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Special Report

Expert tracks radical Islamic movements


Reading Judith Miller’s 1996 book, God Has Ninety-Nine Names: Reporting from a Militant Middle East, has its occasional chilling moments. One occurs during a 1993 interview Miller had with Libya’s Col. Muammar Qaddafi, who surprised her by arguing that the United States should make common cause with Libya in working to destroy Islamic terrorists.

An occasional sponsor of terrorism himself, Qaddafi told Miller that the Gulf War bred a new hatred for the United States among Islamic militants that may rebound against the United States. “You funded Islamic militants in Afghanistan and all over the world and then were surprised when they turned on you. You brought it upon yourselves,” Qaddafi said.

Now that the world knows Osama bin Laden was once on the CIA payroll and that he is said to be behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Qaddafi’s remarks appear all too apt for anyone’s comfort. It’s one of many incidents in Miller’s book that take on greater resonance given the terrorist attacks on the United States in September. So, too, does her account of a young Osama bin Laden showing up in the offices of various Saudi princes before the Gulf War armed with flowcharts and maps, eager to persuade them that foreign troops were not necessary for the defense of Saudi Arabia.

More relevant still may be her description of the immense demographic pressures in the developing countries of the Mideast, where millions of young men, often college-educated, have no jobs or hopes of attaining one and who turn to radical Islamic movements out of despair with the bleak prospects they face.

Throughout the Middle East, Miller writes, these Islamic movements are reshaping the national agenda, even when governments clamp down on them with repression (Egypt, for example) or co-optation (Jordan or Saudi Arabia) or, as often happens, both.

Miller, 50, has spent much of her career covering the Mideast. She was Cairo, Egypt, bureau chief for The New York Times from 1983 to 1986 and later the newspaper’s special correspondent in the Gulf War. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, she has become a frequent guest on TV news programs such as “The Today Show” and “Face the Nation,” where she’s become the on-air expert on Islamic militancy as well as on the elusive bin Laden. The latter is a personality who she says should not be underestimated nor should those who work with him. These are highly motivated, often well-educated people, not people who can be dismissed as crazy fanatics, she has said, or at least not crazy, though fanatics they may be.

In her book on Islamic militancy in the Middle East, Miller makes clear that Islamic movements come in many shapes and forms in the different countries of the Middle East and that the reasons for Islamic revivalism vary from country to country. Nonetheless, she clearly sees Islamic militancy as posing both a threat internally to the national stability of secular governments and to the West. Descriptions of militant Islamic networks operating in the United States will give pause to many readers in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Miller’s view of the Islamic threat has been criticized in some quarters. Reviewing God has Ninety-Nine Names for The Nation, Edward Said, a professor of literature at Columbia University and the author of several books on Palestinians and the Middle East, called it a one-sided, partisan account that perpetuates Western stereotypes. That criticism aside, however, Miller’s account of how different countries in the Middle East have contended with -- and often contributed to -- Islamic militancy will have immediacy for many Americans wanting to understand more about the causes of the war on terrorism.

A series of articles she wrote for the Times about Afghanistan in January of this year examined what may be Afghanistan’s only viable export: international terrorism. A dozen camps in Afghanistan maintained by bin Laden train recruits in small arms and in explosives and logistics for terrorist attacks, she wrote in January. More disturbing still, she reported that American and Mideast intelligence officials believe one camp in Afghanistan is training recruits in the uses of chemicals, poisons and toxins. Her most recent book, Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War, co-written with Stephen Engelberg and William Broad, examines the development of biological weapons in laboratories in the Mideast, the Soviet Union and this country and sounds the alarm that biological terrorism is right around the corner.

“Most countries in that region [the Mideast] are working on biological and chemical weapons,” Miller said in a recent telephone interview. The frightening prospect of biological terrorism is one reason she thinks the United States’ current effort to eradicate Osama bin Laden’s network is so important. But Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War also reports on a massive program by the Soviet Union to develop biological weapons as well as the CIA’s own effort to secretly build and test a Soviet-designed germ bomb. And Miller and her co-authors recount that in the 1960s the U.S. military possessed plans to use germ warfare in Cuba.

Germs was an outgrowth of her reporting on the Mideast, especially the Gulf War, Miller told NCR. “The Iraqis made thousands and thousands of liters of anthrax and other biological agents, and they didn’t admit it until 1995,” said Miller, who believes that the Iraqis were so loath to admit they possessed biological weapons because these were the weapons the Iraqis prized most. “Once I found out that Iraq was so intent on getting [these weapons], that’s when I began to wonder if Osama Bin Laden was interested in getting them. The fact of the matter is, that if he can get his hands on weapons of mass destruction, he will try to use them,” Miller said.

According to Miller, the Gulf War played a critical role in mobilizing militant Islamists against the United States. Bin Laden, for one, is reported to have been angry that U.S. troops were stationed on sacred soil in Saudi Arabia, though Miller observed that in fact U.S. troops were nowhere near the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina. Still, the fact that troops stayed past the end of the war angered Osama bin Laden, as did American support for what he saw as corrupt Arab regimes.

“The fodder and the fervor for what was Osama bin Laden’s then-very-young movement came from the Gulf War,” said Miller. The roots of that movement, the organization bin Laden founded, preceded the Gulf War, however. Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda (Arabic for The Base) organization was founded in the late 1980s.

“It was founded as the Soviets were being defeated,” Miller said. “It was the defeat of the Soviet Union that led Osama to the conclusion that the jihad could be expanded beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. The proof was that this great military superpower couldn’t hack it, in the same way we couldn’t hack it in Vietnam. This made his argument and his philosophy more compelling. There was no doubt that it helped him [with recruiting],” she said.

Today, Miller and other colleagues at The New York Times report that Osama Bin Laden may have terrorist cells in as many as 50 countries ranging from Saudi Arabia and Egypt to Tunis and the Philippines, all working for the jihad, or holy war, declared by bin Laden.

“These jihad groups have their own priorities, and they tend to cooperate. It’s one of the many reasons this movement is so hard to track. You never know who’s going to turn up where,” Miller said.

For this and many reasons, Miller believes the war against terrorism will be neither simple nor easy nor does she think getting rid of Osama bin Laden alone will end terrorism. The terrorist network has deep roots, she has said, and the people who work in it are both determined and resourceful.

Unfortunately, anti-American feeling in the Mideast not only has a long history but is growing, she said, fueled by intellectuals in the region as well as by state-controlled newspapers, which should make the United States question the friendship of some of its allies. The Clinton administration’s inability to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exacerbated hostility toward the United States. Resentment is further aggravated by the Bush administration’s unwillingness now to involve itself in the issue, which she said is perceived by Arabs as indifference to their plight and contempt. But anti-American feeling extends far beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she said.

“Whether or not that conflict is solved, these militant Islamic movements will continue because even though they pay lip service to the Palestinian cause, most of them don’t care much about the Palestinians,” Miller said.

Margot Patterson is NCR’s senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 5, 2001