Writers often don’t choose their own headlines, and the one over this Politico Magazine piece does not appear to reflect the author’s input. But it does highlight how an unfortunate piece of conventional wisdom has crept into mainstream publications regarding the war on terror. The piece, by former CIA analyst Aki Peritz, is headlined “Are We Too Dysfunctional for a New War on Terror?” Setting aside the potential effect of congressional deadlock on defense policy, the problematic word here is: “new.”
Is the “old” war on terror over? Not by any reasonable metric. Al-Qaeda is not now, and was not even after bin Laden’s death, on the run. President Obama has somewhat taken the war on terror off the front burner for many Americans through his policy of killing instead of capturing potential terrorists–not to mention the fact that he’s a Democrat, so the antiwar movement, which was mostly an anti-Bush movement, has receded from view. (Though the fringe activists of Code Pink have continued yelling at senators.)
Complicating Obama’s desire to end the war on terror is that he has only presided over its expansion, for a simple reason. Obama can choose to end America’s participation in a traditional land war by retreating from that country. It’s ignominious but yes, a war can plausibly end if one side just leaves.
But the war on terror isn’t a traditional land war. The American retrenchment over which Obama has presided has had all sorts of wholly predictable and deadly results, but those results are, in Obama’s mind, for someone else to deal with. So for example we have Russia on the march, but as far as Obama’s concerned, it’s Ukraine’s war. Terrorism is different, because when terrorists fill a vacuum, they create a safe haven, and when they do that they threaten America.
Thus we have Thursday’s Wall Street Journal report on the terrorist group known as Khorasan, which many in the West hadn’t heard of until last week:
U.S. officials say Khorasan is a growing hazard, particularly to the U.S., because its members are focused on violence toward the West and have been eyeing attacks on American airliners.
On Thursday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as Islamic State “in terms of threat to the homeland.” It was the first time a U.S. official has acknowledged the group’s existence. …
Officials wouldn’t describe in any detail the nature, location or timing of the plots. Together, Nusra Front and Khorasan are suspected to have multiple plots in the works targeting countries in Europe as well as the U.S.
Other news organizations have since followed the Journal’s lead and reported on Khorasan. Syria has become an anarchic incubator of terrorist groups, itself an obvious source of possible trouble for U.S. counterterrorism and homeland security efforts. It also magnifies the threat to regional stability, which puts U.S. interests further at risk.
How such a threat multiplies in that environment is often misunderstood. The groups don’t necessarily “team up” on an attack against the West. But it helps to connect those who want to attack the West but don’t have the means or the knowhow with those who have the means and knowhow but not the desire to attack the West. And it has eerie echoes from past collaborations. As the Council on Foreign Relations noted in a 2006 backgrounder on the Hezbollah-al-Qaeda relationship:
As former National Security Council members Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon describe in their book, The Age of Sacred Terror, a small group of al-Qaeda members visited Hezbollah training camps in Lebanon in the mid-1990s. Shortly thereafter, according to testimony from Ali Mohammed, an Egyptian-born U.S. Army sergeant who later served as one of bin Laden’s lieutenants and pled guilty to participating in the 1998 embassy bombings in eastern Africa, Osama bin Laden and Imad Mugniyeh met in Sudan. The two men, who have both topped the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists, agreed Hezbollah would provide the fledgling al-Qaeda organization with explosives and training in exchange for money and manpower. Though it is unclear whether all terms of that agreement were met or the degree to which the two groups have worked together since. Douglas Farah, a journalist and consultant with the NEFA Foundation, a New York-based counterterrorism organization, says Hezbollah helped al-Qaeda traffic its assets through Africa in the form of diamonds and gold shortly after the 9/11 attacks. U.S. and European intelligence reports from that time suggest the two groups were collaborating in such activities as money laundering, gun running, and training. It’s not clear whether these past collaborations were isolated incidents or indications of a broader relationship.
Khorasan’s leader, according to the New York Times, “was so close to Bin Laden that he was among a small group of people who knew about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks before they were launched.” And the Journal adds that the group “is also pursuing a major recruitment effort focused on fighters with Western passports, officials said.” So it’s easy to understand why American counterterrorism and intelligence officials are taking the threat seriously.
A member of bin Laden’s inner circle is leading a group planning attacks on the U.S., was recently living in Iran, and is utilizing a terrorist haven teeming with weapons and possible recruits. This is not a “new” war on terror. In many cases it’s not even a new enemy. No matter how uninterested the American president is in the global war on terror, the war on terror is still interested in him.