Heightened concern over the threat of terrorist strikes in Europe or the United States has all the earmarks of three major challenges facing the West: the evolving nature of the terrorist threat, the shortcomings of U.S. strategy to deal with it and the lack of a mature political debate in the United States.
First of all, the undefined risk of a “Mumbai-style” attack, like the brutal 2008 assault on a hotel in India, underlines the way the threat has changed since Sept. 11, 2001. Due to counter-terrorism successes, including the Obama administration’s tougher use of drone strikes, al-Qaida and assorted affiliates have turned to smaller, more frequent strikes.
The official U.S. reaction to European intelligence reports also reflects a certain lack of rigor and unified strategy in Washington. “This sort of vaporous notice does nothing to improve the safety of travelers, and it frightens people to no purpose,” observed former terrorism official Laurence Pope in the International Herald Tribune.
Third, the alert signals underlying nervousness about the issue, stemming partly from the failure of the Bush administration to disclose the stark, high-threat warnings they received before the 9-11 attacks.
Al-Qaida’s revised strategy is partly determined by necessity, but also by a shrewd calculus that they can exploit troubled political systems in Europe and the United States. Osama bin Laden once said that “90 percent of [our] battle is waged in the media.”
There’s no doubt about that after the hysterical reaction in the United States to the failed attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner last December, especially from the radical right.
Several new studies of counterterrorism document how the threat has changed since 2001. The threat is likely to persist for many years to come, but it is more complex and more diverse.
A “must-read” Sept. 10 report by the Bipartisan Policy Center says jihadist strategy now “is designed to overwhelm and distract” Western intelligence and public opinion as much as to create a mass-casualty attack. (See http://www.bipartisanpolicy.org/library/report/assessing-terrorist-threat).
The report, prepared by widely respected terrorism experts Peter Bergen and Bruce Hoffman, describes the growing recruitment of disenchanted Americans and the Obama administration’s failure to develop a clear, unified strategy to counter this trend.
A number of other reports have described the diffuse and disorganized state of counterterrorism operations, including a Washington Post series and a study by The Congressional Research Service.
“Lack of focus, not lack of resources,” the Post noted, were behind the failure to anticipate the Fort Hood killings, the only major, successful act of terrorism on U.S. soil since 9-11.
Current analyses are not all doom and gloom. The Bergen-Hoffman study describes how the Obama administration’s tripling of drone strikes has not only killed many militants but also kept al-Qaida leaders more concerned about their survival and less able to produce propaganda tapes.
Also, Pakistani public opinion and political-military leaders have taken a tougher position against al-Qaida (although not in Afghanistan). And al-Qaida is losing “the war of ideas” as more Muslims realize most victims of their attacks are other Muslims.
The most compelling and difficult conclusion in the Bergen-Hoffman report focuses on the overreaction in the United States to largely failed terrorist plots.
“It is important to acknowledge that how Americans respond to terrorist attacks can influence the worrisome trend by terrorist groups to train recruits to carry out less sophisticated attacks on U.S. soil,” they write. “If any attack can succeed in generating significant political and economic fallout, then there is greater motivation for undertaking these attacks.
“American officials and the wider public should realize that by the law of averages, al-Qaida or an affiliate will succeed in some kind of attack … and that the best response would be to demonstrate that we as a society are resilient and will not be intimidated.”
Understandably, the authors do not wade into our hyperpartisan political climate today. But their words of caution are a sobering reminder that we need to grow up as a nation. We had our moments of hysteria (i.e. McCarthyism) during the Cold War, when we faced a far graver threat — nuclear annihilation. But, with the exception of Vietnam, we tended to come together in periods of national challenge.
I lived and worked in Britain, France, Spain and Italy during the 1970s at the height of terrorist attacks by the Irish Republican Army, the Red Brigades et al, and seldom did I hear the ranting and raving, not to mention fear-mongering, that passes for political commentary on talk shows and in Congress today. We face serious threats; hysteria and politicians who exploit these dangers not only encourage the terrorists but make countering them far more difficult.
Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and worked on national security issues for the State Department. He can be reached at email@example.com.