The conventional wisdom has become that, as this Slate article argues, “there’s no good way to prevent these attacks.” These, being the kind of terrorist attacks that struck New York and St. Cloud, Minnesota, this weekend, carried out by individuals described, rightly or wrongly, as “lone wolves.”
There’s a fair amount of truth to this: It is difficult verging on impossible to stop every fanatic who grabs a knife and goes on a rampage in a mall or builds a bomb in his basement from commonly available ingredients. But it’s not the whole truth.
Just look at this article about Ahmad Khan Rahami, the suspect who is suspected of bombings in New York and New Jersey this past weekend that, mercifully, did not kill anyone but unfortunately did injure a number of people.
The New York Times reported that, until a few years ago, he was a normal young American. He had come to this country from Afghanistan around the age of seven and was interested in girls and auto racing. But “some friends noticed a marked change in his personality and religious devotion after what they believed was a trip to Afghanistan, where he and his relatives are from. In fact, a federal official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Rahami had actually traveled to Pakistan, for three months in 2011 and, most recently, to Quetta, for nearly a year, where he stayed with family, returning to the United States in March 2014.”
Upon his return from Pakistan, where he got married, “he grew a beard and exchanged his typical wardrobe of T-shirts and sweatpants for traditional Muslim garb. He began to pray in the back of the store. His previous genial bearing turned more stern.”
Pakistan is one of the greatest incubators of terrorism on the planet. It remains the headquarters of al-Qaeda, among other Islamist extremist groups. Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan and his successor, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, is believed to still be living there. The city of Quetta, where Rahami stayed “for nearly a year,” is the headquarters of the Afghan Taliban, which operates there with full permission from the Pakistani army. We don’t know enough about Rahami to reach any definitive conclusions yet, but his travel itinerary and his Afghan origins raise the possibility that he was radicalized by Afghan Taliban recruiters from their base in Pakistan.
What’s the significance of this nugget of information? It suggests that the existence of safe havens for terrorists abroad remains a significant contributor to the terrorist threat that we face at home.
There is plenty of other evidence for this conclusion: Pretty much all of the terrorist attacks we have seen in the U.S. have some foreign connection. Not all of the terrorists are directed or organized from abroad, to be sure; most of them aren’t. But most of the terrorists have been radicalized by foreign organizations such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. ISIS and AQAP have been particularly effective in this regard: ISIS with its calls for Muslims to attack their neighbors, AQAP with the detailed bomb-making instructions spread by its online magazine (“Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom”), which apparently inspired the pressure-cooker bombs used by the Boston Marathon bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers, as well as the one built by Rahami.
There is now a report that one of Rahami’s notebooks contains writing about AQAP’s Anwar al-Awlaki, the charismatic, English-speaking cleric who spent years in the U.S. and radicalized many Westerners before being killed in a U.S. drone strike.
So even “lone wolves,” it turns out, have a link to foreign terrorist havens such as Syria (headquarters of ISIS and the Al Nusra Front/Syrian Conquest Front), Yemen (headquarters of AQAP), and Pakistan (headquarters of al-Qaeda and the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, among other groups). To be sure, the links between terrorist safe havens and terrorist acts are more attenuated in the United States than in, say, Israel, where the terrorist havens are literally next door. In our case, we have some protection because of geography. But modern communications and travel makes it possible for terrorist leaders to threaten us even from thousands of miles away.
How do we counter this threat? Obviously we need strong domestic security and the kind of crackerjack work that law enforcement exhibited in tracking down and arresting Rahami so quickly. But we also need to do something about the terrorist safe havens. To quote General Curtis LeMay: “We should stop swatting flies and go after the manure pile.” That doesn’t mean that we necessarily need to use conventional military power of the kind that LeMay advocated.
Certainly no one is suggesting that we launch an attack on a nuclear-armed state like Pakistan,or even on a tiny state like Yemen. But we do need to do more than we are currently doing to prevent those countries and many others–Syria being the worst offender–from being used as safe havens and staging grounds for terrorism.
U.S. military power is only part of the answer. We also need to wage political warfare and engage in nation-building to make failed states better able to prevent terrorists from finding sanctuary on their soil. The biggest blow we can now strike against terrorism would be to find some way of toppling the Bashar Assad regime and bringing the Syrian civil war to an end; as long as Assad clings to power, extremists will find support in Syria. As long as terrorist groups are able to find safe havens abroad we will never truly be safe at home.