The War on Terrorism, Five Years Later

With British Muslims hatching plots to blow up airplanes with liquid explosives and our all-out war on terrorism nearing its fifth anniversary, it’s a good time to check in with Steven Emerson.

Emerson, whose prescient warnings about militant Islamic activities in the United States in the late 1990s and in May of 2001 went unheeded, is an award-winning investigative journalist and international terrorism expert. I talked to him last Wednesday by telephone from his offices in Washington, where he is director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism.

How is the war against terrorism going in the United States?

I think it’s going pretty well, insofar as the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies have interdicted various operations and infiltrated terrorist groups. It’s taken a while — close to five years — but we’ve not been hit and most of the cases that have been brought have shown the ability of the FBI to get on the inside of these groups.

Is that what we are doing most right?

Intelligence collection is the bottom line in any successful campaign against terrorism. There’s no doubt the government is getting better at collecting that intelligence that comes from the inside of these groups.

What is your major criticism of the war against terrorism?

In general, I’m a bit concerned about the degree to which there is a legitimization of radical Islamic groups that operate under a false veneer as either civil rights groups or advocacy groups. I think that undermines legitimate moderates in the Muslim community.

That’s one of the complaints you made when I talked to you in 2004.

There’s still a bureaucratic impulse to engage in the "Kumbaya" dance and embrace groups that should not be legitimized.

What do you make of the foiled plot in Britain? Was it the real deal?

Everything I’ve been told is that it was the real deal. Still, we don’t know the particulars until those who were picked up are arraigned. But everybody I’ve spoken to says it was real.

Looking back over the past five years, what can you say about the way American Muslims — in general — have acquitted themselves in the war on terror?

I think that there’s still a problem with the institutional leadership of the Muslim community that is tethered to an agenda that is not moderate. These Islamic groups and leaders have condemned or criticized virtually every counterterrorist operation that is carried out by the U.S. government. These groups continue to portray the war on terrorism as a war against Islam, which can cause incitement. So I think there is still a major problem regarding the agenda of the people who control these Muslim organizations.

In Britain they seem to have a problem with homegrown terrorist cells, but in America we don’t seem to have that problem.

Well, we’ve had cells in Lackawanna, cells in Seattle, cells in Florida, cells in Toledo. We haven’t seen the sophistication of the cells as we’ve seen in Canada and Britain. Also, the U.S. is much more aggressive in interrupting cells before they actually get operational. Other countries allow them more string.

To what do you attribute the fact that there has been no act of terrorism in the United States since 9/11?

It’s a combination of things. A combination of good police work — at all levels. There are aggressive efforts overseas to take out terrorist groups. There’s deterrence. And there’s good luck.

Some people contend that we are wasting resources on security for political purposes, that we’re unnecessarily scaring the populace about terrorism and generally exaggerating the threat of terrorism here. Do you think any of those criticisms are valid?

No. I don’t think those are valid criticisms.

Is the war on Islamic terrorism winnable or is it going to be with us forever?

I think ultimately it is winnable. But it’s going to be a long time before there is a victory declared. There are different bouts and rounds, but it’s not going to be like it is in the movies. The end is just not going to be that way. We’re going to need to see more efforts within the Muslim world to reform itself.

In 2002, you told me we’ll know we’ve won the war against Islamic terrorism "when we see the appearance of many Muslim comedians."

Yeah, well, that’s still true. There are some Muslim comedians. But I don’t know that we’re going to know we’re at the end of the war until we go through a sufficient period of time when we don’t see groups like Hezbollah or Hamas. They have not spent their popularity and it’s going to be decades before that happens.

James Fallows in The Atlantic Monthly contends that al-Qaida has been broken up, defeated and reduced in prestige and that we’d be better off if we declared that we have won the war on terror against al-Qaida and concentrate on homeland security and diplomacy.

I agree with him that al-Qaida has been hurt and degraded but al-Qaida’s legacy is still around in terms of radical Islamic groups trying to carry out operations, whether that be in London or Canada or the U.S. No. 2, there’s a commonality to all the militant Islamic groups from Hamas to Hezbollah to al-Qaida insofar as they all believe in the hegemony of Islam in their respective arenas. That’s not dissipated, so we shouldn’t prematurely declare victory.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was in town this week and he said he thought we are safer than at any time since 9/11. Do you agree?

I think we are safer. That’s absolutely true, but we’re not safe yet. I think that’s a very apt and correct assessment.

And the way to continue to stay safe is …

To continue to collect intelligence, to be one step ahead of the bad guys. It’s easier said than done, but we — we being the West — are showing good examples of penetrating terrorist groups.