Q and A with Dale Van Atta, an LDS Expert on Terrorism

Dale Van AttaDale Van Atta is an investigative reporter whose work has often taken him to the Middle East to probe the terrorists’ murky underworld. He was the prime reporter for a 1989 television documentary on terrorism, for which he interviewed Yasser Arafat, and traveled to Beirut, Lebanon, a harrowing assignment, considered so dangerous the United States had no embassy there. Amongst his interviews has been Ahmed Jibril, the Palestinian extremist who was believed responsible for organizing the bombing of Pan Am 103 in December 1988 which killed 270 passengers over Lockerbie Scotland. He has also interviewed many of the top leaders in Iraq and was the first to identify the Iranian responsibility in two embassy bombings in Lebanon.

For many years, he has been on the university lecture circuit speaking on terrorism where he predicted that we would face a major terrorist attack on our soil in the near future. Here is Meridian’s recent interview with him.

Q. For most of us, September 11 was a new dawning in our understanding of the threat terrorism poses us. With these terrorist attacks have we lost our innocence?

A. Yes. We were on a continent surrounded by two oceans with a roughly friendly neighbor to the south and a friendly neighbor to the north. We never saw the destruction of World War I or II on or own soil. We have been insulated.

We haven’t had an experience before of being threatened on our own soil. The closest we came to it was the Cuban missile crisis. Our European allies have lived with missiles right over their borders for years. They understand what it is to feel threatened. Up until now, we have had this feeling of invulnerability. Now Americans feel that America has been attacked. .

Q. How do we live with this new kind of insecurity?

A. We can be saddened by the prospect but not fearful. What I have always worried about is the degree to which people would be willing to give up important civil liberties to feel safe again.

Q. Is terrorism a threat that will ever go away?

A. In some ways, it’s a war that will never end until Christ comes again. The reason is because no matter what we do as Americans, we are in a world that has shifted from an East/West conflict where our major threat was the Soviet Union to a North/South one. When I say North/South, it’s a code word for saying the rich vs. poor, the haves vs. the have-nots, the well-endowed vs. the disenfranchised. If you were out of the United States, you’d notice that the U.S. was able to kick out $40 billion for an immediate aid package after the terrorist attack which is more than most countries have as an annual per capita income. Some of them say to themselves, “Why don’t they just give us $10 billion and we could have saved thousands of lives.”

Q. How much bigger is the problem than just Osama bin Laden?

A. Osama bin Laden is at the top with his al-Quaida as a base, but it is also a conglomerate of groups. He controls it, but if we cut off the head and the snake will go on. They rally dissidents to their cause claiming the attacks are because we support Israel. I do think Israel is a significant factor in their animosity, but even if things were peaceful in Israel, the terror would continue.

It comes down to how Americans are viewed. They don’t seem to realize that the last three wars or police actions involving the United States have all been in defense of Moslems. In the Kosovo action, we sided with the Kosovo Moslems and also the Bosnian Moslems against the Serbian Christians. In the Gulf War, we defended Saudi Arabia and Kuwait against Iraq. But somehow that is not taken into account. Ironically, now Saddam has become a real hero for them,-he of all people– since he invaded a fellow Arab nation and took if over. Since then our sanctions against Iraq have been used as another excuse to be hostile toward us.

Even though Americans are basically peaceful until aroused, we are seen as having a strong military arm. We are seen as the only country that ever used the nuclear bomb. We believe it was all for righteous causes, but they see it as oppressive. I don’t see how their attitudes will change toward many of these things.

Q. Do normal people-not extremists but average citizens in some of these Arab countries– look at Osama bin Laden as a hero?

A. They probably do in Pakistan. There is no Arab democracy, and if you have no democracy, then you have no free press. In that case these extremists can say almost anything they want and get away with it.

In Pakistan in 1979, a huge mob attacked the U.S. embassy and burned it to the ground. Most of them came from a soccer game where they had received a report that we had done something to Mecca and it sparked a flame of rage. A government can stoke animosity and begin a war against someone with calculated misinformation.

Q. Are we going to create more hate by warring against the terrorists?

A. Retaliation may give you a temporary feeling of peace, but it will bring more retaliation. Ask the Israelis, they are good at retaliation. Has their terrorism ever ceased? No

It is not bad to show strength. Sometimes it is your only option, but it is often strongest when threatened but not used. Still, since we are using it, I am 100% supportive. Who really believes that since we have retaliated that will end it? Even if you eliminate leaders, they will have sons who will remember it for the next generation. Though it may be inevitable that you create more enemies when you defend yourselves, we have to make the moves to bring them to justice. Retaliation is a different matter, and we have to be extremely cautious about that. Kaddafi would have fallen years ago if we hadn’t helped to make him popular.

Q. Is this violent hostility toward the U.S. widely spread among the people of the Moslem nations?

A. We have many indigenous American groups. We have our own extremists. Moslems are people of the Book as are Christians and Jews. The Koran includes almost all of the figures in the Old Testament, and it describes Jesus as an extremely wise and loving prophet. When you see people ranting in the street, they are no more representative of Islam than David Koresh, or Jim Jones or the Inquisition are representative of Christianity today. We Americans wouldn’t want to be judged by anti-Semites or the Ku Klux Klan. Perhaps our having a new sensitivity to the Moslem people around us will be one of the best things that comes out of this.

What I had not expected from the terrorists is that they were not concerned about killing their own. For them, it is a capital crime to kill a Moslem, but Moslems were killed in these attacks. It is obviously a sign of the times of a very serious secret combination. You talk about priestcraft they are using warped interpretations of the Koran to justify great evil.

Q. What further attacks do you worry most about?

A. When I did a great deal of speaking at universities, I was always considered an expert on Washington or terrorism. In my talks I predicted that in the next ten years or so we would have a nuclear explosion in the United States from a hand-carried or truck-carried bomb. I said that the number one target is not Washington D.C. but New York City’s financial district. It is the symbol of capitalism and Satan and the evils that they feel we do in the culture.

For these exiles of Islam, it symbolizes for them roughly what the Christians might have felt about Rome in its last stages-not just because they were killing Christians, but because they were a decadent nation, not following the right religious tenets.

They see the U.S. as the leader of the world, even if they hate it. Rome was imploding inward because of a great deal of sin, and that is how they see us. I don’t know how you change that attitude, but the way you might do it long-term are things like the Peace Corps-doing a little more to help the world so that we have friends everywhere.

I’m not saying that we deserve any of this. It is appropriate to bring the perpetrators to justice and to defend ourselves against terror. What I am saying, however, is that they see us differently than we see ourselves.

Paradoxically, since September 11, I would have to change what I told universities, because now I think a nuclear bomb is less likely. We have new security measures and this very large, very important coalition to eliminate terrorism and truly isolate those who support it.

Q. Does being a Latter-day Saint give you any deeper insight into the terrorist attacks than you might otherwise have? What can a Latter-day Saint do in these times to help?

A. We can pray and live the way we are taught to live in church. While we are horrified at the events, as Latter-day Saints we know that terrorist attacks alone are not the issue. We have a different war to fight. It is a war against Satan, a war against sin. The people that we have lost and are losing in increasing numbers is more to a tide of evil and temptation than to terrorist attacks. Any good LDS parent who has lost a child to sin is as much the walking wounded as those who have lost loved ones in New York or Washington, because in our eternal perspective, the second death is the truly bad one.

I wonder what kind of memorial services are held in heaven every time a good church member is lost or a good convert is not gained because we did not do more? This war of terrorism pales in comparison with the war we fought in heaven.


2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.