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There's No Such Thing as a 'Good' Terrorist

By Pierre Atlas

There's a man who is widely believed to have masterminded the bombing of a civilian airliner many years ago that killed 73 passengers. He is also believed - and at one point he even admitted - to have planned a wave of bombings of tourist hotels.

The man was arrested for the terrorist attack on the airliner, but managed to escape from jail and flee the country. A couple of years ago he was arrested in another country on unrelated charges. How should that country, which now has him in its possession, deal with this accused terrorist?

As it turns out, the government that arrested him on the other, relatively minor charges used to pay his salary as an operative of its intelligence agency. It refuses to charge him with terrorism, and rejects requests by other countries to extradite him to stand trial for his alleged crimes. Worse still, just this week that government released him on bail. For all intents and purposes, the accused terrorist mastermind is now a free man.

The Bush administration, fighting a "Global War on Terror," of course should be outraged by all this, and should be leading the international charge to bring this man to justice. But there's one problem. The government that just released him from jail, and which refuses to extradite him to face trial elsewhere, is the US government. The intelligence agency that at one time had this alleged terrorist on its payroll is the CIA.

The man's name is Luis Posada Carriles, and the airliner and the hotels he allegedly bombed were Cuban. And that seems to make all the difference. But should it?

In May 2005, Posada was detained by the Department Homeland Security for illegally entering the United States from Mexico. His request for asylum was denied, but he has not been charged in the US for his terrorist-related activities.

On Thursday, April 19--ironically, the 12th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing--a US federal court ordered the release of Luis Posada Carriles from a New Mexico federal prison. Out on bail on immigration fraud charges and wearing an ankle bracelet, he immediately flew to his family's home in Miami, where he was welcomed by hardcore anti-Castro Cuban exiles as a returning hero.

But how "heroic" is Posada? On October 6, 1976, Cubana Airlines Flight 455 blew up in the skies over the Caribbean. Seventy three people, including teenaged members of Cuba's national fencing team, were killed. In Venezuela in 1985, Posada, a Cuban-born Venezuelan national, was arrested and charged with the bombing, but he escaped from prison dressed as a priest. Both Cuba and Venezuela have sought his extradition for trial.

Posada has also been accused, among many other things, of planning a series of bombings at tourist hotels in Havana in 1997 that killed one person and wounded eleven. He admitted responsibility for the bombings at the time in a newspaper interview.

Not all Cuban Americans see him as a hero. Elena Freyre, executive director of the Cuban-American Defense League, told The New York Times on April 20 that, "We have been fighting this war on terror, and here we are releasing a man who has a history of terrorist acts and is a fugitive of justice in other countries. It's absolutely appalling."

There is little doubt that Luis Posada Carriles has been involved in terrorism. Indeed, the Justice Department, arguing before the federal court to keep him in jail on the illegal immigration charges, described Posada as "an unrepentant criminal and admitted mastermind of terrorist plots."

If the Bush administration wanted to arrest Posada for terrorism, it could have done so anytime in the past two years under provisions of the Patriot Act. But it has chosen not to.

The Posada affair has been a propaganda boon for the Cuban regime. When I was in Cuba last May, I saw giant billboards in Havana with huge pictures of Bush and Posada side-by-side, blood dripping from their exaggerated fanged teeth, both accused in bold letters of supporting terrorism.

Cuba's heavy-handed propaganda aside, we do come off looking like hypocrites. After the September 11 attacks, President Bush declared that "you're either with us or against us" in the War on Terror, and promised he would not distinguish between the perpetrators of terrorism and those states that harbor terrorists.

Yet are we not harboring a possible terrorist ourselves? Does the target of Posada's violence - Castro's Cuba - make his alleged acts any less vile, or any less subject to criminal charges or extradition?

If we are indeed waging a "War on Terror," we must not play the game of separating out the terrorists we like from those we don't like. Terrorism is defined by the act, not by the motivation. We cannot say to the world that there is such a thing as a "good" terrorist.

Pierre M. Atlas is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian College.

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