Root Out, but Don’t Bomb Out, Terrorism

Francis M. Deng
Francis M. Deng Former Brookings Expert

August 28, 1998

Fighting terrorism is admittedly a complex and difficult enterprise with serious political and moral dilemmas. Obviously, terrorists must be punished and if necessary, eliminated. But if this means using terroristic methods, then we must question the objective. Is it to avenge, to eliminate or to deter the potential for more terrorism? Vengeance is an understandable impulse, but it occupies a lower moral ground. Elimination is strategically all but impossible. And deterrence seems unrealistic when, for every terrorist killed, there is another waiting in the wings who is willing to go on a suicide mission. Furthermore, any measures that hurt more innocent people than they do terrorists are as morally suspect as the actions they are meant to answer.

It is in this light that the recent actions of the United States against the alleged terrorist bases in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan need to be appraised. To the extent that they were centers or agents of terrorism, it is reasonable that they be targeted. But while this may be obvious with respect to the camps in Afghanistan, the attack on the pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum has raised some doubts and questions. The United States insists that the factory produced chemicals that only could be used for terrorist purposes. The Sudanese government claims that it produced only medicines.

While the facts in this case may be debatable, Sudan’s government of the National Islamic Front repeatedly has been accused, not only by the United States but also by the United Nations, of harboring international terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, Carlos the Jackal, Hamas members and others. The crucial question is whether the destruction of the factory is the most effective way of fighting this state-sponsored terrorism. To answer this question, it is necessary to diagnose the source of the government’s alleged involvement with international terrorism. It is no doubt connected with the rise of Islamic radicalism in Sudan and the brutal war, spurred by a national identity crisis, that has devastated the country.

The Arabized Muslim north is persistently trying to impose an Islamic state on the non-Arab, non-Muslim peoples of the south, who are resisting with unrelenting determination. While the major northern political parties have tried to balance their Islamic agenda with accommodating the non-Muslim south, the ruling National Islamic Front, in contrast, has adopted a more oppressive approach. Although it is a narrowly based party of an intellectual elite, the front has assumed the mantle of Islamic fundamentalism and declared a holy war, jihad, against the infidels in the south, whom it believes to be supported by the Christian West and Zionist allies. With religious zealotry, the regime has reached out to like-minded radicals—governments, organizations and terrorist movements—for solidarity and mutual support.

Anyone who knows Sudan will readily testify to the gap between the tolerance of the people and this radical version of politicized Islam. The challenge is one of good governance that will turn Sudan from an agent of terrorism to an ally in the global partnership against terrorism. A symbolic action against a pharmaceutical factory does very little beyond property damage, injury to innocent workers and insult to national pride. It might even be a blessing in disguise for the Sudanese government, as it is likely to arouse nationalist sentiments and bolster a regime that desperately needs national legitimization.

Ironically, it also places the opposition parties in a quagmire. How can they come out openly in support of an action that is insulting to their national pride? And yet how can they align themselves nationalistically with a government they consider illegitimate and against which they have taken up arms? Arguably, the United States can play a more constructive role in combating Sudan’s involvement with terrorism by contributing diplomatically and materially toward bringing a speedy end to the war, restoring genuine democracy and respect for fundamental rights and spurring the process of reconstruction and development. This would enhance the capacity of the Sudanese people to play the important geopolitical role that has long been postulated for their country as a microcosm of Africa and a conciliating link between the continent and the Middle East.

Francis M. Deng, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Was Formerly Sudan’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Its Ambassador to the United States, Scandinavian Countries and Canada.