A Deadly Diversion

A summary of a draft of a new National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism that has been leaked so much that the pitcher may have gone dry by now reportedly concludes “that al-Qaeda has reconstituted its core structure along the Pakistani border and may now be a stronger and more resilient organization than it appeared a year ago,” as Newsweek‘s Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball put it. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has a “gut feeling” the US may be vulnerable to an attack this summer, although everyone scrambles to say there’s no specific threat.

In short, be afraid, be very afraid. Or maybe not.

More specifically, the draft report is reported to say that the US will face "a persistent and evolving threat" within its borders for at least the next three years, mainly from Islamist/jihadist groups and "driven by the undiminished intent to attack the homeland and continued effort by terrorist groups to adapt and improve their capabilities." Al-Qaeda is still pursuing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and would use them if the circumstances were right. Al-Qaeda has restored a safe haven in Pakistan’s North-West tribal area, operational lieutenants and senior leaders, which means it is close to being able to mount a spectacular attack in the US. Officials are concerned about people being able to come into this country without visas and homegrown terrorist groups.

A National Intelligence Estimate is supposedly the most authoritative written judgment on some threat the country faces, reflecting the consensus long-term thinking of the 16 known intelligence agencies. They aren’t always right, and they are sometimes, cynics might say, tailored to what their most important consumer, the President of the United States, wants to hear. The notorious October NIE on WMD in Iraq, for example, put most of the disclaimers and hedges in footnotes, creating a picture of certainty about Saddam’s possession of certain weapons that hardly reflected the more considered judgment of more hard-nosed analysts.


A terrorist attack, even a botched terrorist attack like those in London and Glasgow recently, is a dramatic and traumatic event – terrorists wouldn’t bother if it weren’t – but a little perspective may be in order. A quarter-million people have died in automobile accidents since 9/11, but most Americans accept that statistic as background noise. A new terrorist attack would be horrific, and we would all empathize with the victims, but your chances of being hurt in a terrorist attack are about the same as your chances of winning the lottery tonight.

The Bush administration has declared a global war on terror and has made it the signature issue of George W. Bush’s presidency. It wouldn’t do to have Americans adopt the attitude many Europeans, after significant experience with both war and terrorism on their own soil, have adopted – that terrorism is likely to be an ongoing problem requiring serious vigilance (i.e. parts of London are studded with security cameras), but not something likely to be eliminated no matter how strenuous our efforts and no matter how much of our freedom we cede to the government. So we may be seeing terrorism hype here.

So far Americans have been fairly cooperative in yielding to a degree of panic in public, at least to the degree that they endure airport delays and searches and other indignities with sheepish submission. In most of what we do in our daily lives, however, we may be closer to Europeans, mouthing pieties about being vigilant and concerned while going about our daily lives with about the same amount of real-life concern as we devote to traffic accidents – and maybe less, since most of us at least drive fairly defensively.


Even if there are elements of fearmongering in all this terror talk, however, there are reasons to believe that al-Qaeda is stronger than it has been recently, and most of those reasons suggest that the predominant ways our government has chosen to “fight terrorism” have been profoundly misguided. The most egregious blunder was invading Iraq.

The reputed terrorism experts I talked with and numerous news accounts agree that al-Qaeda is stronger along the Pakistani-Afghan border than it was a year to 18 months ago, that the effectiveness of the leadership has probably improved, and that al-Qaeda has proven to be adaptable and resilient. What has received less attention is what one expert referred to as Iraq becoming “the academy of advanced terrorism,” with people gaining experience there in urban guerrilla warfare and returning to Europe where that experience is likely to mean more terrorist incidents and more people trained in the years ahead.

In a combat organization, they key to valuable learning is frequency of operations. You can look at a schematic for an explosive device on the Internet and maybe you’ll be able to assemble one with just that information. But it’s not the same as having somebody with direct experience teach you, or like doing it yourself over and over until it becomes almost second nature.

Unlike Afghanistan, which was useful for terrorist training because so much of the country is mountainous and remote, Iraq has plenty of urban areas. Those participating in terrorist actions there are getting experience that will be closer to directly applicable to urban environments in Europe and the United States. And frequency is not a problem. Whereas the Irish Republican Army in its heyday might have carried out two or three operations a month, in Iraq there are hundreds a day. So foreign fighters coming in to learn the grisly trade and get "blooded" in actual operations have plenty of opportunities to learn and refine their skills.

All this has plenty of European security services concerned about militants going to and fro between Iraq and Europe. According to Newsweek the German government recently "set up a special interagency team to track the flow of suspected jihadi recruits to and from that war-torn country [Iraq]."

That doesn’t necessarily mean that leaving Iraq will eliminate the violence or the jihadist juices it has unleashed immediately or even soon. Seeds have been sown there that will bloom for years. But invading was a mistake – both a diversion from the real threat and a motivating factor for jihadist recruiting. Let’s remember that the next time leaders bang the war drums.

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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).