Tag: terrorism

Dead: ‘Al Qaeda’s Leader and Symbol’

What delightful news President Obama delivered last night! Osama bin Laden is dead—“al Qaeda’s leader and symbol,” as the president called him.

Bin Laden was the founder of the al Qaeda network, which executed the devastating 9/11 attacks just under a decade ago. Thousands of Americans lost their lives in those attacks, and Americans lost the sense of security and peace of mind that had taken root in the post-Cold-War era. The 9/11 attacks catalyzed two wars, costing tens of thousands of lives and well over a trillion dollars in U.S. expenditures. Personally, bin Laden gave me a darker decade than I would have had, both professionally and personally.

When I learned the news of bin Laden’s death, my first thought was of the implications for our policy. Before too long, I realized I was just plain happy about it. I took some champagne over to my neighbors, and we enjoyed watching the returns on TV.

My Cato colleagues will be parsing many details of this event over the days to come. Among the fascinating dimensions: the substantial Abottabad, Pakistan compound where bin Laden was apparently in hiding; the role of Pakistan’s security service, the ISI; the brilliant success of the intelligence effort and the attack on the compound; the near-term threat that al Qaeda affiliates may try to avenge the death of bin Laden.

Osama bin Laden failed to reach any of his geopolitical goals. He did not topple any Middle East dictator toward the end of establishing a Muslim caliphate. Indeed, the people of the Middle East have begun toppling their own dictators toward the end (we earnestly hope) of establishing more liberal societies. (We examined the role of the Internet in Middle Eastern freedom movements at a Cato on Campus event a few months ago.)

Few beyond the kids that made their way to the White House Sunday night believe that bin Laden’s death mean it’s “over” for al Qaeda and terrorism. Indeed, a key question is whether bin Laden’s death will give the U.S. and its allies an upper hand against terrorism, and for how long.

In this, the issues are the same as they have always been. As we noted in the introduction to the Cato book, Terrorizing Ourselves: “Terrorists have motivations, there is a strategic logic to their actions, and examining these things can reveal strategies that frustrate and dissipate their efforts.”

The killing of bin Laden begs the question: How, and how well, will his death signal to terrorists that they are better off desisting from attacks and choosing other behaviors?

There will be many opportunities in the days and months ahead for American political and media figures to signal to terrorists and potential terrorists that theirs is a lost cause. The death of bin Laden simply initiates that effort.

This week, watch the news around bin Laden’s death not only with your own apprecation, relief, or other feelings in mind. Consider how events will be perceived in the communities around the world from which terrorists have come. 

How various groups around the world interpret the death of “al Qaeda’s leader and symbol” will dictate our security from terrorism going forward.

You can review our two major conferences on counterterrorism policy here and here.

Intervention and Its Unintended Consequences

The killing of four Americans by Somali pirates earlier this month has brought the troubled African country into the news once again. With the White House’s response to unrest in the Middle East continuing to evolve, it is instructive to note how the United States has tried and failed multiple times to bring order to Somalia. The policies Washington has pursued and the unintended consequences they have produced should serve as a valuable lesson to any intervention that might be considered in Libya or elsewhere in the region.  Over at The Skeptics, I outline a number of these lessons after briefly examining the history of U.S. intervention in Somalia:

No doubt U.S. leaders had the best of intentions. But their noble attempts to rescue Somalia spawned a number of unintended consequences. Over the past two years, as many as 20 Somali-American men have disappeared from the Minneapolis area. Many fear these men were recruited to fight alongside al-Shabab, or “the youth,” the militant wing of the Islamist Somali government overthrown in 2006. In describing Shirwa Ahmed, a naturalized American of the Somali diaspora who is 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.”

…it is well past time for American leaders to thoroughly explore the notion that U.S. policies contribute directly to radicalization. Reigning in the West’s interventionist foreign policy will not eliminate the number of people and organizations that seek to commit terrorist attacks, but will certainly diminish it.

In this respect, terrorism can no longer be attributed to ignorance and poverty—conditions that exist in foreign conflict zones, but in and of themselves do not generate attacks against the West. Viewing poverty and underdevelopment as an underlying cause of extremism makes the mistake of stereotyping terrorists and their grievances.  It also commits the error of ignoring the unintended consequences of past actions and very real dangers right within our borders.

Click here to read the full post.

And Good Riddance…

The Department of Homeland Security is scrapping the color-coded terror alert system. The color-code system meant to serve as a way of keeping the public informed, but because it signaled some ambiguous sense of “threat” without providing a scintilla of information the public could use, it merely kept Americans ignorant and addled.

Scrapping the color-coded threat system is only the beginning. The next step is to begin informing the public fully about threats and risks known to the U.S. government. We’re adults. We can handle it. In fact, we can help.

Good News and Bad on PATRIOT Reform

Late last week, Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in which he agreed to implement an array of policies designed to check abuse of USA PATRIOT Act powers. These include more thorough record keeping and more disclosures to Congress, prompt notification of telecommunications companies when gag orders have expired, and updated retention and dissemination procedures to govern the vast quantities of information obtained using National Security Letters.

In itself, this is all to the good. But civil libertarians should pause before popping the champagne corks. Last year, the fight over the reauthorization of several expiring PATRIOT provisions opened the door to the comprehensive reform that sweeping legislation sorely needs to better balance the legitimate needs of intelligence and law enforcement against the privacy and freedom of Americans. Despite serious abuses of PATRIOT powers uncovered by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, no such major changes were made. Instead, Congress opted for a shorter-term renewal that will require another reauthorization this February—in theory allowing for the question of broader reform to be revisited in the coming months.

Many of the milder reforms proposed during the last reauthorization debate now appear to have been voluntarily adopted by Holder. Unfortunately, this may make it politically easier for legislators to push ahead with a straight reauthorization that avoids locking in those reforms via binding statutory language—and entirely bypasses the vital discussion we should be having about a more comprehensive overhaul. If that happens, it will serve to confirm the thesis of Chris Mooney’s 2004 piece in Legal Affairs, which persuasively argued that “sunset” provisions, far from serving as an effective check on expansion of government power, often make radical “temporary” measures more politically palatable, only to create a kind of policy inertia that makes it highly unlikely those measures will ever be allowed to expire.

With the loss of Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), who whatever his other faults has been the Senate’s most vocal opponent of our metastasizing surveillance state, the prospects for placing more than cosmetic limits on the sweeping powers granted since 2001 appear to have dimmed. If there’s any cause for optimism, it’s that the recent fuss over intrusive TSA screening procedures appear to have reminded some conservatives that they used to believe in limits on government power even when that power was deployed in the name of fighting terrorism.

Physician, Heal Thyself

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Commerce Department will soon come forth with a ”stepped-up approach to policing Internet privacy that calls for new laws and the creation of a new position to oversee the effort.”

Meanwhile, with nearly 22 months in office, President Obama has still not named a single candidate to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board that Congress established to review the government’s actions in response to terrorism. Had he appointed a board, it would have issued three public reports by now, and we would be awaiting a fourth.

Cutting the Fuse

I’m thrilled to be participating in a day-long conference on Capitol Hill next week to coincide with the release of a new book from the University of Chicago, Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It. Co-authored by Robert Pape and James Feldman, the book builds on Pape’s earlier pioneering work, including here and here, into the causes of terrorism. Drawing on data compiled by the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism (CPOST), the book includes chapters on Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, Chechnya and Sri Lanka.

The authors’ concluding observations offer some hope for those of us who have been calling for a new narrative pertaining to counterterrorism, one that begins with the presumption that fear is the terrorists’ true weapon. A strong, resilient society retains the ability to kill or capture those who would harm innocents to make a political point, as the United States has done since 9/11. But a country of more than 300 million people shouldn’t cower before a few hundred individuals with delusions of world domination, but who are too frightened and weak to show their faces for years.

I think that the book’s conclusions might be a bit too optimistic as far as the politics of counterterrorism goes. There are still ample incentives for people to hype the threat of terrorism, and not enough competing pressures to dial back the most extreme claims of impending doom. But perhaps we are approaching a “period of understanding” as Pape and Feldman claim?

I certainly hope so.

Woodward, Resilience, and Virtues of Partisan Foreign Policy

On the National Interest’s Skeptics blog, I have a new post about my lack of outrage over the revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book about Obama and Afghanistan.

Unlike John Bolton and Heritage, I don’t think that the President’s comment that we can withstand another terrorist attack like 9-11 is offensive. After all, we can, and saying so doesn’t mean you want to try it.

As I put it there:

What’s truly outrageous is the notion that the only valid response to terrorism is cowering fear at home and endless warfare abroad. Somehow, for much the right, crediting our enemies with the ability to wreck our society is required, and it is verboten to say that we are something other than a pathetic, brittle nation that cannot manage adversity.

I also fail to get upset about the President’s worry that expanding the war in Afghanistan would alienate his base. Politics not only doesn’t stop at the water’s edge; it shouldn’t. I’m not sure exactly when popular checks on the war-making power went out of style, but I think we could use more of that in Afghanistan, not less. If pandering to the base can get us out of there one of these years, pander away.

The solution to bad policies is better politics, not no politics, to paraphase.

*I also recommend Paul Pillar’s post on the same subject. He says that the real news here is the Pentagon’s refusal to offer the President a policy alternative between population centric counter-insurgency and exit.