ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE
HOW THE TERRORISTS STOPPED TERRORISM
By Bruce Hoffman
The Atlantic Monthly
"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,
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
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.
[Note: nugatory means "of little importance or validity"]
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
Such an intriguing perspective! I want to explore around it for a bit.
Bruce Hoffman, the author, poses the question: "Why not find a way to give
these men -- the most dedicated, competent, and implacable fighters... -- a
reason to live rather than to die?" Then he suggests that we should "foucs
at least some of our attention on weaning individuals from violence."
This approach is valid and important, and many people are already
undertaking such efforts. For example, I did a Google.com search for
"peacemakers conflict resolution training teachers children schools
curriculum" and discovered hundreds of programs that wean children from
But I wonder if Hoffman and the rest of us could use some weaning of our
own -- from our focus on individual terrorists and individual violence. In
particular, I wonder if we need to extend our vision beyond efforts to
recruit individual terrorists out of their despair so that we can be safe
again. I say this because it seems to me that our WORLD is not safe, and I
wonder (with no small trepidation) what role our own search for safety
plays in that.
When we achieve our own safety without ensuring the world's safety -- or
worse, at the expense of the world's safety -- we short-circuit a critical
feedback system that goads us towards creating a healthy society. Our
natural urge to provide safety for ourselves (individually and nationally)
in the midst of widespread threat can blind us from information and
stimulus we need to serve life in larger ways. It can be like numbing a
pain that's telling us we need an operation or a lifestyle change. We can
only safely seek comfort if we proceed with the operation or the lifestyle
So I wish the author had extended his dream -- giving people a reason to
live -- to every person on earth -- not only to those in physical extremity
like those who are impoverished, abused or under the gun, but also those in
psychological, social or spiritual extremity, among them the many suicidal
or homicidal youth in our own, so called "developed countries". No one in
the world should need to find meaning or peace through dying or killing. I
would like to suggest that such acts are -- MOST IMPORTANTLY -- signs that
we need to heal and transform our world. After all, why shouldn't every
person on the earth have good reason to live?
Of course to apply Hoffman's vision to all who need a reason to live --
since there are billions of people -- would require that we raise our
sights beyond individual solutions to systemic solutions. It would require
significant changes in our policies (such as in the Middle East), our
cultures (such as our materialism), our politics (such as our inability to
make wise choices) and our economics (which reduces everything to money).
It would require building a meaningful, life-affirming world that is a
delight to be part of. And that so often seems impossible. Even the
smallish steps seem huge.
And at that point, Hoffman's article becomes interesting again. Because
Hoffman claims his major point is that "clever, creative thinking can
sometimes achieve unimaginable ends."
And I agree with him: This could be our salvation. However, my agreement
is qualified, because that clever thinking could also be our devastation.
Not all clever, creative thinking and unimaginable ends are benign. I
think we need to inquire about what kind of clever, creative thinking would
generate the POSITIVE leaps we need to survive, thrive, and grow into our
full potential as a global civilization?
My own explorations have led me to believe that we need "clever, creative
thinking" that is collaborative, collective, and connected to "the big
picture" and to the greater-than-human intelligences in and around us --
what I've come to call co-intelligence. The political agenda of this
co-intelligence vision is expressed in such articles as "A Call to Move
Beyond Public Opinion to Public Judgment"
http://www.co-intelligence.org/CIPol_publicjudgment.html and "The
Innovations in Democracy Draft Platform"
http://www.co-intelligence.org/draftPlatform.html . I invite you to
explore them newly.
There is no doubt about it: We need leaders like those described in the
article above, who are clever, creative thinkers. But we need more than
that, for leaders come and go. We need the capacity to generate creative
wisdom from amongst ourselves, in our communities, in our national politics
-- and to empower that wisdom to actually lead us, to shape our lives and
policies. And, I believe, we need to institutionalize that capacity.
Because we need to be able to generate such empowered wisdom whenever we
need it to guide our collective lives.
And lately, that seems to be every day, doesn't it?
Tom Atlee * The Co-Intelligence Institute * PO Box 493 * Eugene, OR 97440
http://www.co-intelligence.org * http://www.democracyinnovations.org
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