Exactly 20 years ago on this date, a terrorist attack at the World Trade Center took the lives of six people and injured more than a thousand others. The tragedy shocked the nation but, as with other al-Qaeda attacks in the years that followed, the WTC bombing did not alter the country’s basic approach to Islamist terrorism. For the next eight and a half years, the United States carried on with a business-as-usual attitude toward the subject. The lack of urgency applied to the subject, as well as the disorganized and sometimes slap-dash nature of the security establishment’s counter-terrorist operations, led to the far greater tragedy of September 11, 2001 when al-Qaeda managed to accomplish what it failed to do in 1993: knock down the towers and slaughter thousands.
All these years after 9/11 and the tracking down and killing of Osama bin Laden, are there any further lessons to be drawn from that initial tragedy? To listen to the chattering classes, you would think the answer is a definitive no. Few are marking this anniversary and even fewer seem to think there is anything more to be said about what we no longer call the war on terror. But as much as many of us may wish to consign this anniversary to the realm of the history books, the lessons of the day the war on America began still need to be heeded.
İslam Dünyası or “Islamic World” is the Turkish language edition of Al Qaeda’s magazine. I had previously referenced it here when, late last year, the magazine called for attacks on the United States. The latest edition is now available, at least in Jihadi chat rooms. What is most interesting is that it provides biographies for three slain Turkish fighters, two of whom were killed fighting against NATO in Afghanistan, and the third of whom was killed fighting for radicals in Syria.
According to SITE monitoring, which translated the biographies, one of the three grew up in Istanbul, and two grew up in Ankara. All were from poor families and began taking Islam classes in Turkey.
The reason why this is important is simple: The Turkish government has long acknowledged that Turks were active in Al Qaeda and its affiliates (under the group Taifetul Mansura), but always claimed that Turkish Jihadists were Diaspora Turks radicalized in Germany. Now it looks like this isn’t the case, and the real problem is in Turkey itself.
With controversy growing over the Obama administration’s use of drones to kill suspected terrorists—even, on a few occasions American citizens—interest appears to be growing in some kind of “drone court” modeled on the court authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to authorize national-security wiretaps. Even Bob Gates, the former secretary of defense who is as centrist as they come, appeared to indicate on CNN yesterday that he was in favor of more oversight of the drone strikes, possibly from such a court.
There is no doubt that putting judicial imprimatur on such strikes would help to dissipate growing opposition to the use of drones and could help to rein in capricious decision-making by this administration or a future administration. This proposal is sure to gain traction on both the antiwar left and the anti-government right—as well as among many in the general public who have a certain unease about the idea of presidentially ordered “assassinations” a la fictional characters like Jason Bourne.
Nevertheless creating such a court would be a very bad idea because it would constitute a dangerous infringement on the president’s authority as commander-in-chief.
After last month’s Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seizure of a British Petroleum facility in Algeria culminated in a botched rescue and the deaths of scores of hostages, the international media focused its attention elsewhere.
It will be a fateful mistake, however, to see the size and the scope of the AQIM assault on the In Amenas facility as an exception rather than the beginning of a new rule. According to reports out of Algeria yesterday, a band of 50 heavily-armed men attacked an Algerian army barracks. According to France 24:
Pete Wehner makes a fair point in dinging President Obama for hypocrisy because Obama once expressed outrage over the Bush administration’s use of torture (euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques”) while now defending the legality of his own policy of ordering the targeted killing of al-Qaeda members even if they’re U.S. citizens. There is no judicial review in either policy–and the latter results in death rather than discomfort.
But I’d much rather that the president be hypocritical than wrong on the issue of targeted killings. In this case I think he deserves applause for taking the right stance in spite of the criticism from some of his own supporters in the “human rights” lobby. (I use quote marks because groups like Amnesty International seldom if ever recognize that actions taken by Western states to defend themselves against terrorist attacks are a defense of the basic right to live without fear of assault.)
I agree completely with Pete about the rank hypocrisy of President Obama when it comes to using his powers to fight terrorism. Liberals and Democrats accused President Bush, Vice President Cheney and those associated with conducting the war on terror of being immoral lawbreakers–but now hold their tongues when it is Obama and his colleagues who have asserted the power to hold prisoners in indefinite captivity or order the deaths of terror suspects. Everyone on the left, up to and including the president, owes Bush, Cheney and company an abject apology on this score, though I’m afraid it will never be forthcoming.
But it is important to note that those on the right who are inclined to give Obama a taste of his own medicine on the issue of drone strikes against al-Qaeda figures should take a deep breath and think more about what is good for the country as opposed to what the president deserves. It may be, as Pete noted, that the used of “enhanced interrogation” was nothing when compared to the brutality and casualties incurred as a result of Obama’s drone strikes, but that is no excuse for any Congressional action aimed at restricting the executive branch’s ability to wage war against America’s foes. Even in the cases of American citizens who have been marked for death via drones without benefit of a judicial process, conservatives and civil libertarians alike should understand that these are reasonable measures taken to defend against those seeking to murder American citizens.
That the Arab Spring has turned distinctly chilly throughout the Middle East is no surprise. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has shown itself as committed to anti-Semitism and antagonistic to democracy as its detractors feared. In Libya, militant Islamist factions continue to hamper Libya’s development, and make Benghazi and much of Libya unsafe. Syria remains embroiled in a civil war, which will see no winner emerge who will do anything but undermine regional security. Through all this bad news, however, diplomats could cling to Tunisia. The small, relatively wealthy North African country was the place where the Arab Spring first erupted. Even though Islamists had won Tunisia’s first elections, they appeared to hew a more moderate line, albeit with hiccups along the way.
Earlier today, Tunisia time, that changed:
It hasn’t gotten much attention, but Iraq was badly shaken by an incident that occurred Friday in Fallujah: security forces fired on a crowd of anti-government protesters, killing at least seven people. The people of Fallujah got their revenge by killing at least two soldiers and kidnapping three more. As press accounts note, mourners in Falluja shouted, “The blood of our people will not be lost in vain,” and they set fire to an army checkpoint.
This is, to put it mildly, a worrisome situation. Fallujah was one of the epicenters of Al Qaeda in Iraq and, more generally, of Sunni resistance to a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Along with the rest of Anbar Province, it has been relatively peaceful since the “surge” of 2007-2008, when most Sunnis elected to join with the U.S. and its Iraqi allies, but the situation is now becoming volatile because of the vendetta that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is pursuing against senior Sunni politicians.
After criticizing French plans to counter Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in northern Mali, the Obama administration is slowly increasing its support to the French, as the French military conducts a mission vital to U.S. interests as well as their own.
Mali is a beautiful country, one which I visited as a tourist a decade ago. (My thoughts from the time are encapsulated in this New Republic article). It was also the Muslim majority country which Freedom House had, for years, rated as most free. Despite being one of the poorest countries on earth and democratic, Mali was for years ignored by the United States.
Law professor Karima Bennoune has an important op-ed in the New York Times today that should be required reading for all those who think that Muslims are somehow different from “you and me” and actually enjoy living under a tyrannical regime as long as its diktats are justified by a twisted reading of Sharia law. Based on her interviews with Malians fleeing the Islamists who have taken over the northern part of the country, Bennoune shows it just isn’t so–tyranny is unpopular no matter how it is packaged and justified. As she notes:
First, the fundamentalists banned music in a country with one of the richest musical traditions in the world. Last July, they stoned an unmarried couple for adultery. The woman, a mother of two, had been buried up to her waist in a hole before a group of men pelted her to death with rocks. And in October the Islamist occupiers began compiling lists of unmarried mothers.
Even holy places are not safe. These self-styled “defenders of the faith” demolished the tombs of local Sufi saints in the fabled city of Timbuktu.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent much of Wednesday being grilled on Capitol Hill about the conditions which led to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. As John McCain, among others, pointed out, the chaos which prevailed in Libya was not inevitable; it was due in no small part to the administration’s failure to do more to support state-building after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in an American-supported insurgency.
The failure to follow up has destabilized not only Libya but also nearby countries such as Mali, where the French have felt compelled to rush into the vacuum to prevent Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and associated extremist organizations from consolidating their hold on the northern part of the country and even marching on the capital. What’s truly odd is how reluctant the administration is to help the French, even though they are on the front lines of our common battle against jihadism.
News is still filtering out of Algeria as we wait to see just how many people were killed when government forces stormed a gas facility where Islamist terrorists were holding dozens of workers, including some Americans, hostage. While initial reports speak of many hostages being killed, we can only hope that the casualties turn out to be fewer than feared and that none of the terrorists involved have escaped. But the attack, like the 9/11 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, highlights the fact that contrary to the tone of much of President Obama’s re-election campaign, al-Qaeda and its network of affiliated terrorist groups is very much alive, especially in North Africa.
At the Washington Post, Max Fisher writes to emphasize what he says are the “sketchy” links between al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an offshoot of which appears to be behind the Algerian operation, and the al-Qaeda that is fighting the United States in Pakistan and Afghanistan. That is true. The fact is, as he points out, Islamists have been fighting in Algeria since the 1990s. Moreover, the notion that al-Qaeda was a centralized group with a unitary command was always something of a myth. However, these different national branches always cooperated and were part of the jihadi pipeline across North Africa and the Middle East. All of which is to say that the claim that the terrorists in Algeria are unrelated to the Islamist terror war on the West is not true. That leads to the inevitable conclusion that the administration’s attempt to portray the conflict with Islamists as having essentially been ended by the death of Osama bin Laden is also a myth.
Mali is getting even more deeply enmeshed in a guerrilla war pitting Islamist insurgents against French troops and their African allies. The latest developments include reports that, following air strikes, French troops are involved in their first ground combat. Rather predictably, despite their blood-curdling rhetoric–one fighter with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb told a Western reporter, “Even if they come at us with nuclear bombs, we will defend the terrain. This is going to be worse than Afghanistan!”–the rebel fighters generally prefer to melt away rather than confront far better-armed and better-trained French forces.
This is straight out of the Guerrilla 101 playbook. As Mao Zedong famously counseled: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”
The protests which erupted in the Al-Anbar governorate after the December 21 arrest of 10 of Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi’s bodyguards on terrorism allegations have spread to Tikrit, Mosul, parts of Baghdad and other predominantly Sunni areas. Max Boot has written about the arrests here, and I have offered a different take, here.
Since we last commented on the issue, radical Islamists—their confidence bolstered by the success of their fellow-travelers in Syria—have thrown in their support for the Al Anbar protestors as has radical Shi’ite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr. So, too, has Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, vice chairman of Saddam Hussein’s Revolutionary Command Council and the highest ranking member of Saddam’s regime to remain a fugitive. Demonstrating how Baathism and al-Qaeda interests sometimes inter-connect, Izzat Ibrahim declared, “What is happening in Iraq today, especially in its intelligence operations, and the government of puppets and its institutions, is the Persian-Safawi project in all its depth and comprehensiveness implemented by the Safawi coalition led by the Dawa Party and its leader Maliki.” The al-Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq, meanwhile, SITE Monitoring reported, released a statement on January 5 castigating “Those [who] are the true enemies of the Sunni people, and they didn’t mobilize themselves except when the fire of the Safavid hatred reached them….”
The Safawi (in Arabic) or Safavids (as often transcribed into English from Persian) were the 16th century dynasty which converted Iran to Shi’ism. Reference to the Iraqi Shi’ites as Safavids is common practice among those who want to castigate all Shi’ites as Iranian fifth columnists. Topping off recent events, former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, an ex-Baathist himself, has called for early elections in Iraq.
It has long been argued by psychologists and political scientists that most suicide bombers are not mentally ill and most aren’t inherently suicidal. Rather they are indoctrinated or brain-washed by terrorist organizations to perform high-profile attacks with a political or religious motive. Adam Lankford, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama, seeks to dramatically revise our understanding of this phenomenon with a new book which he adapted into a New York Times op-ed today. He argues: “For years, the conventional wisdom has been that suicide terrorists are rational political actors, while suicidal rampage shooters are mentally disturbed loners. But the two groups have far more in common than has been recognized.”
His arguments would radically revise our understanding of terrorists and their motivations–if they were true. But his evidence is, to put it charitably, less than convincing.
The Obama administration’s policy on Syria continues to lurch forward incoherently, the latest development being the designation of the Al Nusra Front, one of the rebel groups fighting Bashar Assad, as a terrorist organization. On the merits the designation is clearly warranted, given the close links between Al Nusra and Al Qaeda in Iraq. But the administration has dragged its feet for years in designating other terrorist groups such as the Haqqani Network even while they were actually killing Americans. The Taliban still hasn’t been so designated. So why rush to designate the Al Nusra Front?
Presumably because the administration is planning to confer diplomatic recognition on the Syrian opposition and wants to make clear its disapproval of the jihadist element of the opposition. But the U.S. has so far provided no meaningful assistance to the Syrian opposition—certainly not arms. The Al Nusra Front has been growing increasingly prominent precisely because it is getting more outside support than other groups—in its case not only from Al Qaeda in Iraq but also from Gulf states.
Susan Rice was supposed to be meeting with Republican senators this morning to dispel concerns about her likely secretary of state nomination, but it sounds like she only made matters worse. In a press conference after the meeting, Sen. John McCain said he was “significantly troubled” by many of the answers Rice gave:
“We are significantly troubled by many of the answers we got, and some that we didn’t get, concerning evidence leading up to the attack on our consulate, the tragic deaths of four brave Americans, and whether Ambassador Rice was prepared or informed sufficiently in order to give the American people a correct depiction of the events that took place. It is clear that the information that she gave the American people was incorrect when she said it was a spontaneous demonstration triggered by a hateful video. It was not, and there was compelling evidence at the time that that was certainly not the case, including statements by Libyans as well as other Americans who are fully aware that people don’t bring mortars and rocket-propelled grenades to spontaneous demonstrations.”
As we await election results, it is salutary to remember that, no matter who wins, the U.S. will face the same set of challenges—and we will have to address them with our existing governmental agencies and programs unless steps are taken to modify and improve what we currently have. In no area is this necessity more pressing than in our ability to project non-military power—to engage in political warfare, state-building, and related activities designed to shape the international environment in our favor without having to resort to the dispatch of large numbers of troops.
This is an especially compelling requirement in the greater Middle East, which is being reshaped by the Arab Spring. Although we tend to focus on the danger of jihadist takeovers—understandably so—in many ways the most common threat we actually face is state breakdown. In countries ranging from Mali and Libya to Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan, institutions have broken down and the U.S. and our allies are struggling to stand up some kind of bulwark against extremism. We are not doing a very good job of it, unfortunately.
Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post is one of the best defense correspondents out there, but he goes off the deep end in this article, claiming that there is a truth that no politician, general, or think tanker dare utter–that “measured by most relevant statistics, the United States — and the world — have never been safer.” He explains: “Global terrorism has barely touched most Americans in the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, with 238 U.S. citizens killed in terrorist attacks, mostly in war zones, according to the National Counterterrorism Center’s annual reports. By comparison, the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that 293 Americans were crushed during the same stretch by falling furniture or televisions.” Therefore, he more or less suggests, there is no reason to spend as much as we do on defense. “The candidates’ rhetoric, however, suggests that the globe is ablaze.”
Jaffe’s first claim is actually self-refuting–the notion that no one dare talk about how safe we are. He quotes academics and think tankers who do just that. In fact, the argument that the terrorist threat is overblown is a regular trope of political scientist John Mueller (see, for instance, this 2006 Foreign Affairs article). The fact that such arguments have won little traction in the political process–even relatively dovish Democrats think we should be spending a lot of money on homeland defense–is a sign not of the overwhelming lobbying power of defense contractors or hawkish think tankers or other actors, but rather of the fundamental unreality behind these arguments.
Yet more amazing revelations continue to emerge about the Benghazi attack.
Foreign Policy magazine has a story on its website by two Dubai-based Arabic TV reporters who visited the site of the former U.S. consulate on Oct. 26 and found important documents lying around that were left behind by an FBI team that visited a month ago. These included a document claiming that on the morning of September 11 one of the consulate security guards spied a police officer charged with guarding the compound photographing it instead. Sean Smith, one of the slain diplomats, wrote hours just before his death in an online forum: “Assuming we don’t die tonight. We saw one of our ‘police’ that guard the compound taking pictures.”