- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 8, 2005

Twenty years ago this month, four Islamic terrorists hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro and murdered Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound, American passenger. As U.S. Special Operations teams pursued them through the Mediterranean, the killers sought to make good their escape.

Abetted by the government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the terrorists were finally apprehended when U.S. Navy jets forced their Egyptian-provided aircraft to land in Sicily. Though Italian officials helped spirit the terrorist ring-leader, Abu Abbas, out of the country before he could face charges, the other three were prosecuted and convicted. In Washington, Reagan administration officials involved in the daring operation applauded the capture as a victory in the war on terror. Our celebration was premature.

In the aftermath of the Achille Lauro incident, newspaper headlines quoted President Reagan saying, “We bagged the bums,” and “You can run but you can’t hide.” True enough for the three terrorists jailed for hijacking and murder — but widely off the mark if viewed in the broader context of fanatical Islamic terrorism that was even then, a very dangerous and growing movement. In a moment of absolute candor afterward, a senior CIA officer said, “We only caught them because they wanted to live.” Reflecting on the death of 241 Marines in Beirut two years earlier, he added, “If these three had wanted to die, the outcome would have been a whole lot different.”

That’s where we are today. After September 11, 2001, the attacks on Madrid, London, Bali, and literally thousands of “suicide-homicides” from Tel Aviv to Chechnya to Tal Afar, Iraq — it is apparent there are plenty of volunteers willing to become “martyrs” while killing infidels. Those who suggest pulling our military out of Iraq will remove the incentive for radicals to join the jihad are sadly mistaken. So too are those who believe the problem will go away if we eliminate “kingpins” like Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab Zarqawi — “evil men, obsessed with ambition and unburdened by conscience,” as President Bush described them this week in a forceful presentation before the National Endowment for Democracy.

As Mr. Bush explained, “No concession, bribe, or act of appeasement would change or limit [the terrorists’] plans for murder. On the contrary: They target nations whose behavior they believe they can change through violence.”

So as the protests grow louder on the home front, Americans will continue to be targets for radical Islamic extremists. The best hope we have of protecting innocent civilians is to continue improving protection here at home; take violent action where perpetrators gather and train; and ameliorate conditions that make it easy for the jihad to recruit more volunteers. This strategy has been working and the president expanded upon it this week.

The regular drumbeat of news from Iraq and Afghanistan — albeit mostly negative — should make it clear violent action is being taken against “Jihadis” where they gather in significant numbers. And, despite criticism, there can be no doubt we have improved homeland defenses. Since September 11, as the president explained, the U.S. has prevented “at least 10 serious al Qaeda terrorist plots” — including three planned for the U.S.

What isn’t apparent — it just isn’t “news” — are measures to remove the incentives for young Muslims to become suicidal “foot soldiers” in the jihad. This week, the Mr. Bush went further, calling on “all responsible Islamic leaders to join in denouncing an ideology that exploits Islam for political ends.”

Beyond responsible dialogue, the best antidote to the imams, sheiks, ayatollahs and mullahs who incite terror are purple fingers. That’s why violence in Iraq is increasing as the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum nears. Millions of people lining up to vote are a threat to the power of the Jihadis — and they know it. So too are many other developments in Iraq that the media masters miss as they file reports on “the war’ from balconies of air-conditioned hotel rooms in Baghdad’s green zone.

Over the summer, 43 Iraqi schools were renovated, making it possible for another 18,000 Iraqi children to get a quality education instead of a deadly indoctrination. Since June 2004, 656 schools have been rebuilt or renovated.

Hundreds of thousands more Iraqis have clean water than ever before, thanks to new water treatment plants coming on-line. In the villages surrounding Kirkuk, for example, 25,000 have running water for the first time in their lives.

In August, the new Iraqi Highway Patrol headquarters opened its doors in Baghdad. Six new highway patrol stations are under construction. Maj. Andy Johnson of the 18th Military Police Brigade calls this “a major step toward consolidating Iraqi control over the security of the main highways and commercial arteries in Iraq.”

Throughout Iraq more children are going to school and more people than ever have electricity, clean water and sanitation. There are more newspapers, radio stations, televisions, fire stations and health-care facilities in Iraq today than at any point in the history of Mesopotamia. Yet we never hear about these things from our mainstream media.

Maj. Gen. S.T. Johnson, who commanded the forward element of the 2nd Marine Division in Iraq, puts it this way:

“As a result of everyone’s perseverance and personal risk, children here are going to school; water and electricity are widely available in the provinces of Karbala and Najaf which, almost one year ago, were dysfunctional. Forward operating bases in Najaf continue to be turned over to Iraqi Security Forces. Last but not least, thanks to our Military Training Teams and joint coalition and Iraqi patrols, Iraqi Security Forces and everyday people are taking charge and securing their national interests.”

In December, the Iraqis will elect their first government under their new constitution. All these measures point to trouble for the Jihadis, intent on despoiling freedom. Those who are fighting this war — on both sides — know this.

Though protests and pessimism command media attention here at home, there is hope in Iraq. That’s a big improvement over 20 years ago when we had to regard the capture of a handful of hijackers as a major victory in the war on terror.

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist and served was counterterrorism coordinator on President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council staff.

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