Commentary Magazine


Have We Become Complacent About Terrorism?

Now that Afghanistan is no longer a sanctuary for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, many Islamist attacks or attempted attacks have been mounted by individuals who have spent time in Pakistan. Here in the U.S. we have had a spate of recent cases.

On April 12, an Ohio man, Christopher Paul, was indicted on federal charges that he conspired to bomb European tourist resorts and U.S. military bases overseas. According to prosecutors, he had been schooled in paramilitary techniques at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan in the 1990’s and later signed up with the terrorist group in Pakistan.

On April 2, a Maryland taxicab driver, Mahmud Faruq Brent al Mutazzim, pleaded guilty to conspiring to aid a terrorist organization after admitting he attended training camps operated by Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan in 2002 and was involved with that terrorist group from 2001 through 2005.

On January 8, Shahawar Matin Sira, a Pakistani immigrant living in New York, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for his part in an unsuccessful plot to blow up a Manhattan subway station as revenge for alleged wartime abuses of Iraqis.

If we connect these three dots—and there are many more such dots overseas—we can see why Michael Chertoff, secretary of homeland security, has been dickering with his British counterparts about curbing the travel of British citizens of Pakistani origin to the United States.

Today’s New York Times reports that all British citizens currently enjoy the right to enter the U.S. without a visa. There are approximately 800,000 Britons of Pakistani origin in the United Kingdom. Members of this subgroup have been disproportionately behind recent successful and thwarted terrorist plots in England.

But the effort to address the problems posed by a particular nationality raises delicate political issues. Thus, one proposal put forward by the U.S. would be “to single out Britons of Pakistani origin, requiring them to make visa applications for the United States.” The Times reports that, at the moment, “the British are resistant, fearing that restrictions on the group of Britons would incur a backlash from a population that has always sided with the Labor party.”

Will such political considerations trump the imperative of protecting our security? It is impossible to say. But strange things are taking place in American counterterrorism that raise all sorts of questions about whether, nearly six years after 9/11, we have become complacent.

In late April, the New York Times reported that under a system set up by the FBI in 2004, every time a terrorism suspect tries to buy a gun in the U.S., counterterrorism officials have three days to block the transaction. If the officials are successful in doing so, they can then find out what kind of gun was being sought and where exactly the transaction was to have taken place. But if they are unsuccessful, they are barred from gaining any further information.

To end this unsatisfactory state of affairs, the Justice Department has proposed legislation that would empower the attorney general to block gun purchases by buyers found “to be or [to] have been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism.”

But what, one wonders, are these terrorism suspects doing roaming freely around? How many are there of them? Are they being monitored, or is it only when they try to buy a firearm that authorities even learn of their whereabouts?

That is not the end of it. In mid-March, the FBI issued a bulletin to local police departments noting that it was investigating foreigners, “some with ties to extremist groups,” who had been engaged in “recent suspicious activity” and been purchasing school buses and acquiring licenses to drive them. Facing public alarm as word of the advisory leaked out, the FBI issued a statement: “Parents and children have nothing to fear.”

Perhaps we do have nothing to fear. But I, for one, doubt that the FBI, an agency beset with profound internal problems, has a handle on counterterrorism. See my How Inept is the FBI? for a picture of some of their earlier failures.

As CNN’s Glenn Beck has put it, the FBI’s reassurances about the school buses are “kind of like saying, ‘Your drinking water is now laced with anthrax and Clorox, but don’t worry about it. I’m sure you’re going to be fine,’. . . [it] sounds a little like the Muslims who were taking flying lessons without learning how to land the plane. How can the FBI warn law enforcement about this and then tell us, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it,’”?

A very good question. Let’s hope that we do not have to wait for another September 11 for some answers.

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