I’ve been listening to the news commentary about the failed Times Square bombing and, I have to admit, I’m a bit confused. We’ve got a guy, supposedly a highly desirable recruit for al-Qaeda (a U.S. citizen who’s familiar with western society and culture, no glaring links to radical Islam that would attract attention from authorities, and sympathetic to the ideology). He might not have been a blond haired, blue eyed Manchurian candidate but pretty good nonetheless. He goes to Pakistan and gets training (of some sort) to make explosives (as opposed to having to learn on his own from the internet or the Anarchist’s Cookbook) and this is the best he can do?
And let’s put aside the fact that his car bomb was pathetic in its ineptitude. Let’s assume he put it together correctly and it went off under optimal conditions, killing one or two score people. How could even that be considered a victory for al-Qaeda? The group that put together the 9/11 attacks is now reduced to one off attacks of minimal impact locally (let alone nationally).
Yet, all I seem to hear on the news is how we were lucky and how this could be a terrible new threat. C’mon people, this guy didn’t have a suitcase nuke in his SUV. It was a couple of propane tanks and cans of gasoline.
Seems to me this would be like the allies panicking in early May 1945 because some Wehrmacht unit managed to ambush an allied patrol somewhere. “Oh my! The Germans are resurgent! How are we going to counter this new and terrible threat? Run away! Run away!”
So now we hear that the new threat is an army of copy cats, ready to launch (perhaps in a coordinated fashion) similar attacks all over the country in order to paralyze us with fear. The only problem with that is that there’s no evidence that a) there is a potential army of recruits available to conduct such attacks b) there’s any capability to coordinate such attacks c) there’s any capability to train recruits so that there’s a reasonable expectation to expect success or d) that existing counter terrorism controls would fail to prevent/contain such attacks.
I’m not saying there’s no threat and certainly we can expect continued attempted attacks in the future but I don’t understand how recent events can be viewed as anything other than a triumph for us. Do you really waste a resource like Faisel Shahzad on such an attack if you have the ability to do something more significant? I think not. Nor, apparently, do others.*
But, hyping the threat does serve on purpose. It continues the fear narrative. We can never ratchet down the fear-o-meter, only up. So, when it appears that al-Qaeda is no longer able to put together large, complex, sophisticated terrorist operations, declare that the more dangerous threat is an army of ‘lone wolves’ all doing small operations. Expect this pattern to continue until we can find another, more realistic threat to scare people with.
First we had the Soviet Union. Once they collapsed we were adrift for a bit until Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Unfortunately, he was so easy to defeat that we could keep people freaked out about him so we pitched a variety of unsatisfactory alternative threats to our freedoms and way of life (Milosivich, Adid, bin Laden, Clinton). The attacks of 9/11 gave us the double header of Hussein AND bin Laden. Again, Hussein proved too weak to be a long term boogy man and bin Laden seems to be too small of a target to keep our focus so we’ve had to widen it a bit to include all Islamic terrorism.
How many terrorist attacks can be said to have been successful since 9/11? I’m not talking in terms of bombs detonated or killings carried out but rather actions which have furthered Islamist goals? Events in Pakistan perhaps. Maybe the Spanish attacks in 2004 (although Spanish withdraw from Iraq doesn’t appear to have had much influence over the course of events there). The attacks in London or Bali didn’t really shift things in their favor. Certainly attempts in the U.S. have fallen universally flat. The Ft. Hood shootings probably had the most potential but Hasan unwisely chose military personnel as his targets. If his goal was to terrorize the population (and I’m not convinced he had a coherent plan or goal) killing military personnel is probably the worst target as it just doesn’t seem that the population at large identifies themselves as being in the same threat category. Had he gone to a mall or a school on the other hand he might have gotten a bit more traction but, again, as a one off such effects would likely have been limited in addition to the questionable PR value to the cause of killing innocents.
I used to be convinced that lack of al-Qaeda attacks in America was a clever tactic to allow the U.S. to spend itself to death while devouring itself in partisan recriminations. Now I’m not so sure and think it may be more that al-Qaeda simply lacks the capability even if it wanted to launch attacks.
But, the powers that be need and want a threat and so it really doesn’t matter if al-Qaeda et al. are reduced to spit balls and dirty looks, we’re always going to be at Code Yellow and always just a lucky break from having our civilization collapse around us. Granted some of this is good old fashioned CYA. Pity the public official who says things are getting better and then an attack (successful or not) occurs. But you’ll never get pilloried for saying things are bad and/or getting worse.
It’s also about power. I’m not a big conspiracy theory guy so I don’t envision a star chamber where a group of guys smoking cigars plan how to best enslave the human race (maybe they’re reptilian space invaders?) but institutions have a life of their own and once they acquire power they never give it up willingly. The post 9/11 years have been a boon for a whole host of agencies and industries. Admitting the reason for their expansion of powers has diminished might mean that their power, resources and influence should as well. Therefore, it’s in their best interests to keep the threat hyped and seek new opportunities to build their empires further.
*al-Zawahiri wrote about the purpose of attacks on his enemies this way: “If the successful operations against Islam’s enemies and the severe damage inflicted upon them do not serve the ultimate goal of establishing the Muslim nation in the heart of the Islamic world, they will be nothing more than disturbing acts, regardless of their magnitude, that could be absorbed and endured, even if after some time and with some losses.”