Today's date:
Winter 2005

Al Qaeda Has Mobilized Muslim Masses—Against Itself

Giandomenico Picco was special envoy for UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar in negotiations with Hezbollah in Beirut from 1989–1992 when he secured the release of American, British and German hostages. In 1988, he was involved in the secret negotiations that ended the war between Iran and Iraq. He spoke with NPQ on Sept. 29 in Italy.

NPQ | You successfully negotiated the release of hostages from Hezbollah in Beirut in the late 1980s and early 1990s.What differences do you see in the kidnappings and terrorism then and in Iraq and elsewhere today?

Giandomenico Picco | The basic distinction between the terrorists of that earlier era in Beirut and terrorists today is the former, like Hezbollah, were "tactical" and the latter, like Al Qaeda, are "strategic."

Tactical terrorists have a precise, well-known and unchangable political objective—such as getting the Israelis out of Lebanon or the British out of Ireland. The strategic terrorists have only a cosmic objective—the Islamization of you and me. As Ayman al-Zawahiri has said, jihadists like Al Qaeda are "Knights Under the Prophet's Banner."

Their goals are changable for tactical advantage. For example, the Palestinian issue never entered the Al Qaeda literature until 1998. Now there are varieties of kidnappings and beheadings across Iraq. They adjust their targets over time.

The second distinction is the identification of the enemy. Tactical terrorists like the IRA, the ETA and the Hezbollah were very careful not to multiply their enemies. They thus very narrowly identified their well-known enemies, for example British troops in Ireland or government officials in Bilbao. Strategic terrorists like Al Qaeda hit out broadly—from the Shia tribes in Afghanistan when they were with the Taliban to Americans in New York to Indians in Kashmir to Australian tourists in Bali to commuters in Madrid to government offices in Saudi Arabia. They have no concerns about multiplying their enemies because they are against anyone who is not with them.

The third distinction is that the tactical terrorists are well known to their enemies and negotiate with them directly or indirectly. "Negotiation" is not a word that exists in the vocabulary of the strategic terrorists. In my experience over the past 25 years, most of the hostages taken by tactical Shia groups have eventually been released. The hostages of Al Qaeda-type groups have mostly been brutally killed in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. That is why we should not even try to negotiate with them.

A fourth and vital distinction is that tactical terrorists are rooted in territory; they are stakeholders in the lands where they operate. In practice, this means they usually have a political wing as well as a military wing. Hezbollah even has a broad network of welfare organizations for their constituency. They run businesses, hospitals and schools as part of an infrastructure, not just for show. The strategic terrorists are, by contrast, a virtual organization. They cannot be rooted, because that would mean their own defeat.

The practical consequence of these differences is that tactical terrorists can transform and go on to live without an enemy. Like the IRA, or at least some of it, they can give up terrorism and become a political party to achieve their objectives. Al Qaeda can't do that. Without an enemy target, they will melt like snow.

NPQ | How long can the strategic terrorists go on multiplying their enemies —from killing innocent Muslim civilians to taking French journalists—without ultimately defeating themselves?

Picco | Since Sept. 11, their objective has been to mobilize the Muslim masses, and in particular the Arabs. They have failed. The kidnappings and beheadings in Iraq, accompanied by the demands on ending the French headscarf ban, have turned the European Muslims against them. Hezbollah and Hamas also came out strongly against the kidnapping of the two French journalists. So did many Arab leaders.

So, they have managed to mobilize the Muslim masses—but against themselves!