Few Americans have more experience with militant Islam than Terry Anderson.
Anderson was chief Middle East correspondent for The Associated Press when he was abducted at gunpoint on a Beirut street in March 1985. His captors, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia, held him for nearly seven years — longer than any of the dozens of Westerners who were seized when civil war brought near-anarchy to Lebanon.
Anderson became an author and journalism professor after returning to the United States in December 1991. He settled in Ohio, won a lawsuit against the government of Iran, retired from teaching and built a ranch. His latest venture is into politics: Anderson is a Democratic candidate for the Ohio state Senate on next month’s ballot.
With the human and financial costs of the U.S. invasion of Iraq mounting, and security issues at the top of voters’ concerns in the presidential race, I wondered what Anderson might have to say on these subjects. I interviewed him by telephone in early September. Coincidentally, this was just a few days after hundreds of adults and children died in the disastrous end to a terrorist seizure of a school in Beslan, in the Russian district of North Ossetia.
Sentinel: You were taken hostage in 1985, one of 18 Americans who were seized in Lebanon in that era. In your view, is there a thread that connects the Beirut hostage-takings of the 1980s with the terrorism that has followed in the two decades since?
Anderson: Yes, there’s a thread: The use of Islam by some leaders, including religious leaders, to justify violence, which in my view it doesn’t justify. These are people who teach hatred and claim to be following the Koran. I’ve read the Koran and that’s not what it teaches.
There is a common thread in the Middle East in which the economic and political situation fosters this kind of radical fundamentalism. It is a place where all governments are authoritarian, where economic benefits are unequally distributed, and where many people don’t see a future for their children.
Certainly Iraq is very similar to Lebanon when these things were happening, in that the government has very little hold and does not have the power to stop the formation of these militias … and does not seem to have the ability to stop kidnapping, whether it is for political purposes or economic purposes.
Sentinel: Do militants or the governments that have supported them engage in killings or kidnappings because they realistically can hope to benefit, either domestically or internationally? The Iranians, for example, received arms from the Reagan administration in exchange for help in winning the release of hostages, and Spain withdrew its forces from Iraq after the Madrid train bombings this year.
Anderson: [Trading arms to Iran in exchange for hostages’ release] was a side issue. It was a mistake, obviously. Of course they expect to benefit in some fashion or they wouldn’t be doing it. But benefit in their terms is not necessarily logical in our frame of reference.
I think [the Madrid bombers] were less interested in the presence or absence of Spanish troops [in Iraq] than they were in simply showing their power. When the Spanish government gave in to their demands, it was simply a bonus.
There are a lot of groups in Iraq trying to jockey for power. They’re sitting on a trillion dollars’ worth of oil. Somebody’s got to come out on top.
Take [Iraqi Shiite insurgent leader Muqtada] al-Sadr. His people and those groups that are more or less under his control actually did release many of their hostages … because al-Sadr does not want to be seen as a terrorist. He wants to be seen as a legitimate power … so he was relatively, and I emphasize the term relatively, restrained. He’s primarily interested in the use of military power and force in the pursuit of political aims in Iraq. Some of the other groups picked up hostages, made ridiculous demands and promptly cut off their heads. Obviously not interested in political demands … much more purely terrorism. You see chaos there, where all sorts of groups can flourish.
There’s very little that we can do about it. You can’t use regular troops, no matter how well trained or motivated, to stop a war of terror. The Israelis have been trying to do it for 50 years and they haven’t succeeded.
Sentinel: You sued the Iranian government for sponsoring your abductors. You won a default judgment when Iran refused to defend itself in U.S. courts. Other hostages did the same. Do you see any signs that these types of financial penalties are helping to reduce state sponsorship of terrorism?
Anderson: The Iranians have sure gotten a little calmer about it, haven’t they? I assume there’s more than one reason for it … but it certainly doesn’t hurt to make it more expensive for them. States sponsor terrorism because it’s a cheap way to wage war. If you make it much more expensive for them, they’re going to be that much less likely to do it.
Sentinel: Do you think President Bush was right to order the U.S. invasion of Iraq? And, if not, was it a mistake of policy, of execution, or of both?
Anderson: I would hesitate to say he was right. I have serious doubts about the wisdom of that decision. Saddam Hussein and his people, there’s no question they were very bad people … I worked in Iraq in 1984 and 1985 for AP. I know who those people were, and I have no brief for them. However, the justification for the war was patently mistaken at a minimum, and I would be inclined to say it was deliberately misleading…
It is clear today that we went into this war with too few troops to accomplish the job. They weren’t well equipped, and the people who were running it had no idea what to do once they won the battle. They had no plans. They had an unrealistic and foolish expectation that the Iraqis would open their arms wide and become democratic.
Sentinel: Israel preemptively bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. This may have prevented Saddam Hussein from being able to threaten or use nuclear weapons in his wars with Iran and, later, the American-led coalition that liberated Kuwait. Now there are fears that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. How should America and the West respond — if the Israelis don’t get there first?
Anderson: To have the Israelis bomb Iran would be a serious, serious mistake. The reaction would be pretty awful.
I think we’re doing the right thing … in trying to persuade Iran that it isn’t in its best interests to have nuclear weapons.
Iran is not the source of the [present-day] terror that we’re talking about. Don’t confuse the two. In the first 10 or 20 years of its [Islamic republic] it funded and encouraged terrorists. Whether or not it is still doing so is in question. The only way to handle Iran is to encourage it to become a member of the community of nations.
Sentinel: In the wake of the Beslan tragedy, Russian officials are enunciating a doctrine of preemption against terrorism, mirroring the policies announced by President Bush after 9/11. In your view, does preemption stand to bring benefits that are worth the costs in lost goodwill or, as apparently happened in Iraq, of making decisions based on faulty information?
Anderson: Preemption may have to be done at one time or another if there is a clear and present threat.
Sentinel: You had 2,454 days to get to know the people who held you. What motivated them? And do you think similar motivations apply to other militants, including al-Qaida today?
Anderson: Their immediate motivation was to use me and others to free their compatriots who were in prison in Kuwait. One of [the Kuwaiti prisoners] happened to be the brother-in-law of the man who was primarily responsible for [my] kidnapping. He happened to be head of security for Hezbollah. Other groups became involved over the years, and they had different motivations.
Is there a parallel between that and Iraq? Not really. There is a parallel in the conditions: Chaos and lack of central authority. There is a parallel in terms of broad motivations: they are Islamic fundamentalists; they don’t like us. They are capable of rationalizing the most awful acts by their particular interpretation of Islam.
Sentinel: Can the threat of Islamic militancy be dispelled without a true settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Would such a settlement, remote as it seems today, even be enough?
Anderson: It would certainly be a major factor. One of our problems is that the violent fundamentalists have been able to draw support by characterizing America as the enemy, and we are the enemy because we support Israel. There is no question that U.S. policy is heavily biased toward Israel, and has been since 1948. [Settlement of the conflict] would remove a major irritant. It would be more difficult for them to paint us as the enemy. That doesn’t mean they won’t continue to do it.
Sentinel: You are a nationally known figure. Your journalism career put you in the hottest of the world’s hot spots. Yet today you are running for the quintessential entry-level political office, a seat in the Ohio state Senate — and if you win, you’ll be part of party that currently is outnumbered 22-11 in that chamber. Why do you want this job?
Anderson: I live in southeast Ohio, Appalachian Ohio. It’s the poorest part of the state, one of the poorest parts of the country. It’s absolutely beautiful. The people here are among the nicest I know. They need help.
Sentinel: What can a state senator realistically do to produce private-sector jobs in your area? Or do you think it is not necessarily important whether the jobs are in the private sector, as long as there are new jobs?
Anderson: I do think it’s important to develop the private sector. One of my emphases is to develop tourism and recreation. We’re losing our factories. We have to set off in a different direction. If we can develop the infrastructure and the plans and proposals, we can make this area something it hasn’t been, which is a place for people to come to enjoy themselves … Can one state senator do that? No, but certainly I can have a voice.
Sentinel: Coal has historically been important in your area, though the mines have declined in recent decades. Lately, the Bush administration has favored expansion of the use of coal, and has supported changes in clean air regulations that are seen as friendly to the coal industry. That said, why do you think a Kerry administration would be better for your region of Ohio?
Anderson: The coal we have here is dirty coal. That’s why our coal mines closed. Coal users can get better coal cheaper out West. If we could develop the technologies that could allow us to use our coal and still maintain environmental standards, that would be a good thing for this region.
We’ve made huge strides in this country on the environment in the last 50 years … It doesn’t seem to me a good thing to go backwards in the name of economic development.
Sentinel: Ohio is one of the most important swing states in this year’s presidential election. Right now, polls have the Bush-Kerry race very close. If we can ask you to dust off your pundit hat for a moment, how do you think Ohio will go in November, and what is likely to be the deciding factor?
Anderson: I’m a Kerry supporter, so I’m biased. I really think Kerry is going to take the state. It’s been hurt too bad by the loss of jobs. Our school funding system is a mess. Like everyplace else, health care is spotty and way too expensive. It’s ripe to go to Kerry.