Can We Learn Anything?

Can we learn anything pertinent from the apparent thwarting of a terrorist plot in Great Britain this week? Probably more than those who consider themselves the masters of the vaunted "war on terror" would like us to know.

If we absorbed what seem to me to be the obvious lessons, there would be a hue and cry to rethink radically – in the dictionary sense of from the roots up – how the U.S. has approached the conflict with Islamist-jihadist terrorists. What we have been doing hasn’t worked very well, and has almost certainly been profoundly counterproductive.

Al-Qaeda Still Alive

So what can we learn? For starters, while it isn’t a certainty, the fact that several of those arrested in London this week, combined with the apparent sophistication of the plot, suggest that al-Qaeda is alive and operational. This is not as banal a statement as it might appear on its face.

It is more than likely that al-Qaeda’s capacities have been degraded by cutting off finances and capturing some top leaders. The fact that the London and Madrid subway bombings seemed to be the work of locals "inspired" by al-Qaeda, rather than connected to it in an organizational or operational sense, had left some wondering whether it had the capacity to pull off another major terrorist operation.

Perhaps al-Qaeda had been reduced to a few guys in remote mountains who retained the ability to stay on top of world events and make an inspirational videotape now and again, but not much else. Not that such an outfit might not be dangerous – indeed, as an "inspirational" point of focus with the capacity to spur others to action but decentralized and non-hierarchical, thus almost invisible from the standpoint of creating the kind of "chatter" Western intelligence could pick up and act upon, it might be more dangerous than a more conventional terrorist organization.

If al-Qaeda lacked direct operational capacity, however, it might be peculiarly vulnerable to a concerted and successful effort to find and kill bin Laden and Zawahiri. There would be the risk of creating inspirational martyrs in the process, but that would be balanced against the benefit of eliminating personages apparently capable of stirring the troops directly from time to time. How it would all play out would be difficult to predict, but there would at least be a chance that "striking at the head" would reduce if not eliminate some of the impetus for jihad in the world.

The safest bet now is to assume that al-Qaeda remains active and dangerous – perhaps doubly so since it apparently (we’ll see what new information comes out) has both the capacity to inspire actions and the ability to provide practical assistance and training to those inspired to wage jihad.

A Gumshoe Victory

Perhaps the most heartening aspect of the thwarting of the plot to blow up airliners with virtually undetectable liquid explosives and commonplace electronic devices was that it was done with competent and persistent police work rather than with police-state tactics. News stories say the investigation began with a tip to the authorities, shortly after the 7/7 train bombings last year, from a young British Muslim – a "worried member of the Muslim community," as the Washington Post put it – concerned about the kinds of activities a friend seemed to be getting into. That tip led to further evidence and further investigation and eventually closing down the plot.

In the first few hours after the apparent thwarting of the apparent plot became news (I first got it from a reader with whom I have cordially disagreed about the war from the start), the justifications for extreme surveillance flowed. All you guys who complained about the NSA warrantless wiretapping, the financial scrutiny, even (for some) the use of interrogation tactics that tread up to and sometimes cross the line of torture, aren’t you ashamed? Without such tactics this plot would never have been foiled.

That turns out not to be true. The plot was not detected because of massive surveillance of all Britons, or even all Muslim Britons, or data-mining of telephonic or financial information. It was more like good luck followed by routine police work, a triumph of old-fashioned gumshoe methods: the way most criminal plans are thwarted, on those fortunate occasions when they are thwarted.

How might a similar situation have been handled in the United States? It seems virtually certain that such a tip in the United States would have led almost any judge in the country to issue a warrant to authorize further surveillance and investigation, and that further evidence would have justified further warrants. The PATRIOT Act would not have been needed.

What is needed in the wake of this success is a reassessment of the way the United States, especially, has chosen to undertake the murky "war on terror."

Rethinking Why They Hate Us

As Charles Peña, author of Winning the Un-War and a fellow at Georgetown University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute, reminded me in a phone conversation, even a successful law-enforcement intervention that prevents a terrorist act serves as a reminder of how difficult it is always to be playing defense. Law enforcement might stop the next attempted attack and the one after that, and the 10 after that, but as long as dedicated and adaptable terrorists keep trying, it is sadly likely that sooner or later some horrific action will be successful.

"It is important to remember," Mr. Peña told me, "what the IRA said to the British after a failed attempt to kill then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: ‘We only have to be lucky once – you will have to be lucky always.’"

Our policy-makers draw from this the lesson that we must be ever aggressive in seeking out terrorists, using all the tools at our disposal, including and especially the military, even if the evidence justifying an attack is thin (see Ron Suskind’s new book, The One Percent Doctrine.) Peña and I draw a different lesson.

The fact that stateless terrorism, facilitated through the Internet, remains the most signal threat to the safety of Americans in this sad era should precipitate a thoroughgoing reassessment of U.S. foreign policy.

The war in Iraq was an inappropriate response – I know that’s an understatement – to stateless terrorism. Not only has it led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and increased anti-Americanism around the globe, it is almost certainly breeding, inspiring, and in some cases giving active experience to more future terrorists than it is killing. Even assuming all the people the U.S. military kills in Iraq are terrorists, each person we kill there may lead to several people determined to inflict damage or revenge on the United States, some of whom will carry their resentment and anger into action. It’s hard to see how this can be turned into a winning proposition.

So whether the conflict devolves into a civil war or not, it is time to begin the process of withdrawing and letting Iraqis run Iraq, which is likely to be both for better and for worse. Democracy and the institutions of a civil society necessary for it to succeed cannot be imposed from the top by an outside force. They must grow upward from the people, rooted in local desires and aspirations.

A Larger Reassessment

If we really want to reduce the danger terrorists pose to the United States over the longer haul, however, we would do well to undertake a more thorough reassessment of U.S. foreign policy. Some enthusiasts of administration policy still cling to the empty canard that the terrorists hate us because of our freedoms and our decadent way of life. But while that may be true, it is not scorn for the Bill of Rights and Las Vegas that moves Islamist terrorists to attack the U.S. or what they conceive to be U.S. interests.

The fact is that the United States has been meddling in Muslim countries for 50 years and more, and is presently occupying and ruling (with a mixture of arrogance and naiveté) one right now. That is what inspires actual attacks on the United States. As any number of authorities have emphasized time and again, all of bin Laden’s screeds have emphasized U.S. interference in Muslim countries – beginning with stationing troops in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s most sacred sites – as the major justification for attacking.

If the United States were to reconsider its policies and opt – as 2000 candidate George W. Bush seemed to advocate – for a more humble foreign policy that eschewed interference and regime change in other countries, followed by a gradual withdrawal of troops from places like Okinawa, South Korea, and elsewhere, the result might not be apparent for a while. Given our record, other countries might well be suspicious as to whether this new posture was sincere or would be sustained. But if it were maintained for a while, those seeking to stir up resentment against the United States would, at the least, find a diminishing pool of potential recruits. Although those who sold us the Iraq war might beg to differ, over time you need genuine resentments based on recent actions to get people to be willing to blow up themselves and others.

So it might take years, or even decades, for such a change in policy to have the impact of reducing terrorist threats? Those running the current improvisation they choose to call the "war on terror" have already told us that doing it their way is likely to take decades. Their way involves constant conflict, the likelihood of increased anti-Americanism, the sacrifice of many American lives and much treasure, and no guarantee of 100-percent security. Our way offers a better chance of neutralizing jihadist terrorism as a plague upon the world, less money spent, fewer lives lost, and the possibility of ending up living in a country once again admired (and not just envied) by most decent people around the world.

In the short run, surveillance, intelligence, and heightened security will be necessary. In the long run, however, the United States can best thwart terrorism by providing an example of how well freedom improves the lives of people – especially when a free country reconsiders the sometimes understandable temptation to try to run the rest of the world.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).