Tag: terrorism

Al Qaeda: Never an ‘Existential Threat’

My Washington Examiner column this week celebrates 10 years without a major follow-up attack on American soil, and argues that the main reason the United States has been terror-free for a decade isn’t the unparalleled competence of the federal government’s terror warriors—it’s the fact that al Qaeda was never an “existential threat.”

I’ve written a number of columns and blogposts making the same point over the years, and yet, every time I write something that says “al Qaeda’s not so terrifying,” I feel compelled to knock wood, genuflecting to the superstition that merely saying ”we’re pretty safe” out loud will jinx us, and the moment a piece is published, the terrorists will morph into villains worthy of TV’s 24, moving from ineffectual gas-can bombs to nukes.

So far, though, it seems there wasn’t much reason to worry.

Last week, the Washington Post ran a piece entitled, “Who got 9/11 right, and who got it wrong? A pundit score card.” The Post erred badly by not including the distinguished political scientist and friend of Cato, John Mueller, who started making the case that the al Qaeda threat was overblown back when duct tape alerts were the “new normal.” I can’t think of any other prominent figure who got it right as early and as often as Mueller did.

As long as we’re giving credit for prescience, though, I’d like to toot my own horn (sure, it’s graceless, but nobody else is volunteering for the job).

As a larval pundit pecking away in obscurity through the early aughties, I suspected, before I’d ever read Mueller, that the al Qaeda threat was overblown—and I made that case wherever I could.

In September 2002, I reviewed Peter Bergen’s Holy War, Inc. for Liberty magazine:  “Osama bin Laden: Not as Scary as You Think” (.pdf ). In it, I asked whether al Qaeda was “as dangerous as federal powergrabbers have led us to believe.”

After recounting what Bergen reported about Mohamed Odeh, an al Qaeda operative involved in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Tanzania—who botched his own escape by trying to convince Pakistani immigration officials that terrorism was “the right thing to do for Islam,”—I ventured that “a lot of these folks don’t sound all that bright.” (Since then, I’ve become even more convinced that these guys were never the sharpest scimitars in the shed.)

In December 2002, when my now-defunct blog was young and DC was waiting for the other shoe to drop after 9/11, I wondered “What if There Isn’t Another Shoe?”: “If the American Jihad/mullahs under the bed/the-country-is-riddled-with-sleeper-cells theory is correct, then why so quiet?” I suggested: “maybe there aren’t that many of them,” which turned out to be true. (Here’s a reference, and you can find the original if you go here and scroll down.)

Ten years later, it’s heartening to know that what was once a fringe position—and a marker of being “unserious” about terrorism—is fast becoming the conventional wisdom.

The Convoluted Debate on Drones

The same week U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta declared “we’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda”—an assessment that many believe reflects the efforts of seven years of CIA drone strikes—former director of national intelligence Dennis Blair called America’s “unilateral” drone war in countries like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia a mistake. “Because we’re alienating the countries concerned,” Blair said, “because we’re treating countries just as places where we go attack groups that threaten us, we are threatening the prospects of long-term reform.”

Given that our Nobel Peace Prize–winning president has drastically escalated the use of these flying, robotic hitmen, there seems to be some confusion at the White House.

Speaking to attendees at the Aspen Security Forum, Blair said drone strikes in Pakistan should be launched only when America had the full cooperation of the government in Islamabad and “we agree with them on what drone attacks” should target. As explained elsewhere, this author accepts the efficacy of America’s drone war, but with enormous reluctance. That said, part of Blair’s assessment seems wildly out of touch. Why would Washington wait for permission from Islamabad to hunt al Qaeda?

First, individuals either within or with ties to Pakistan’s spy agency have collaborated with insurgents that frequently attack U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. That doesn’t speak well for Blair’s call for joint cooperation. Second, we’ve known for years that elements within Pakistan have thwarted — on several occasions — foreign-led attempts to find and take out terrorists. Even someone who is not wildly enamored with drones understands the argument for employing them unilaterally when confronted with uncooperative governments. Policymakers, however, should be weighing the ability to keep militant groups off balance against the costs of facilitating the rise of more terrorists, particularly in a country as volatile as Pakistan.

A statement even more out of step than Mr. Blair’s came from Michael E. Leiter, former head of the National Counterterrorism Center. Earlier this week at the Aspen Security Forum, Leiter contended that assessments that al Qaeda was on the verge of collapse lacked “accuracy and precision” and that al Qaeda’s leadership and structure in Pakistan “is still there and could launch some attacks.” He also raised concerns about the possible long-term effects of intensive CIA paramilitary operations on conventional espionage and analysis for issues like China: “The question has to be asked: Has that in some ways diminished some of its strategic, long-term intelligence collection and analysis mission?”

Leiter’s comments are troubling due to the basis for his concern about the effectiveness of counter-terrorism. To emphasize why the growing consensus that al Qaeda is “on the ropes” is premature, Leiter noted that the failed plot to blow up a vehicle in Times Square in May 2010 was carried out by an American trained by the Pakistani Taliban. This statement is misguided in what it implies. By no means can America ensure that terrorists never come from Pakistan, or anywhere else. Such an aim epitomizes our overreaction to terrorism. It gives planners in Washington not only a convenient justification to prolong the wars we’re already in, but also an open-ended rationale to intervene anywhere else. Let’s remember that the United States is already fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is threatening to launch a third against Iran, bombs remote villages in nuclear-armed Pakistan, and has expanded operations into Somalia, Yemen, and possibly elsewhere. This is especially concerning given the current construction of a not-so-secret U.S. air base in the Middle East for more targeted strikes in Yemen.

Unfortunately, the president’s choice to replace Mr. Leiter, Matthew Olsen, said at his confirmation hearing this week before the Senate Intelligence Committee that he would define the strategic defeat of al Qaeda as “ending the threat that al Qaeda and all of its affiliates pose to the United States and its interests around the world.” This, too, is problematic. U.S. policy toward “ending the threat” from al Qaeda has been mainly through wars and intervention, and one of the many unintended consequences of American intervention has been the radicalization of Western-born Muslims.

Take, for instance, Somalia, where Washington has repeatedly tried and failed to bring order. Over the past two years, as many as 20 Somali-American men have disappeared from the Minneapolis area. Many analysts fear these men were recruited to fight alongside al-Shabab (“The Youth”), the militant wing of the Islamist Somali government the United States and Ethiopia overthrew in 2006. In describing Shirwa Ahmed, a naturalized American of the Somali diaspora believed to be the first U.S. citizen to carry out a terrorist suicide bombing, FBI director Robert Mueller said, “It appears that this individual was radicalized in his hometown in Minnesota.” Somalia is a classic case of how American intervention is forever self-perpetuating.

Debates over drones should not be cut and dry. Scholars, no matter the subject, should be “intellectually honest.” Supporters of counterterrorism can and should feel comfortable having reservations about the tactics employed, given Washington’s tendency for threat inflation. Drones may well become America’s new permanent wartime footing. Sadly, we will have learned nothing from 9/11 if drones provide policymakers a more antiseptic avenue for satiating their endless appetite for intervention.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

John McCain: Ever Confused, Always for War

Sen. John McCain has exhibited personal courage, but his geopolitical judgment is uniformly awful.  Over the last 30 years there has been no war or potential war that he has opposed.  In 2008 he wanted to confront nuclear-armed Russia over its neighbor Georgia, which started their short and sharp conflict.  It would have been ironic had the Cold War ended peacefully, only to see Washington trigger a nuclear crisis in order to back Georgia as it attempted to prevent the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from doing what Kosovo did with U.S. military aid:  achieve self-determination (by seceding from Georgia).

Now Senator McCain is banging the war drums in Libya.  But he seems to have trouble remembering who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

Although now crusading against Moammar Qaddafi, two years ago he joined Sens. Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham in Tripoli to sup with the dear colonel.  There the three opponents of tyranny whispered sweet nothings in the dictator’s ear, offering the prospect of military aid.  After all, the former terrorist had become a good friend of America by battling terrorists.

Andrew McCarthy reported on the sordid tale from the WikiLeaks disclosures:

A government cable (leaked by Wikileaks) memorializes the excruciating details of meetings between the Senate delegation and Qaddafi, along with his son Mutassim, Libya’s “national security adviser.” We find McCain and Graham promising to use their influence to push along Libya’s requests for C-130 military aircraft, among other armaments, and civilian nuclear assistance. And there’s Lieberman gushing, “We never would have guessed ten years ago that we would be sitting in Tripoli, being welcomed by a son of Muammar al-Qadhafi.” That’s before he opined that Libya had become “an important ally in the war on terrorism,” and that “common enemies sometimes make better friends.”

Obviously, that was then and this is now.  Along the way Senator McCain and his fellow war enthusiasts realized that Qaddafi wasn’t a nice guy after all.  Who knew?  I mean, he had only jailed opponents, conducted terrorist operations against the United States, and initiated a nuclear weapons program.  So earlier this year they demanded that the United States back the rebels, the new heroes of democracy. 

Until now, anyway.

Anyone who has covered civil wars won’t be surprised to learn that the insurgents aren’t always playing by Marquess of Queensbeerry rules.  Indeed, the opposition is united only by its hatred of Qaddafi.  It includes defectors, including  Qaddafi’s former interior minister who was just assassinated under mysterious circumstances; jihadists and terrorists, some of whom fought against U.S. forces in Iraq; tribal opponents of Qaddafi; and genuine democracy advocates devoted to creating a liberal society.  Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the good guys will win any power struggle certain to follow Qaddafi’s ouster.

The Obama administration claimed to enter the war to protect civilians.  Yet NATO has occasionally threatened to bomb the rebels if they harm civilians.  Reports of summary executions and looting by insurgent forces have emerged.  Now Senator McCain has written the opposition a letter—more polite than sending a drone, I suppose—demanding that the Transition National Council stop being mean to former Qaddafi supporters.

Reports the British Independent newspaper:

In his letter to the TNC, dated 20th July, Senator McCain, writing as “your friend and supporter,” pointed out “recent documentation of human rights abuses committed by opposition figures in the western Libyan towns of al-Awaniya, Rayayinah, Zawiyat al-Bagul, and al-Qawalish”. He continued: ” According to Human Rights Watch, a highly credible international non-governmental organisation, rebel fighters and supporters have damaged property, burned some homes, looted from hospitals, homes and shops, and beaten some individuals alleged to have supported government forces.

“I am confident you are aware of these allegations…. It is because the TNC holds itself to such high democratic standards that it is necessary for you and the Council to take decisive action to bring any human rights abuses to an immediate halt.”

Who would have imagined that a civil war could be nasty and that not everyone who opposes a dictator is a sweet, peace-loving liberal?  Certainly not John McCain.

The point is not that Qaddafi is a nice guy.  The world would be a better place if he “moves on,” so to speak.  But there’s no guarantee that a rebel victory will result in a liberal democracy dedicated to international peace and harmony.  And there’s nothing at stake that warrants involving the United States in yet another war in a Muslim nation—the fifth ongoing, if one counts the extensive drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen, along with Iraq and Afghanistan.

When Senator McCain urges Washington to bomb or invade the sixth Islamic state, which is inevitable given his past behavior, it would be worth remembering how he has managed to be on every side of the Libya issue, supporting tyranny before he opposed it.  When it comes to war, the best policy is to do the opposite of what he advises.  Only then will America find itself finally at peace.

Finns Begin a Quixotic Quest for Prevention

In the aftermath of the Oslo terror attack, Finnish police—yes, Finnish—plan to increase their surveillance of the Internet:

Deputy police commissioner Robin Lardot said his forces will play closer attention to fragmented pieces of information—known as ‘weak signals’—in case they connect to a credible terrorist threat.

That is not the way forward. As I explored in a series of posts and a podcast after the Fort Hood shooting here in the United States, random violence (terrorist or otherwise) is not predictable and not “findable” in advance—not if a free society is to remain free, anyway. That’s bad news, but it’s important to understand.

In the days since the attack, many commentators have poured a lot of energy into interpretation of Oslo and U.S. media treatment of it while the assumption of an al Qaeda link melted before evidence that it was a nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic “cultural conservative.” Such commentary and interpretation is riveting to people who are looking to vindicate or decimate one ideology or another, but it doesn’t matter much in terms of security against future terrorism.

As former FBI agent (and current ACLU policy counsel) Mike German advises, any ideology can become a target of the government if the national security bureaucracy comes to use political opinion or activism as a proxy or precursor for crime and terrorism. Rather than blending crime control with mind control, the only thing to do is to watch ever-searchingly for genuine criminal planning and violence, and remember the Oslo dead as Lt. General Cone did Fort Hood’s: “The … community shares your sorrow as we move forward together in a spirit of resiliency.”

Al Qaeda’s Mythical Unity

The mythical al Qaeda is a hierarchical organization. After losing its haven in Afghanistan, it cleverly decentralized authority and shifted its headquarters to Pakistan. But central management still dispatches operatives globally and manages affiliates according to a strategy.

The real al Qaeda is a fragmented and unmanageable movement. In the 1990s, it achieved limited success in getting other jihadists to join in attacking the West. It was not managerial innovation but the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and other governments’ pressures that destroyed  the limited hierarchy al Qaeda Central had achieved. Its scattered remnant in Pakistan controls little locally and less abroad. The leaders have cachet but lack the material incentives that real managers distribute to exercise authority. Al Qaeda became bunches of guys with diminished capability.*

The myth is destructive to counterterrorism. Because tightly-run organizations are better at mass violence than disparate movements, the myth creates needless fear that encourages overly ambitious and expensive policies, like the war in Afghanistan. The myth increases the number of enemies we face, taking focus from real ones. Most jihadist militants hate Americans but don’t try to kill us. They fight locally. Attacking them risks making them into what we fear they are and stoking nationalistic resentment that increases their popularity.

My anecdotal sense is that events since 9/11 have increasingly brought commentators around to truth. Even so, the media, for simplicity’s sake, tends towards the myth. And the Obama administration, despite improving upon its predecessors’ absurdly broad definition of our terrorist enemies, still overstates al Qaeda Central’s unity and control of affiliates. More importantly, U.S. policies still pay insufficient attention to the distinction among various al Qaeda entities.

Here are three recent examples of this rhetorical error and its consequences:

(1) Since bin Laden’s death, U.S. officials, analysts, and pundits have claimed that the cache of emails found in his compound contradict recent intelligence reports downplaying his control. The emails, we are told, show that he was still running the show and that al Qaeda Central remained potent.

Last week, however, McClatchy quoted more anonymous officials suggesting that to al Qaeda types in Pakistan and beyond, bin Laden was like a “cranky old uncle” that you respectfully listen to and ignore. The Washington Post reported that the emails show al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan complaining about depleted funds, declining popularity, and CIA drones decimating their ranks.

The White House seems conflicted about which view of al Qaeda to take. It commendably wants to belittle al Qaeda, robbing it of mystique by portraying bin Laden as pathetic and weak. On the other hand, it needs the threat of a powerful al Qaeda to justify the war in Afghanistan and other controversial policies.

(2) Media reports often give the impression that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are the core of the militant group (Ansar al-Sharia) revolting in Yemen’s south. The implication is al Qaeda could soon control territory for the first time. Too little attention is given to the uncertain role AQAP plays among Yemen’s militants and its limited ties to al Qaeda Central. Bin Laden apparently asked AQAP’s leader to attack Americans rather than gathering territory locally, suggesting that its commitment to attacking us may be limited.

The point is not that we should ignore al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen. But uncertainty about their role in Yemen and intent cautions against undifferentiated assaults on their leaders, let alone those of Ansar al-Sharia.

(3) Since our recent drone strike in Somalia on leaders of the al-Shabab insurgent group, the administration has claimed that Shabab’s leaders are plotting terrorism against American or western targets. The only evidence given for this assertion is vague claims of Shabab’s ties to Yemeni militants and its claim of responsibility for a 2010 terrorist bombing in Uganda. But that bombing came because Ugandan troops are in the African Union force fighting al-Shabab. While reprehensible, the attack does not show a desire to terrorize Americans.

At the risk of sounding quaint, Congress should make the administration substantiate its claims that Shabab is targeting Americans before we bomb them further. We have enough insurgents to fight these days outside Somalia.

*These positions are roughly those taken by Bruce Hoffman and Marc Sageman, respectively. My aim is not to perfectly state their views, however, but to describe general views in terrorism commentary.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

Beware the Depends Bomber?

My Washington Examiner column this week is on TSA, the federal agency that’s its own reductio ad absurdum.

In the latest TSA atrocity, the agency forced a wheelchair-bound, 95-year-old leukemia patient to remove her adult diaper, for fear she might be wired to explode. “It’s something I couldn’t imagine happening on American soil,” her distraught daughter told the press: “Here is my mother, 95 years old, 105 pounds, barely able to stand, and then this.”

My God, what is she on about? Proper procedure was followed!

As I point out in the column:

in a classic case of “mission creep,” TSA is taking its show on the road and the rails.

Remember when, pushing his bullet-train boondoggle in the 2011 State of the Union, President Obama cracked that it would let you travel “without the pat-down”? Not funny—also, not true.

Earlier this year, Amtrak passengers in Savannah, Ga., stepped off into a TSA checkpoint. Though the travelers had already disembarked the train, agents made women lift their shirts to check for bra explosives. Two weeks ago, armed TSA and Homeland Security agents hit a bus depot in Des Moines, Iowa, to question passengers and demand their papers.

These raids are the work of TSA’s “Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response” (VIPR or “Viper”) teams—an acronym at once senseless and menacing, much like the agency itself.

All this is happening at a time when al Qaeda looks more harried, pathetic, and weaker than ever. But hey, you can never be too careful, right?

Feel Safer?

The NYT’s Weak Defense of Homeland Security Grants

Last week, the House passed a homeland security appropriations bill slashing funding for grants to states and localities. The New York Times has now noticed and unleashed an indignant editorial:

House Republicans talk tough on terrorism. So we can find no explanation — other than irresponsibility — for their vote to slash financing for eight antiterrorist programs. Unless the Senate repairs the damage, New York City and other high-risk localities will find it far harder to protect mass transit, ports and other potential targets.

The programs received $2.5 billion last year in separate allocations. The House has cut that back to a single block grant of $752 million, an extraordinary two-thirds reduction. The results for high-risk areas would be so damaging — with port and mass transit security financing likely cut by more than half — that the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Peter King of New York, voted against the bill as “an invitation to an attack.”

Only a few months ago, Times editorials accused King of trying to “hype” and “stoke” fear of homegrown Muslim terrorism. It’s sort of touching to see them get behind his fearmongering when the beneficiaries are local firefighters, police, and other local interests.

But the editorial has trouble worse than hypocrisy. For starters, it’s light on facts. Its accounting seems to omit over $320 million in funds for local firefighters that a floor amendment put in the bill. It also fails to mention that the bill eliminates a formula that ensures that homeland security funds are distributed to every state. Because it means that counterterrorism spending is highest per-capita in rural areas where the threat from terrorism is lowest, homeland security watchers have long attacked that minimum funding provision. So while this bill would indeed cut homeland security funds going to New York, it would also mean that New York gets more of the remaining funds.

More importantly, the Times evidently did not try too hard to find an explanation for the cuts once they settled on irresponsibility, given that Republican appropriators readily offered one: the funds are wasteful. Rather than explain why they think the money is well spent (my definition of responsibility), the editorial conflates spending on security with security itself. It says the cuts will be “damaging,” but it cites only damage to the budgets of recipient agencies, not their purpose.

In fact, the threat of terrorism is so low in the United States and the efficacy of the funds in mitigating it so uncertain that the right amount of homeland security spending in most parts of the United States is none. That is especially true now that we are roughly a decade removed from the September 11 attacks, which spawned a massive increase in homeland security grant-making. That splurge was meant to bolster our ability to defend against what has proved a massively inflated threat of catastrophic terrorism; it was not meant to be a permanent subsidy to state and local governments.

New York City is uniquely threatened, but that does not mean that federal taxpayers should foot the bill. The federal government should collect intelligence on terrorists and hunt them down. Local and state officials should use that information to determine the right amount of local security spending. They have to ask whether normal policing funds, school spending, or slightly lower taxes are worth sacrificing for a new camera or chemical clean-up suit. Federal grants, because they are buried in a massive budget and partially deficit-funded, dilute our ability to perceive those tradeoffs. They also heighten fear of terrorism by encouraging state and local interests to overstate their peril to win the grants, as the editorial demonstrates.

It ends by instructing the Senate to “stand up for security over politics” and restore funding to past levels. But these decisions should be made politically. We give power over security policy to politicians — rather than leaving it exclusively to unelected bureaucrats — because these decisions are important. That is a product of design, not an accident. The notion that security is too important for politics is backwards.

Luckily, the attempt to divorce security policy from electoral politics is a pretense. The Times is engaging in politics by asking for funds. They aim to politically punish those that oppose their preferred policies. If the Senate restores most of the grant funds, as it likely will, it will do so for sound political reasons.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.