The arrest of 17 people in Canada on terrorist charges underscores, across the Western world, a growing sense of dread and inevitability that is rooted in the homegrown nature of the threat. But what do we really know about these killers among us?
We know, of course, the broad outline of their all-encompassing fundamentalism and we have some vague ideas about al-Qaeda as a decentralized network of cells in many countries that seeks to acquire chemical, biological and perhaps even nuclear weapons. We also know their leaders' long-term goals: seize power in Muslim countries and attack the Western states that support secular regimes in the Islamic world. Finally, we also know that the leaders of this fanatical tide are few, but now have the sympathy of millions of ordinary Muslims.
There have always been fanatical individuals ready to die and kill in the name of their beliefs. But they seem far more dangerous nowadays as a result of technological advances that have "democratized" bomb making. After all, as the London and Madrid bombings demonstrated, a cell phone is all that is needed to time an explosion -- or a series of explosions -- with deadly efficiency.
Our freedoms and social fluidity also contribute to the threat. People move about the globe cheaply and with relative ease. Immigrants can establish themselves in new societies and in democratic states they can live completely free of supervision. In effect, our freedoms are their tools.
So how do we fight such an amorphous enemy?
US President George W. Bush has demonstrated one way not to do it: His invasion and occupation of Iraq shows that directly attacking Muslim states only fuels fanaticism. Of course, civilized countries should not give up the fight against extremist Islam because of the bloodshed in Iraq. But we must recognize that war, occupation and forced submission to military power have merely caused mass humiliation and resentment among many ordinary Muslims -- emotions that are then channeled into terrorist networks. British Prime Minister Tony Blair can loudly proclaim that the London bombings of July last year are unrelated to Britain's participation in the Iraq war, but the terrorists themselves, once arrested, said exactly the opposite.
Indeed, here is how one of the Madrid bombers described the psychological preparation to which he had been submitted: his leader "made us watch DVDs showing pictures of war in Iraq, mostly pictures of women and children killed by American and British soldiers." There is also no shortage of images of abused prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison or the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, which have likewise done more to recruit new adherents to Islamic fanaticism than any sermon in a radical mosque.
Simply put, bombs dropped from several thousands meters do not kill less indiscriminately than explosive charges placed in train cars. Acknowledging this is not to excuse terrorism, but it is a first step toward understanding terrorism's underlying causes and thus toward their elimination. Above all, it is to acknowledge that democratic societies must use both political and police tactics in confronting fanatical terrorists. Politics is necessary for the simple reason that occupying armies and police cannot force hundreds of millions of Muslims to shed their hostility.