Nearly every one of the military, counterterrorist, and intelligence officials I interviewed for my “Declaring Victory” story in the current Atlantic said that attacks on the United States and Europe would continue to be attempted – and that sooner or later one of them would succeed.
That is: It was not because they failed to imagine news like that of the last few days from London that so many said it was time to declare an end to the “war on terrorism.” It was precisely because they could imagine exactly this news – and worse. As I reported in the article, the result of thinking about exactly what works, and what doesn’t, in the long-term effort to minimize a terrorist threat, was a conclusion that the United States could best ensure its safety by saying that the “war” period of the anti-terrorism struggle had come to an end.
How can this be? Consider the three main points of the argument in “Declaring Victory”:
First: “Al-Qaeda Central,” the organization that planned and carried out the devastation on 9/11, has been severely disrupted by U.S. and allied activities. Its leaders are in hiding and on the run. Many of their lieutenants have been captured or killed. It has lost its haven in Afghanistan and has not replaced the training sites and face-to-face meeting opportunities it had there. Its leaders cannot easily communicate orders to operatives or transfer money without being tracked down. All measures show that its brutal tactics have cost it support in the Arab and Islamic world.
The news of the last few days confirms rather than undercuts this argument. Western agencies had never successfully penetrated al-Qaeda before 9/11. Now, it appears, they have. The British apparently had the current plotters under surveillance for a sustained period. A recent analysis from the “Stratfor” group pointed out, “Al Qaeda’s defining characteristic has always been its ability to maintain operational security. If that has been compromised, then al-Qaeda’s importance as a force has diminished greatly.” The London arrests demonstrate this weakened importance.
Second: the many “copycat” and “self-starter” groups that have been “inspired” by al-Qaeda and that have sprung up in England, Spain, Indonesia, and elsewhere will continue to pose the threat of attacks. The threat is likely to be more acute in Europe than in the United States, where the Arab-origin and Muslim population has been far better assimilated and far more patriotic, despite pressures and provocations, than elsewhere. Politically motivated violence has been a reality of modern life, and will continue to be so. The news, and where it happened, reinforces this point.
Third: the greatest threat posed by these groups is not the damage they can do directly, but rather the self-defeating, irrational, or excessive responses they can goad a target country into making. Osama bin Laden has boasted that the attack of 9/11 cost at most $500,000 to launch and provoked more than $500 billion in military and security spending by the United States; a million-to-one “payoff.” As several military officers and strategists emphasized in the article, the United States can reduce but never entirely eliminate the threat of terrorist attack. What it can do is think about the way it will respond when threats arise – like the one this week. (For instance: banning liquids from flights seems an eminently sensible immediate response. Banning books, magazines, and reading matter may merely amplify the damage done to the air-travel business.)
Immediately after news of the arrests broke, President Bush took the opportunity to remind the country that it was “at war with Islamic fascists.” No such reminder came from the British authorities, who had actually broken the plot. This is consistent with Britain’s response after the subway bombings one year ago, when the government, press, and public prided themselves on the speed with which life returned to normal – while the police and intelligence agencies hunted down the responsible parties. It is also consistent with the argument that an open-ended state of war has become a major handicap in the long-term effort to penetrate potential terrorist cells, dry up their supply of recruits, and deny them shelter and support from other Muslims.
Why? A state of war with no clear end point makes it more likely for a country to overreact in ways that hurt itself, especially by losing the moral high ground that was crucial to America's victory in the Cold War. It also makes it harder for the country to do the patient work of tracking down, catching, and thwarting the "copycat" groups, since that depends so heavily on relations with allied countries and with sympathetic Muslim groups. Remember: it was police work, surveillance, and patient cultivation of sources that broke the airline bombing ring – not speeches about a state of war.
If Americans lose their heads when they hear of a threat, they do the terrorists’ work for them. They can harm themselves in short- and long-term ways far more than any hostile group could do. The effort to destroy terrorist groups goes on. It is more likely to succeed if the war is over.