BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 23.09.01

Film: US TERRORISM FILM. Iain Watson looks at the options facing the United States and the problem of maintaining political support both in Britain and the rest of the European Union.

IAIN WATSON: Letters of condolence for the Protheros'. Any bereavement is painful, but, over the past ten days this Somerset family has suffered as their hopes have turned to despair. Their daughter, Sarah, is one of the six-thousand, three-hundred and thirty-three people formally reported as missing - but presumed dead - as a result of the terrorist attacks on New York's twin towers. REVEREND DAVID PROTHERO: Everyone's emotions are raw at the moment aren't they and everyone's reacting, and so am I, reacting with a sadness and wanting to deny that it's ever happened and wanting to do everything possible to make sure it never ever happens again. WATSON: The destruction of the World Trade Center devastated the lives of people in sixty-three countries who've lost relatives and friends. Recent opinion polls, in the US, the UK and in continental Europe, have shown strong support for a military response and an international coalition is now being forged. LOUIS MICHEL: We are ready to support even military, of course, military support - we don't exclude anything. LORD CLARK: I think it's right that we try and assist our American allies and to weed out the people who perpetrated this terrible crime and we join them in the fight against terrorism. It's all our fight. WATSON: The events in the USA have united most countries in one response: this must never be allowed to happen again. Something must be done. Tracking down the sources of terrorist finance is - relatively speaking - the easy part. But it's much more difficult when it comes to military action. Tony Blair spent much of the past week helping to build a massive coalition against terrorism. But the question is whether that coalition, not just between countries but also within countries will hold, especially if we face a long and perhaps open-ended campaign. PETER KILFOYLE MP: Hawks in the American Administration I fear are trying to shape an agenda which settles old scores, rather than meets the needs of a campaign against terrorism. If anything, they're going to make matters infinitely worse. MOHAMMED SARWAR MP: If Britain sides with America, then there is a danger that terrorists will target Britain. WATSON : Cruise missiles have been the US weapon of choice in past conflicts, most recently in the Balkans. But President Clinton's strikes on Sudan and Afghanistan three years ago in response to attacks on US embassies had little effect. The pressure on President Bush from the American people for action is getting through. If he becomes tempted to launch similar strikes now, some experts say the value is likely to be more symbolic than real. COLONEL MIKE DEWAR: The last Cruise missile attack on a Wadi in the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan, we think had precious little effect, apart from knocking down a few huts and killing a few goats and maybe the odd individual. DOUG HENDERSON MP: Well I don't think air strikes would work, it would be like bombing Belfast to try and root out IRA terrorists. That wouldn't work in Ireland and it certainly won't work in Afghanistan. WATSON: Just how wide ranging are American aims in their war against terrorism? The main focus currently is on Afghanistan as the assumed hiding place of Osama Bin Laden, the man the US and UK governments have named as their prime suspect in the attacks on the United States. This terrorist outrage struck Lockerbie in 1988. A former M15 officer who was involved in investigating the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, says that building up evidence can take years - that sometimes early intelligence reports can point in the wrong direction. DAVID SHAYLER: If you look at the Lockerbie case the initial investigation concentrated on Palestinian organisations. As time went on and they started to gather hard evidence, it became clear it was the Libyans. But it took over two years to get indictments against two Libyans. So at the moment we cannot really say that Bin Laden is involved with this because there is no hard evidence, and we are in danger of rushing in feet first before we establish the facts. WATSON: Doubts about the evidence on Bin Laden have led to calls here for him to be handed over to an independent court, and not to the United States. SARWAR: No country can be accuser, investigator, prosecutor and at the same time judge and jury. If there is evidence against Osama Bin Laden, then that evidence should be presented to the International Tribunal and I will support any call that Taliban must hand over Osama Bin Laden to the International Tribunal and if he's guilty, he must be punished and he must be brought to justice. WATSON: Currently the niceties of how to put Osama Bin Laden on trial don't arise. As the Taliban won't hand him over - the allies face the problem of tracking him down. SHAYLER: Let's face it, we couldn't beat the IRA in Northern Ireland and that's where you have got access to where records of where people live and so on. The idea of trying to find terrorists in the mountains of Afghanistan is going to be impossible. There is a very real practical issue here that if you start fighting terrorists with terrorism you will increase terrorism. WATSON: Special forces in training. It's widely thought the task of rooting out Bin Laden will fall upon America's Delta Force troops and Britain's SAS. COLONEL DEWAR: Going in very quickly, either eliminating their target or physically capturing it and taking it out of Afghanistan. Now that is perfectly possible. British special forces have operated in that area. US special forces are well equipped and well trained to do a similar operation. Perfectly feasible. WATSON: A former defence minister doesn't doubt the ability of our special forces, but warns that deployment of ground troops could cost British lives. KILFOYLE: We seem to be moving into a situation and I'd say it was certainly true of Afghanistan that if we were to be engaged in any shape or form, there will be casualties and whether the British public and, indeed, the American public, will countenance that remains to be seen. WATSON: The message from the US administration is that they won't be satisfied with simply putting on trial Osama Bin Laden. They also want to shut down his organisation, Al Qaida, or in English, the base. It's known to have operated training camps in Afghanistan. but it may difficult to take action against them without also tackling the fundamentalist Taliban regime which has allowed them to operate. Despite this low-rent version of a cold-war style military parade in Kabul, the Taliban aren't an army in the conventional sense, but they are a very effective guerilla force; so some experts say the West should fight fire with fire and arm the home-grown opposition - the Northern Alliance - to take on the Taliban. DEWAR: They could beef up, if you like, the Northern Alliance and help it expand out of its northern chunk of territory, currently occupies some thirty per cent, up to thirty per cent, of the northern part of Afghanistan. The aim might well be to expand this into the whole of Afghanistan. WATSON: But at this point some of those who believe action should be taken against Bin Laden wouldn't support toppling foreign regimes as a war aim - at least, not without UN endorsement. KILFOYLE: There are lots of appalling regimes around the world and I think it's rather difficult for any one nation or indeed group of nations to arbitrarily pick from amongst those particular regimes that they despise and set out to overthrow. I mean the last thing we need to do is to encourage a whole new generation of potential suicide bombers. WATSON: The message from the summit of European Union leaders on Friday was one of unity. Behind the scenes, there may be some doubts about ousting the government of Afghanistan, although few would shed tears for the Taliban. But what may place the wider coalition under increasing, perhaps even unbearable pressure, is if the US begins to target even more Muslim states. LOUIS MICHEL: We want of course a proportionate reaction, and a targeted reaction, so they promised full consultation. I think the United States allies will immediately feel if they should react too strongly for instance, they will immediately feel that the European Union cannot follow that, and so I think they will be prudent. WATSON: The Americans have been saying that the war on terrorism doesn't begin and end in Afghanistan. Countries which harbour terrorists or sponsor terrorism could also face reprisals. Iran was in the past seen as a rogue state but will be courted by the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw this week . But their old foe, Iraq, may suffer a different fate. Sudan and Somalia have in the past been accused of sheltering terrorists as has Libya, though they denounced the recent attack on the US. Some experts certainly believe there will be some form of action beyond Afghanistan. DEWAR: A more conventional war in Iraq I think is, is a definite possibility. I mean links have already been proven to Saddam Hussein's intelligence people who are known to have spoken to one of the hijackers about a year before the events of last week. So it, it is, it is very possible that Saddam Hussein and his regime will become a target. Indeed, there has been much talk of the Americans wishing to finish the job that they didn't finish in 1991. WATSON: American fighter planes aboard the USS Enterprise - a vessel with high name recognition for American television viewers. It's reported to be in the Indian Ocean, while as many as five-hundred US fighter aircraft are thought to be stationed on land around the Middle east. The US is ensuring it's keeping its military options open. Britain will have its full complement of twenty thousand service personnel in the Gulf state of Oman by the beginning of October. Although they are on a military exercise, their headquarters staff have had their duties changed to be on standby for any operation against world terrorism. While some politicians don't rule out a wider conflict, others worry about the potential consequences of British involvement. SARWAR: My fear is that if British government supported American actions outrightly, then there is a real danger that the people and, in particular, the people in the third world countries and Muslims, will regard Britain as the 'Yes' person of United States of America. MACKINLAY: Of course I and my colleagues in the parliamentary Labour Party understand the gravity of the situation and are also nervous, but the bottom line is that we know we have to deny terrorists access to weapons of mass destruction which could be an atomic weapon in a suitcase or, or a chemical let off in the London Underground in a Coca-Cola tin. That's the issue. BRUCE GEORGE MP: If there is evidence that any state was providing intelligence to whoever the terrorists are or had provided them with protection, provided them with passports, if a whole range of criteria that had been devised are met, you know, then it may well be that that country will be targeted but if they are targeted the same rules apply and that is it must not be indiscriminate, it must be based on solid evidence. WATSON: The war against terrorism won't be limited to faraway countries of which we know little. It'll also be fought on the home front. If effective action is to be taken to prevent, rather than simply respond to terrorism, then some say we may have to face profound changes to our everyday lives. If destruction also breeds creation, then the events in New York may prove influential in giving rise to new thinking on civil liberties. The UK government is on the brink of introducing more anti-terrorist measures, although Downing Street in a briefing note to MPs reassured them that the European Convention on Human Rights wouldn't be infringed by new legislation. But even a champion of open government now says there must be a new balance between liberty and security. LORD CLARK: We're gonna have to start rethinking many of the ways in which we approach our civil liberties whilst trying to protect them as much as possible. For example, ID cards, must be on the agenda now. Must be debated. Airports - we've got to step up the check-in. We've got to make sure that the asylum seekers that none of them can be any way an excuse for a front for terrorist groups, and that can easily be done, and these are the sorts of things we've got to try and do which will affect the way we live, but may be necessary if we're gonna win the fight against terrorism. MACKINLAY: It's very important that those drafting the legislation the Home Secretary's going to bring to Parliament in a few weeks time, does ensure that for every limitation on liberties, every curtailment there is a balancing safeguard. WATSON: Those who have suffered most have more immediate concerns. As the Protheros' remember their daughter, they also fear that other people, as yet unknown, could be facing a similar fate to those who died in America. REVEREND PROTHERO: I hope that the gospel of reconciliation will somehow find its way through the darkness and through, through the desire for revenge which isn't going to achieve anything. WATSON: The British government have stressed that any action against terrorism mustn't be seen as a war on Islam; that they simply have no option but take action against those thought responsible for inflicting grief on the Protheros' and thousands of other families across the world. But the methods they employ in their battle, will determine whether they can maintain broad support - and continue to occupy the moral high ground.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.