It has been eight years since al-Qaeda attacked the Twin Towers and the Pentagon: eight long years in which the "war on terrorism" – begun by George W. Bush in a blaze of righteousness, and since carried on by his successor, in Afghanistan and Pakistan – has been waged on several fronts. So, how are we doing?
No one can honestly say we are winning, or anywhere close to it. Osama bin Laden and the top leadership of al-Qaeda are still at large, still issuing messages mocking their pursuers and vowing fresh terrorist attacks to come. One of those messages, communicated by bin Laden himself in the days before the 2004 presidential election, effectively demonstrates not only our ongoing defeat but also the reason for it:
"All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies.
"This is in addition to our having experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the mujahidin, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat."
As we race from Afghanistan to Iraq, back to Afghanistan, into Pakistan and now into Yemen, bin Laden must be chortling in his cave, somewhere, contemplating the undoubted success of his strategy. As what the war aficionados and amateur grand strategists call the "Long War" approaches the end of its first decade, the fact that we are losing – and losing badly – cannot have escaped the attention of Western leaders. This is underscored by the most recent attacks – the post-9/11 wave of seemingly minor incidents (or, at least, minor in comparison to what happened on 9/11) – and the Western response.
It started out light. First there was Richard Reid (December, 2001), then a gunman, Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, opened fire at an El Al ticket counter at LAX (July, 2002); in 2004, the Madrid train bombings; in 2006, the first suicide bombings in Europe occurred in Britain, but, again, nothing on the scale of 9/11. The one major plot, the transatlantic liquid bomb plot, was scotched by British security services: another bomb plot, in 2008, failed. In 2009, there was this incident, which, in retrospect – in view of the Yemen connection – may be significant, the Ft. Hood massacre, which also has a Yemen connection, and the most recent attack: the abortive bomb attempt carried out by Umar Farouk Abdel Muttalib, yet another Yemen-connected incident.
If we step back, and take an overview, we can see two patterns emerging: first, the utter ineffectiveness of the idea that invading and occupying Muslim countries (Afghanistan, Iraq) could have any appreciable effect on al-Qaeda’s operations aimed at the US and Western Europe. Indeed, it seems US military action in Afghanistan and Iraq only aided bin Laden’s recruitment efforts, particularly in Europe.
The "flypaper" strategy, once hailed by Andrew Sullivan and other "war-bloggers" boomeranged badly: instead, we are the ones stuck to the flypaper, and stuck with costly and counterproductive military campaigns that show no signs of ever coming to an end.
Treating this as a problem for the military to solve, rather than more traditional law enforcement methods, has proved a failure. In that 2004 video message, bin Laden gloated that he would bankrupt the United States – and can anyone deny that he has succeeded?
The second pattern to emerge from the past eight or so years is the relative amateurism and ineffectuality that has characterized attempts by al-Qaeda to hit the continental US. Losers like Reid, Hassan, and now Muttalib were essentially drones acting largely on their own. Muttalib reportedly went to Yemen, where he was supposedly "trained" and equipped by al-Qaeda, but, as we can see, this training was about as effective as the bomb itself, i.e. pathetic. It seems clear that al-Qaeda planners didn’t much care if their agents succeeded or failed. The point of these attacks seems to have been to keep our attention focused on airliners, and our efforts focused on weeding out potential terrorists from the millions of daily travelers. I might add that the pace of these drone attacks has picked up: three in the last year.
So what is al-Qaeda up to? A number of analysts have stated that the "drone" attacks mean al-Qaeda is exhausted, and unable to launch a major attack on US soil: they are flailing about, sending these losers on suicide missions that have little chance of success, and, even if successful, would have little impact on the American colossus. This view is utterly mistaken.
In order to see what is really going on, I believe we have to go back to the seminal event, the 9/11 attacks, and get a clear picture of what was happening in the months and weeks prior to that fateful day in September.
Al-Qaeda was already entrenched in the US, having placed its foot soldiers on our soil years before, patiently training and waiting for The Day. In addition, in the months prior to September 11, 2001, a massive effort to penetrate sensitive US government and military facilities was underway. The National Counter-Intelligence Center (NCIC) published an "alert" averring that groups of individuals who described themselves as "Israeli art students" were showing up at government offices and military installations, trying to gain entry:
"In the past six weeks, employees in federal office buildings located throughout the United States have reported suspicious activities connected with individuals representing themselves as foreign students selling or delivering artwork. Employees have observed both males and females attempting to bypass facility security and enter federal buildings."
They were also showing up "at the homes of senior officials," according to the NCIC, a development that must have set off alarm bells throughout the counter-intelligence apparatus. An inter-agency report was compiled and leaked to the public, which named names and gave a very specific account of who these Israeli "visitors" were, and what they were up to: many had backgrounds in intelligence and the military, with a specialty in electronic eavesdropping.
The activities of these "art students" were reported by Christopher Ketcham in a piece for Salon.com, but it was Carl Cameron, at Fox News, who really blew the lid off of the "Israeli art student" story in the aftermath of 9/11, in mid-December, 2001, with a four-part series on Israeli spying in the US. His first report started off with a bang. Noting that "more than 60" (later, around 200) Israelis had been picked up in the wake of 9/11 under the same anti-terrorist rubric as the "sweep" of Arabs living in the US, Cameron averred:
"There is no indication that the Israelis were involved in the 9-11 attacks, but investigators suspect that they Israelis may have gathered intelligence about the attacks in advance, and not shared it. A highly placed investigator said there are ‘tie-ins.’ But when asked for details, he flatly refused to describe them, saying, “evidence linking these Israelis to 9-11 is classified. I cannot tell you about evidence that has been gathered. It’s classified information."
As Oliver Schrom wrote in Die Zeit, the respected German weekly, there is convincing evidence that the 9/11 hijackers were being trailed by Israeli agents:
"Not until after the attacks of September 11 did the consequences of the spy ring become clear. Apparently the agents were not interested in military or industrial facilities, but were shadowing a number of suspects, who were later involved in the terrorist attacks against the US. According to a report of the French intelligence agency that Die Zeit examined, ‘according to the FBI, Arab terrorists and suspected terror cells lived in Phoenix, Arizona, as well as in Miami and Hollywood, Florida from December 2000 to April 2001 in direct proximity to the Israeli spy cells.’"
Like the recent wave of al-Qaeda bombers, the "art students" were pretty ineffective – drones, easily detected and/or prevented from carrying out their missions. Ketcham theorized that the Israelis were a planned diversion, designed to draw attention and resources away from the 9/11 hijackers and focus it on the platoons of "art students" who were suddenly showing up at government offices – some of which weren’t on any map or in any telephone directory. Citing an anonymous intelligence official, Ketcham wrote:
"The art student ring was a smoke screen intended to create confusion and allow actual spies – who were also posing as art students – to be lumped together with the rest and escape detection. In other words, the operation is an elaborate double fake-out, a hiding-in-plain-sight scam. Whoever dreamed it up thought ahead to the endgame and knew that the DEA-stakeout aspect was so bizarre that it would throw off American intelligence. According to this theory … Israeli agents wanted, let’s say, to monitor al-Qaida members in Florida and other states. But they feared detection. So to provide cover, and also to create a dizzyingly Byzantine story that would confuse the situation, Israeli intel flooded areas of real operations with these bumbling ‘art student'” – who were told to deliberately stake out DEA agents."
Confused, preoccupied, and stretching their personnel and resources to the max, the US intelligence-gathering agencies were blinded to the warning signs that indicated the 9/11 plot. The Israeli "art student" smokescreen worked like a charm.
The same sort of smokescreen effect has blinded us to al-Qaeda’s future plans, focusing our attention on airliners and anticipating a repeat of the methods employed by them on 9/11, i.e. using an airliner as a weapon of mass destruction. Indeed, the parallels with the pre-9/11 landscape are ominous, including the strong suspicion that the al-Qaeda bombers and would-be bombers, such as Mr. Muttalib, had some sort of outside assistance: see the account of the "well-dressed Indian man" described by Michigan attorney Kurt Haskell. Haskell was a passenger on the plane, and, as he was waiting to board, overheard the Indian trying to get Muttalib on the plane without the proper papers. And then there is the suggestion that the investigation into Muttalib – the apparent indifference of the CIA and/or the US State Department to the warnings of the would-be bomber’s father that his son posed a danger – was deliberately scuttled. This isn’t just some fringe crank making this suggestion, but MSNBC reporter Richard Wolfe:
"The question is why didn’t the centralized system of intelligence that was set up after 9/11, why didn’t it work? Is it conspiracy or cock up? Is it a case of the agencies having so much rivalry between them that they were more determined to stymie each other or the centralized system rather than the terrorist threat or was it just that there were so many dots no one could connect them because it was just all too random to figure out. It seems that the president is leaning very much towards thinking this was a systemic failure by individuals who maybe had an alternative agenda."
"An alternative agenda"? In the context of al-Qaeda’s ongoing campaign to inflict a mortal blow on the US, what can this "alternative agenda" consist of?
Keith Olbermann, naturally, is hysterically implying that this is all a Republican plot to discredit Obama and oust the Democrats, but once we get past such juvenile rantings, and take Wolfe’s reporting at face value – that the President of the United States is "leaning very much toward" the idea that the vetting of Muttalib was deliberately botched – the possibility that al-Qaeda has allies in high places is taken out of the realm of the fantastic and given real legs.
Let’s step back, once again, and see where we are: a series of post-9/11 incidents involving individual terrorists on the periphery of al-Qaeda, suicidal "drones" sent to inflict damage without much care taken to ensure their success. And, recently, the pace of these attacks is picking up…
This, I fear, is an effective smokescreen for what al-Qaeda is really planning: a large-scale terrorist assault, perhaps involving nuclear materials, that rivals 9/11 in scope and destructive power. While we’re fighting off these little pinpricks in the form of the Shoe-Bomber and the Panty-Bomber, the real deal is looming right around the next corner – and, perhaps like last time, with those "art students," they have some sort of outside assistance (how else did Muttalib get on that plane?).
Our ports are unguarded: every day millions of tons of cargo pass through, without being inspected. Our nuclear facilities are far from secured (remember those nukes that went missing?) Our borders are notoriously porous, especially our southern border, across which pour tens of thousands of illegal immigrants on a daily basis: why not al-Qaeda?
In the name of a "war on terrorism," we have gone abroad, seeking monsters to destroy – when the monsters, in seems, are in our very midst. Or, if they aren’t, then al-Qaeda is more incompetent than I’m willing to believe.
To answer the question posed at the beginning of this column: we are losing the "war on terrorism," big-time. By concentrating our attention abroad, rather than on the home front, we have made bin Laden into an Islamic folk hero, swelled the ranks of al-Qaeda – and wasted our resources, opening ourselves up to a debilitating attack that could make 9/11 pale in comparison. In short, we have never been more vulnerable, or clueless, when it comes to facing the very real threat posed by al-Qaeda and its allies and enablers.
God help us all.