by Bruce Hoffman
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The Atlantic Monthly, December 1, 2001
"Do you want to know how to eliminate terrorism? I'll tell you. In fact, I'll tell you about something that no one else knows. Something that has never been written about. You will be amazed, but it is true. Listen."
The speaker knew what he was talking about. Just a few years before, he had been a terrorist—a senior commander of al-Fatah, the largest constituent element of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the group that was founded, in 1959, and has been led ever since by Yasir Arafat, the chairman of the PLO. The speaker was now a brigadier general in one of the Palestine Authority's myriad security and intelligence services. He was an Arafat loyalist: his fidelity as much as his competence led to his appointment to this critically important post. We spoke when an uneasy peace still reigned between Israel and the Palestinians, and in fact there was a degree of cooperation between the Israeli intelligence and security agencies and their Palestinian counterparts, which was superintended by the CIA.
Ironically, the general's job was hunting down and rooting out terrorists. He was the archetypal poacher turned gamekeeper. His nemeses were neither the Jews nor their Zionist benefactors but his brother Palestinians: men who, unlike him, had refused to swear allegiance to al Rais ("the head," as Arafat is often known among Palestinians) and the governing Palestine Authority. These men, moreover, were imbued with religious fervor and the unswerving belief that armed struggle was decreed by Allah and justified by the Koran. They belonged to a new generation of Palestinians, who had joined more-recently established terrorist groups such as Hamas (the Arabic acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement) and the Palestine Islamic Jihad, and whose struggles were directed as much against what they saw as the corrupt and reprobate Palestine Authority as against their most reviled enemy, Israel.
We had been sitting in the general's office, above a sweltering prison in Gaza City, talking and drinking sweet coffee. The general was in mufti. He wore a blue suit, a light-blue shirt, and a blue-and-gold necktie. He looked like a middle-class businessman or an avuncular pharmacist. His office was sparsely decorated. On the wall behind his desk was a photograph of Arafat with his familiar stubble, attired in green military fatigues and wearing his trademark black-and-white kuffiyeh (Arab head scarf). On the desk was a picture of the general himself, standing beside Arafat and looking very serious. Along the wall, on a side table, were framed photographs of each of the general's children, greeting or being hugged by Arafat, who appeared the kindly, elderly patron paying a surprise visit to commemorate a birthday or celebrate some other noteworthy family event.
"Arafat and the PLO," the general said, "had a big problem in the 1970s. We had a group called the Black September Organization. It was the most elite unit we had. The members were suicidal—not in the sense of religious terrorists who surrender their lives to ascend to heaven but in the sense that we could send them anywhere to do anything and they were prepared to lay down their lives to do it. No question. No hesitation. They were absolutely dedicated and absolutely ruthless."
Black September was at the time among the most feared terrorist organizations in the world. It had been formed as a deniable and completely covert special-operations unit of al-Fatah by Arafat and his closest lieutenants following the brutal expulsion of the Palestinians from Jordan in September of 1970—the event from which the group's name was derived. Black September's mission, however, was not simply to exact retribution on Jordan but to catapult the Palestinians and their cause onto the world's agenda.
Black September's first operation was the assassination, in November of 1971, of Jordan's Prime Minister Wasfi al-Tal, who was gunned down as he entered the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in Cairo. While Tal lay dying, one of the assassins knelt and lapped with his tongue the blood flowing across the marble floor. That grisly scene, reported in The Times of London and other major newspapers, created an image of uncompromising violence and determination that was exactly what Arafat both wanted and needed.
He doubtless succeeded beyond his expectations in September of 1972, when Black September perpetrated one of the most audacious acts of terrorism in history: the seizure of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games. That incident is widely credited as the premier example of terrorism's power to rocket a cause from obscurity to renown. The operation's purpose was to capture the world's attention by striking at a target of inestimable value (in this case a country's star athletes) in a setting calculated to provide the terrorists with unparalleled exposure and publicity. According to Abu Iyad, the PLO's intelligence and security chief, a longtime Arafat confidant, and a co-founder of al-Fatah, the Black September terrorists "didn't bring about the liberation of any of their comrades imprisoned in Israel as they had hoped, but they did attain the operation's other two objectives: World opinion was forced to take note of the Palestinian drama, and the Palestinian people imposed their presence on an international gathering that had sought to exclude them." Just over two years later Arafat was invited to address the UN General Assembly, and shortly afterward the PLO was granted special observer status in that international body.
The problem, however, was that Black September had served its purpose. The PLO and its chairman had the recognition and acceptance they craved. Indeed, any continuation of these terrorist activities, ironically, now threatened to undermine all that had been achieved. In short, Black September was, suddenly, not a deniable asset but a potential liability. Thus, according to my host, Arafat ordered Abu Iyad "to turn Black September off." My host, who was one of Abu Iyad's most trusted deputies, was charged with devising a solution. For months both men thought of various ways to solve the Black September problem, discussing and debating what they could possibly do, short of killing all these young men, to stop them from committing further acts of terror.
Finally they hit upon an idea. Why not simply marry them off? In other words, why not find a way to give these men—the most dedicated, competent, and implacable fighters in the entire PLO—a reason to live rather than to die? Having failed to come up with any viable alternatives, the two men put their plan in motion.
They traveled to Palestinian refugee camps, to PLO offices and associated organizations, and to the capitals of all Middle Eastern countries with large Palestinian communities. Systematically identifying the most attractive young Palestinian women they could find, they put before these women what they hoped would be an irresistible proposition: Your fatherland needs you. Will you accept a critical mission of the utmost importance to the Palestinian people? Will you come to Beirut, for a reason to be disclosed upon your arrival, but one decreed by no higher authority than Chairman Arafat himself? How could a true patriot refuse?
So approximately a hundred of these beautiful young women were brought to Beirut. There, in a sort of PLO version of a college mixer, boy met girl, boy fell in love with girl, boy would, it was hoped, marry girl. There was an additional incentive, designed to facilitate not just amorous connections but long-lasting relationships. The hundred or so Black Septemberists were told that if they married these women, they would be paid $3,000; given an apartment in Beirut with a gas stove, a refrigerator, and a television; and employed by the PLO in some nonviolent capacity. Any of these couples that had a baby within a year would be rewarded with an additional $5,000.
Both Abu Iyad and the future general worried that their scheme would never work. But, as the general recounted, without exception the Black Septemberists fell in love, got married, settled down, and in most cases started a family. To make sure that none ever strayed, the two men devised a test. Periodically, the former terrorists would be handed legitimate passports and asked to go to the organization's offices in Geneva or Paris or some other city on genuine nonviolent PLO business. But, the general explained, not one of them would agree to travel abroad, for fear of being arrested and losing all that they had—that is, being deprived of their wives and children. "And so," my host told me, "that is how we shut down Black September and eliminated terrorism. It is the only successful case that I know of."
In the years since, as terrorism has itself become more egregiously lethal and destructive, seemingly more intractable and unrelenting, I have thought often of that story, and I suspect that it is a less far-fetched plan for combating terrorism than it at first seems. The authorities in Northern Ireland, for example, pursued a somewhat similar strategy during the years before the current cease-fire. Hard-core IRA and Loyalist terrorists serving long prison sentences were often given brief furloughs during holiday periods. The men to whom this privilege was accorded were carefully selected. They were mostly in their thirties, and therefore at a time in their lives when the perceived immortality of youth has been superseded by the dawning realization of death's inevitability, if not for themselves, then certainly for their parents.
Once at home with their families, these men, as the authorities had correctly calculated, developed a keen appreciation of elderly parents whom they might never see again once they were returned to prison, and also of children growing up too fast and of still young and attractive wives wasting their lives waiting. When the men returned to prison, they were asked if they would be interested in an expedited release. The Northern Ireland Office relied on a combination of factors to wean these men from terrorism: family pressure to forsake violence and secure an early release and the men's having seen with their own eyes how much the province had changed. To qualify for this form of parole, the men were required to move out of segregated prison wings (where they lived with only fellow IRA or Loyalist prisoners) and into fully integrated cell blocks, where Protestants and Catholics mixed freely—and nonviolently. This was a critical first step on the road to parole, followed by vocational training (not provided in segregated wings), counseling, and more-frequent family visits and furloughs. No one who had taken advantage of this opportunity for early parole ever returned to violence or to prison. The program was so successful that the option could be offered to only a limited number of prisoners, lest the terrorist organizations, fearing the loss of too many senior veterans and commanders, forbid their members to participate in the program. To a great extent, accordingly, the climate of peace that emerged in Northern Ireland in the mid-1990s may have owed as much to the creativity and foresight of the Northern Ireland Prison Service as to the political dexterity and visions of Gerry Adams and David Trimble or Martin McGuinness and Senator George Mitchell.
The lesson here is not that the United States should host a series of mixers in the Arab world in hopes of encouraging the young men of al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations to forsake violence and embrace family life. Rather, the lesson is that clever, creative thinking can sometimes achieve unimaginable ends. Indeed, rather than concentrating on eliminating organizations, as we mostly do in our approach to countering terrorism, we should perhaps focus at least some of our attention on weaning individuals from violence. It could hardly be any less effective than many of the countermeasures that have long been applied to terrorism—with ephemeral, if not often nugatory, results.