egypt

Led by Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden’s top lieutenant. Blamed for
assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Group
split when al-Zawahri announced his decision to join bin Laden’s
International Front, with some members fearing it would draw too
much attention from the United States. After the bombing of two
U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, several leaders were arrested
abroad and sent to Egypt.

Gamaa Al-Islamiya (The Islamic Group), Egypt

Egypt’s biggest radical Muslim group led a violent 1992-97
campaign to set up a purist Islamist state. Killed dozens of
tourists near Luxor in 1997. Armed Islamic Group (GIA), Algeria

The group was formed after Algerian authorities canceled
elections that Islamic activists were poised to win, touching off
a conflict that has left more than 100,000 dead. Bin Laden is
suspected of using this network in Europe and it has been linked
to a Canadian cell involving Ahmed Ressam, the would-be millennium
bomber caught in Washington in 1999.