As the country marks the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 Islamist attack on the American homeland, it’s appropriate to assess how far we’ve come since then in the war against terrorism.
On the home front, there hasn’t been a successful mass terror attack since hijacked airliners were crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia.
There have, however, been at least 40 smaller-scale plots that are publicly known to have been thwarted, either by pre-emptive action by authorities or by happenstance.
Resultant deaths from two attacks by jihadist-inspired “lone wolf” gunmen number 14.
Overseas, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is dead, fittingly killed in May by U.S. troops. Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, al-Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, was eliminated in an air strike in Pakistan in August by a U.S. military drone.
Indeed, the who’s who list of prominent terrorist leaders belonging to al-Qaeda Central and its offshoots killed by the United States is rapidly growing as the administration of President Obama ramps up air strikes in South Asia.
Meanwhile, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, remains incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, while awaiting trial before a U.S. military tribunal.
The United States is safer, but certainly not safe.
“It’s hard to argue that America isn’t a harder target than it was on Sept. 10, 2001,” said James Carafano, an expert on defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “And that’s not an insignificant accomplishment. Remember, we’re a country with infinite opportunities and vulnerabilities—anyone can pretty much walk into a mall and start shooting or blow themselves up.
“But what I’m very concerned about is the future. I’m concerned that we’re changing strategies that have been very successful.”
President Obama came into the White House vowing to change the counterterror policies put in place by his predecessor, policies vehemently opposed by his core political constituencies.
But the exigencies of war, politics and compromise soon came into play. Obama became “Bush light.” Provisions of the Patriot Act, so opposed by civil libertarians, were kept. Drone attacks on terrorist leaders were continued, but rendition of suspected terrorists to clandestine facilities outside the United States for CIA questioning was history, as were “enhanced” interrogation techniques.
Interrogation of suspects by the military would henceforth only be conducted according to rules set out in the U.S. Army Field Manual, which critics argue is more restrictive on methods than rules governing police departments.
Obama insisted Guantanamo Bay prisoners would be tried in civilian courts.
Realities and politics checked him again. Guantanamo prisoner Ahmed Ghailani, implicated in the 1998 al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, was only convicted of one of more than 200 charges in a civilian U.S. court after the judge ruled a key prosecution witness couldn’t testify because Ghailani had revealed the man’s name to the CIA under coercion. The result was public outrage. Congressional and local government and public opinion then combined to scuttle administration plans to put 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on trial in a civilian court in New York.
He will now face military trial at Guantanamo, which Obama still wants to close.
“ … We will never waver in our conviction that the United States will be more secure the day that the prison at Guantanamo Bay is ultimately closed,” John Brennan, Obama’s national security adviser, said recently.
There are more than 170 prisoners at the U.S. Navy detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. And although the war continues, the Obama administration has quietly barred any additions to the inmate population.
Navy Adm. William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, stunned a U.S. Senate committee in June when he let slip the administration’s slight-of-hand maneuver. He said sending terrorist suspects to Guantanamo Bay was “off the table.”
Suspects captured in countries other than Iraq and Afghanistan would be taken to U.S. warships, where they would be questioned according to the prescriptions of the Army Field Manual. Then they would be sent to the United States for trial in a civilian court, or a handed to a third country for custody.
“If we can’t do either one of those, then we will release that individual,” he said.
“That’s a bad idea,” said Charles Faddis, a former CIA officer who spent 20 years in agency operations and who opposes practices such as waterboarding. “If you capture a guy in a counterterror operation, then out of necessity you have to be really quick and really flexible, because targets don’t stay still.
“And now, you can’t engage with the guy, you can’t question him. Now we have to bring in all these bureaucratic measures, follow all these rule books, involve the bureau [FBI]. By the time you get information from this guy—assuming you ever do—it will all be irrelevant. His compatriots would have fled and covered their tracks.”
McRaven’s disclosure preceded news that Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a Somali captured in the Gulf of Aden, had been flown to New York for trial after being held aboard a U.S. ship. Warsame is accused of providing support to an al-Qaeda-linked Somali group and also to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
McRaven used phraseology that raised speculation that others may have undergone the shipboard questioning. If so, what happened to them?
In his National Security Strategy, Obama makes it clear the United States is not involved in a global war on terrorism but at war with al-Qaeda and its allies and affiliates. The aim is to destroy them.
Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and others, following the chest-thumping over the killing of bin Laden, have said U.S. drone attacks had so seriously decimated al-Qaeda Central’s leadership in South Asia, that the organization is on the ropes.
The drone strikes on the leadership of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, as successful as they have been, however, appear to have replaced operations to capture and interrogate terrorist leaders to gain intelligence, as in previous years.
How one perceives the pluses and minuses of killing versus capturing depends on individual viewpoint. Obviously, the administration sees drone strikes as a highly effective method for eliminating al-Qaeda’s current crop of leadership and dismantling the organization. It also plays well on front pages and the evening newscast.
“In the beginning of the war on terrorism, we weren’t killing al-Qaeda leaders, we were capturing them, developing tremendous intelligence from them about high-value targets, about how al-Qaeda functions, its strategy,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. “It’s true we’re being deprived of that intelligence now, but of course the end product of both efforts [bombings and interrogation] is to prevent attacks on the United States.
“You can’t quibble with it too much, because we have been successful.”
Hoffman has a point. But al-Qaeda is more than just a group of gunmen and bombers in a handful of countries. Reports indicate it has seeded people to jihadist organizations around the world, passing on training as well as ideology. Leaders come and go, but knowledge and incentive remains.
“The prospect of “body counts” as the proper metric for measuring success should give Americans pause about the strategy pursued by the administration,” The Heritage Foundation said.
Meanwhile, America is to get a new strategy soon from the administration for combating a key feature of the changing scenario of homeland security since Sept. 11, 2001, which saw attacks perpetrated by foreign nationals who entered the country specifically to cause mayhem. A key feature of al-Qaeda’s assault on the American homeland is to diversify its ranks of members and sympathizers by recruiting and using Americans and legitimate immigrants to the country.
These are the so-called lone wolves that Obama warned about recently.
“The biggest concern we have right now is not the launching of a major terrorist operation, although that risk is always there, the risk that we’re especially concerned over right now is the lone wolf terrorist, somebody with a single weapon being able to carry out wide-scale massacres of the sort that we saw in Norway recently,” President Obama told CNN.
A feature of terrorism in the past few years is “the increasing diversification of the types of U.S.-based jihadist militants,” the Bipartisan Policy Center said.
According to a 2010 count by the organization, in 2009 at least 43 U.S. citizens or residents connected to Islamist ideology were charged or convicted in terror-related crimes in the United States and elsewhere.
—Carlos Bledsoe, aka Abdullhakim Mujahid Muhammad, who shot and killed one U.S. Marine in Little Rock, Ark., in 2009, and wounded another outside a recruiting station. He claimed to have become a member of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is run by American-born-and-raised Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
—U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a psychiatrist born in Virginia to Palestinian-immigrant parents. He killed 13 people at Fort Hood in Texas. Hasan reportedly exchanged e-mails with al-Awlaki before going on his shooting rampage.
—Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan immigrant and permanent resident who was apprehended while preparing to bomb the New York City subway system. He had gone to Pakistan to join terrorists fighting U.S. forces but returned to America at the urging of al-Qaeda leaders after receiving bomb-making training.
—Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. The immigrant from Pakistan, who became a U.S. citizen just months before his December attempt, had quit his job in Connecticut and traveled to Pakistan, where the Taliban trained him. He also is said to have had Internet contact with al-Awlaki.
—Nase Jason Abdo. In July, Texas-raised Abdo, an AWOL U.S. Army private, was arrested by police near Fort Hood in Texas as he was preparing a bomb that was to be planted at a restaurant frequented by soldiers.
The above were all adults. But even the young can be lured by jihadist propaganda and sentiment. Federal authorities in August arrested an unidentified 17-year-old from Howard County, Maryland. He allegedly solicited funds two years ago on the Internet to support Colleen LaRose, aka Jihad Jane, a 47-year-old Philadelphia woman and convert to Islam who was later arrested for providing material support to terrorists plotting to assassinate a Danish cartoonist whose depiction of the Prophet Muhammad offended Muslims around the world.
Another native-born American and cohort of LaRose, Jamie Paulin Ramirez, 32, pleaded guilty to the same charge in March.
The teen, whose family immigrated to the United States from Pakistan four years ago, also allegedly spoke about a possible Columbine massacre type of attack with a native-born Pittsburgh man who moderated a chat room site and encouraged terror attacks on U.S. civilian and military targets.
Youth from Somali immigrant communities in America, meanwhile, have been showing up fighting for jihadists in their parents’ country of origin.
Obama’s strategy will likely feature more outreach within immigrant communities.
“We need to be much better at interdicting the flow of [U.S.] recruits for terrorism, countering the al-Qaeda message, watering down the al-Qaeda brand,” said Georgetown University terrorism expert Hoffman. “Our efforts in those respects have been anemic.”
Former CIA officer Faddis believes more intelligence collection must be pursued. CIA agents in the field, he says, must be given more flexibility to be aggressive in establishing and utilizing local contacts, and freed from micromanagement and endless bureaucratic strictures and writing reports.
“I don’t think we should sit back and give each other high fives when for 10 years he [bin Laden] was living just 30 miles from Islamabad,” the Pakistan capital, Faddis said.
The Heritage Foundation’s Carafano wants an end to policies he sees as moving the country back to the Clinton-era law enforcement paradigm, and he warns strongly against the U.S. withdrawing prematurely from Afghanistan, which could result in the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies taking over again.
The debate over counterterrorism policies and strategies is far from over, and will probably never be resolved. But one constant remains: complacency is not an option.