Despite the doom and gloom crowd, al-Qaida (translated variably as The Base or The Source) has been been severely crippled, it's staging areas in Afghanistan removed from use, their ability to move money has been curtailed in spite of the New York Times, and recruitment directly to al-Qaida is down. However, what has resulted is "open-source" terrorism largely independent of al-Qaida as the source of money and material, ideas and training - anyone with an axe to grind or a yen to make a name for themselves can be a terrorist du jour. The model created by al-Qaida has been so successful that Iran used it while creating their hybrid surragate army, Hizb'allah, and Syria is about to create a similar organization.
Is America moving into a new and different phase in the the War on Terror for which we are once again unprepared? Is the time for full scale, long-term military combat involvment, for the most part, over? Has open-source terror become the new face of wanton terror while the old al-Qaida is a mere symbol of resistance?
James Fallows, no close friend to the Bush Administration, and an original opponent of the War in Iraq, writing in the September edition of The Atlantic, "Declaring Victory" , asked many of these questions of experts and came to conclusions that he says even he was startled by. The original article is by subscription, a summary article also appears in the Atlantic, Can we Still Declare Victory? In both the long and short versions, Fallows lays out points that victory can and should be declared so that we can move on to the next stage of the conflict which is that of infiltrate, compromise, and stop terrorists before they can strike. The recent bomb plot in London to blow-up ten planes and the several arrests in the U.S., Pakistan, and other countries of potential bombers has shown that full-scale military might is not always the right tool.
Nearly every one of the military, counterterrorist, and intelligence officials I interviewed for my “Declaring Victory” story in the current Atlantic said that attacks on the United States and Europe would continue to be attempted – and that sooner or later one of them would succeed.(An interveiw with the author, James Fallows, can be read here.)
That is: It was not because they failed to imagine news like that of the last few days from London that so many said it was time to declare an end to the “war on terrorism.” It was precisely because they could imagine exactly this news – and worse. As I reported in the article, the result of thinking about exactly what works, and what doesn’t, in the long-term effort to minimize a terrorist threat, was a conclusion that the United States could best ensure its safety by saying that the “war” period of the anti-terrorism struggle had come to an end.
How can this be? Consider the three main points of the argument in “Declaring Victory”:
First: “Al-Qaeda Central,” the organization that planned and carried out the devastation on 9/11, has been severely disrupted by U.S. and allied activities. Its leaders are in hiding and on the run. Many of their lieutenants have been captured or killed. It has lost its haven in Afghanistan and has not replaced the training sites and face-to-face meeting opportunities it had there. Its leaders cannot easily communicate orders to operatives or transfer money without being tracked down. All measures show that its brutal tactics have cost it support in the Arab and Islamic world.
The news of the last few days confirms rather than undercuts this argument. Western agencies had never successfully penetrated al-Qaeda before 9/11. Now, it appears, they have. The British apparently had the current plotters under surveillance for a sustained period. A recent analysis from the “Stratfor” group pointed out, “Al Qaeda’s defining characteristic has always been its ability to maintain operational security. If that has been compromised, then al-Qaeda’s importance as a force has diminished greatly.” The London arrests demonstrate this weakened importance.
Second: the many “copycat” and “self-starter” groups that have been “inspired” by al-Qaeda and that have sprung up in England, Spain, Indonesia, and elsewhere will continue to pose the threat of attacks. The threat is likely to be more acute in Europe than in the United States, where the Arab-origin and Muslim population has been far better assimilated and far more patriotic, despite pressures and provocations, than elsewhere. Politically motivated violence has been a reality of modern life, and will continue to be so. The news, and where it happened, reinforces this point.
Third: the greatest threat posed by these groups is not the damage they can do directly, but rather the self-defeating, irrational, or excessive responses they can goad a target country into making. Osama bin Laden has boasted that the attack of 9/11 cost at most $500,000 to launch and provoked more than $500 billion in military and security spending by the United States; a million-to-one “payoff.” As several military officers and strategists emphasized in the article, the United States can reduce but never entirely eliminate the threat of terrorist attack. What it can do is think about the way it will respond when threats arise – like the one this week. (For instance: banning liquids from flights seems an eminently sensible immediate response. Banning books, magazines, and reading matter may merely amplify the damage done to the air-travel business.)
Immediately after news of the arrests broke, President Bush took the opportunity to remind the country that it was “at war with Islamic fascists.” No such reminder came from the British authorities, who had actually broken the plot. This is consistent with Britain’s response after the subway bombings one year ago, when the government, press, and public prided themselves on the speed with which life returned to normal – while the police and intelligence agencies hunted down the responsible parties. It is also consistent with the argument that an open-ended state of war has become a major handicap in the long-term effort to penetrate potential terrorist cells, dry up their supply of recruits, and deny them shelter and support from other Muslims.
Why? A state of war with no clear end point makes it more likely for a country to overreact in ways that hurt itself, especially by losing the moral high ground that was crucial to America's victory in the Cold War. It also makes it harder for the country to do the patient work of tracking down, catching, and thwarting the "copycat" groups, since that depends so heavily on relations with allied countries and with sympathetic Muslim groups. Remember: it was police work, surveillance, and patient cultivation of sources that broke the airline bombing ring – not speeches about a state of war.
If Americans lose their heads when they hear of a threat, they do the terrorists’ work for them. They can harm themselves in short- and long-term ways far more than any hostile group could do. The effort to destroy terrorist groups goes on. It is more likely to succeed if the war is over.
Caleb Carr, in his book "Lessons of Terror", argues the use of terror is as old as warfare itself and has never worked. To combat the level of terror sophistication reached in our time we must develope methods and strategies the terrorists have not thought possible without becoming terrorists ourselves. One of his pillars has been removed from the anti-terror arsenal. We can no longer go after countries that harbor terror groups because, in the main, open-source terror does not depend upon established countries and governments for protection and funding. The terror groups are ad hoc, often privately funded by many small donations, and are widely dispersed over the planet making the job of rolling them up with massive military operations impossible.
Plenty of options remain and those options are being used successfully, they are just not as sexy and news worthy as open warfare. New law enforcement procedures and operational groups encompassing agencies from the various nations should be formed on an as needed basis to respond to the looser, open source terror groups and tactics. Laws that can enforced over national borders without compromising national sovereignties should be enacted between cooperating nations. Military power should be used in a more judicious manner than has been used in the past century and a half. Scalpels are needed to cut out the cancer of terror, hammers when larger threats need to be pounded into submission. The U.S. government and mlilitary needs to learn a lesson my father taught me - use the appropriate tool for the job at hand. We must be smarter than the terrorists and in the end, outwit and outlast the outlaws.
The life of Indigo Red is full of adventure. Tune in next time for the Further Adventures of Indigo Red.