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September 11 attacks

Where the Bin Ladens Call Home

 In the midst of the holiday season this month Sarah Palin had an op-ed in USA Today that is important and interesting in several ways. She calls for crippling sanctions on Iran to halt its nuclear-weapons programs (although she doesn’t seem to know we already have a United Nations Security Council Resolution that mandates a complete arms ban on Iran) and she seconds Tony Blair’s call for using force if necessary. She argues for more support to the Green movement inside Iran without ever using its title.

One item leaped out at me. She correctly says Iran is today the world’s “biggest state sponsor of terrorism.” Then she adds, “It has shielded al-Qaeda leaders, including one of Osama bin Laden’s sons.” Then the clincher—imagine how terrible it would be if terror-backer Iran had nukes.

Osama at the Top of His Game

On October 27, 2010, Al Jazeera television network broadcasted a new audiotape by Osama bin Laden meant to exploit the Muslim world’s growing anger toward France specifically, and against Europe generally. Defending the recent kidnapping of five French nationals in Niger, bin Laden said the act was an appropriate response to France’s ongoing intervention in the affairs of Muslims in North and West Africa; its persecution of Muslim women in France via its ban on burqa wearing; and the presence of 3,500 French troops in Afghanistan. Bin Laden warned Paris that it is foolish to think France’s anti-Muslim actions would go unanswered by al-Qaeda and other mujahideen. “The equation is very clear and simple,” bin Laden said, stressing, as he always does, the justice of reciprocal treatment in wartime. “[T]he fault lies with the one who initiates [the hostilities]. . . . as you kill, you will be killed; as you abduct, so shall you be abducted; as you ruin our [Muslim] security, so shall we ruin your security.”

The Next Terrorist Attacks

With the news that a suburban Virginia man—a Pakistani-born naturalized U.S. citizen—has been arrested for surveilling stations of the Washington area's Metrorail system as preparation for bombing them, authorities have stressed that the public was never in danger. Of course it wasn't; the only apparent plot in this case was a phony one that was part of an FBI sting operation. The Bureau deserves applause for taking out of circulation one individual who, regardless of the artificiality of the plot that snared him, evidently was quite willing to assist an operation that could as easily have been a real plot to kill a lot of real people. The success of the sting operation is reassuring as far as it goes, but the case provides reminders that are less reassuring.

How Can I Miss You if You Won't Go Away?

In recent years, a heated debate has raged both inside and outside government over whether the most consequential terrorist threats today are “top down” or “bottom up.”

That is, whether they are organizationally driven by existing identifiable groups and their leaders or instead emanate from spontaneous collections of unaffiliated individuals (e.g., “bunches of guys”).

A prominent feature of this debate has been the argument that al Qaeda has ceased to exist as either an organizational or operational entity and that its founder and preeminent leader, Osama bin Laden, is no longer of any operational importance.

What became known as the leaderless-jihad theory instead claimed that our main security problem came from these self-recruited and mostly self-trained wannabes with a limited capacity for violence.

Still more consequentially, this canard suggested that formal terrorist organizations had become as immaterial as they were superfluous. As such, it dismissed more traditional conceptions of terrorism as a process involving existing organizations that guide recruitment, direct information operations, and actively plan, plot, and implement attacks.

The New Amnesia

When it comes to terrorism, our memories are either too short or too long. Too short given that, in the absence of a recent attack, we try to convince ourselves that either it can’t or won’t happen again or that our response to the last one was perhaps exaggerated or excessive or even hyped by politics and emotion.

Paradoxically, our memories can also be too long in that we often draw the wrong lessons from the last incident: believing that we can somehow wrap ourselves in a protective security blanket through bureaucratic reorganization, redundancy, and expenditure and thus shield ourselves from some new attack.

Each of these has been the subject of a past blog and requires no further explication. Rather, the current offering is meant to reflect on my observations from this same day nine years ago, when I drove up to New York City from Washington, DC for the first time since the September 11 attacks.

At the time, the then-editor-in-chief of The Atlantic Monthly, Michael Kelly, and my old friend, Benjamin C. Schwarz, the magazine’s literary editor and national editor, had asked me to keep a daily journal at the start of what they rightly guessed would be a long war.

I never kept it. A combination of the intense work pressures of that febrile, and profoundly melancholy, time combined with the nature of the work I was doing left no opportunity or scope for journal writing.

I did, though, make an inchoate attempt before abandoning the effort, and the two journal entries that follow below were the first and only two that I made.

Get the Facts, Then Make Up Your Mind

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion,” the late, great Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once observed, “but not his own facts.” Although this quote is at least a couple of decades old, Senator Moynihan could easily have been referring to the ubiquitous Newsweek and Washington Post pundit, Fareed Zakaria.

I don’t know a commentator who has been more consistently factually incorrect about terrorism than Zakaria. He has persisted in the belief that the current wave of suicide terrorism directed against the United States by Muslim extremists is completely sui generis when in fact the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) regularly employed this same tactic against both civilian and military targets alike during the Vietnam War.

More egregiously, and consequentially, Zakaria persists in ignoring al-Qaeda’s direct responsibility for terrorist attacks in places as diverse as Istanbul in 2003, Madrid in 2004, and London in 2005. His column in today’s Washington Post perpetuates that myth.

Factual inaccuracies aside, the central argument of Zakaria’s column—that we overreacted to the September 11, 2001 attacks and thus have created a self-destructive “climate of fear”—is one that merits serious consideration and strenuous debate. But readers wishing to weigh this important point more carefully would do well to look elsewhere for evidence to support it.

“Does an organization that has as few as 400 members and waning global appeal require the permanent institutional response we have created?” Zakaria asks.

A Diverse and More Complex Threat

A diverse and more complex terrorist threat is the conclusion of a new report published by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center's National Security Preparedness Group (NSPG) titled, Assessing The Terrorist Threat.

The NSPG is co-chaired by Governor Thomas Kean and Congressman Lee Hamilton, who had also co-chaired the famed 9/11 Commission. The NSPG seeks to carry forward the work of the 9/11 Commission by ensuring that the United States is adequately prepared to counter current and future terrorist threats.

The report was written by Peter Bergen and myself, with the assistance of fellow NSPG member Dr. Stephen Flynn and Ms. Katherine Tiedemann of the New America Foundation.

It concludes that al-Qaeda and allied groups continue to pose a threat to the United States. Although it is less severe than the catastrophic proportions of a 9/11-like attack, the threat today is more complex and more diverse than at any time over the past nine years.

Al-Qaeda or its allies, we argue, continue to have the capacity to kill dozens, or even hundreds, of Americans in a single attack. A key shift, though, in the past couple of years is the increasingly prominent role in planning and operations that U.S. citizens and residents have played in the leadership of al-Qaeda and aligned groups, and the higher numbers of Americans attaching themselves to these groups.

Why We Fight

President Obama’s address to the nation last night was alone noteworthy for his clear explication to the American people of why our troops are fighting in Afghanistan. “[N]o challenge is more essential to our security than our fight against al Qaeda” he declared.

Americans across the political spectrum supported the use of force against those who attacked us on 9/11. Now, as we approach our 10th year of combat in Afghanistan, there are those who are understandably asking tough questions about our mission there. But we must never lose sight of what’s at stake. As we speak, al Qaeda continues to plot against us, and its leadership remains anchored in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We will disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda, while preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a base for terrorists. And because of our drawdown in Iraq, we are now able to apply the resources necessary to go on offense. In fact, over the last 19 months, nearly a dozen al-Qaeda leaders—and hundreds of al Qaeda’s extremist allies—have been killed or captured around the world.

There can in fact be no other—nor more compelling—explanation or justification for our continuing, and increasingly melancholy, military commitment in Afghanistan.

Yet, as the Washington Post’s Cameron W. Barr points out in a small article unfortunately buried on the bottom of page 8 of today’s paper, by providing this much needed clarification of the purpose and mission of U.S. military’s presence in Afghanistan, the President was curiously “off message” given recent statements from his top intelligence and national security advisers.

Not So Strange Bedfellows

As the ninth anniversary of the September 11th 2001 attacks approaches, it would be hard to imagine two more depressing assessment of progress in the war on terrorism than those reported in both the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal today.

In “CIA sees increased threat in Yemen,” the Post’s Greg Miller and Peter Finn describe how

For the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, CIA analysts see one of al-Qaeda's offshoots——rather than the core group now based in Pakistan as the most urgent threat to U.S. security, officials said.

The sober new assessment of al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen has helped prompt senior Obama administration officials to call for an escalation of U.S. operations there——including a proposal to add armed CIA drones to a clandestine campaign of U.S. military strikes, the officials said.

Meanwhile, in the Wall Street Journal story, “U.S. Weighs Expanded Strikes in Yemen,” Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman report that the same U.S. officials are also alarmed by the increasing cooperation between the key al Qaeda affiliate cited above——al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)——and al Shabab, its Somali ally. “U.S. counterterrorism officials,” they write,

believe the two groups are working more closely together than ever. ‘The trajectory is pointing in that direction,’ a U.S. counterterrorism official said of a growing nexus between the Islamist groups. He said the close proximity between Yemen and Somalia ‘allows for exchanges, training.’

If Israel Attacks

From the issue

IN A secret special national intelligence estimate (SNIE) in 1960, the American intelligence community concluded that “possession of a nuclear weapon capability . . . would clearly give Israel a greater sense of security, self-confidence, and assertiveness.” For almost half a century since, Israel has possessed a nuclear-weapons monopoly in the Middle East, a monopoly it has fought hard to preserve.

Israel has never acknowledged publicly that it is a nuclear-weapons state, but it has also never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Now the Arabs, led by Egypt, are demanding that Israel do so or they will sabotage the future of the NPT regime. They rightly argue that Washington has a double standard when it comes to Israel’s bomb: the NPT applies to all but Israel. Indeed, every Israeli prime minister since David Ben-Gurion has deliberately taken an evasive posture on the issue because they do not want to admit what everyone knows. Now that era may be coming to an end, raising fundamental questions about Israel’s strategic situation in the region.

Perhaps never before has the government in Jerusalem felt under greater threat than with the Iranian atomic program. The temptation is to attack. It is an exercise in futility with likely disastrous results. The United States should take steps to assure Israel’s deterrence remains strong, as this is the only way to both prevent an Israeli assault on Iran in the short term and to contain Tehran in the future.

FOR ANYONE in doubt of Israel’s nuclear capabilities, first a few facts. Israel’s longtime pursuit of the bomb is fairly well known; recent scholarship in Israel has clarified the details further still.

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April 19, 2014