Interviews September 2006

Endgaming the Terror War

James Fallows talks about the surprising strides we've made against al-Qaeda—and why declaring victory will make us safer

You note that the majority of experts you spoke to agree that the United States should not withdraw from Iraq anytime soon. Yet there is a vocal minority that believes we should set a timeline for withdrawal—if not pull out immediately. Do you think there is a case to be made for leaving now?

The problem here is that there is a case to be made for almost any approach you can think of. That's why the decision is so hard. The case for staying is that the most likely consequence of a U.S. pullout is a further collapse of public order—and a perceived and real victory for anti-Western terrorists who have indeed made Iraq their battlefield. They would portray this as a humiliation of the United States, comparable to the punishment inflicted on the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and they would have a point. They might also have an Afghanistan-style base for future terrorist operations (though some people argue that Sunni Iraqis would not allow this to happen).

The case for leaving is that the U.S. presence is not making things any better, and that the trend is such that the U.S. will have to flee at some point, so why wait? The more nuanced (and fatalistic) argument is that, by the simple hydraulic laws of U.S. politics, whichever president follows George Bush will run on an out-of-Iraq platform, so our strategic minds should be concentrated on the reality of a two-year window on U.S. influence. This is not even to mention the vociferous argument within the U.S. military about how long it can sustain a large presence in Iraq.

I find this genuinely the hardest question in the whole Iraq topic: we can't stay, and we can't go. I hope you'll forgive my pointing out that the likelihood of such a dilemma was one reason I opposed the invasion in the first place.

Surprisingly, there seems to have been a lot of agreement among the experts you consulted. What was the most significant point of disagreement among them?

Probably the emotional tone with which they described the likelihood of future terrorist attacks in the United States. Some people said another attack, large or small, was inevitable some day—and that was a sign we were "losing." Others looked at the same probability and said it was something that a great nation had to take in stride and not go crazy about.

You point out via Peter Bergen that al-Qaeda's current reliance on the Internet is less a boon than a burden. But many would argue (and have, in these pages) that the Internet has become a vital new weapon in the terrorist arsenal—particularly as regards recruiting. In light of such trade-offs, do you think the Internet is a blessing or a curse for the U.S. struggle against al-Qaeda?

This takes us again into the realm of partial victories and partial defeats. Certainly the Internet opens many possibilities to al-Qaeda and related groups. My friend Gabriel Weimann, of the University of Haifa, has argued and demonstrated this in his recent book, Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, the New Challenges. But the point Peter Bergen makes is that a tradeoff has been forced upon al-Qaeda: they can't (easily) meet in person anymore, but they can make contact electronically. I was impressed by the argument that, all in all, that tradeoff has put al-Qaeda at a disadvantage.

I also found the reference to Leninism/Marxism quite interesting. What are the chances, you think, of al-Qaeda becoming a mere philosophy? Given the tenacity and longevity of other terrorist groups, any guess as to how much longer al-Qaeda will operate as an organization before it becomes extinct?

I can't even hazard an opinion here, since this is exactly the kind of question that, as a reporter, I'd be asking actual experts on al-Qaeda. I will say that the Marxist/Leninist difference, which I quote from Caleb Carr, is a valuable and provocative one.

You write that most experts believed that "another shocking, large-scale, 9/11-scale coordinated attack was probably too hard for today's atomized groups to pull off." Why is this true? Maybe the more pertinent question is, what constitutes a 9/11-scale attack? Earlier in your piece, you write that most authorities also believe that "some attempts to blow up trains, bridges, buildings, or airplanes in America will eventually succeed." Couldn't these potential attacks—which require no more than a few people willing to die for the cause—qualify as "9/11-scale"?

You never want to say "never" or "impossible." One aspect of a "9/11-style" attack seems virtually impossible to repeat, by definition. Much of the shock of 9/11 was precisely its shock value. Nothing remotely similar had ever happened before in America. Anything that happens again simply could not have a comparable "first ever" effect—unless it moved onto the plane of a nuclear detonation, which as previously discussed requires separate consideration (and policy).

So if and when another attack is committed on U.S. soil, what should be the country's response according to this new strategy?

According to the people I interviewed, other kinds of attacks—on buses, tunnels, ports, shopping malls—are likely to succeed sooner or later. These will be terrible and tragic and disruptive, and we should continue doing everything we can to fend them off—forever, if it can be done. But if and when they occur, the question is whether they will drive us crazy. Britain took extremely serious police action after the terrible 7/7 bombings of its subway system. But it also prided itself—and this was clear in its press—on returning to normal civic life as soon as possible. Impressively, the same seems to have been true in India after the terrible Mumbai train bombings. The following two ideas sound contradictory in the modern United States but are accepted as part of mature life in some other societies: that there are enemies of public life who will try to harm civilians, and sometimes will succeed; and that there is independent value nonetheless in preserving normal, proportionate, brave, unpanicked life. Israel—at its best, though not always—has exemplified this approach.

In the meantime, how necessary is it to spend so much money on creating what you refer to as "security theaters"—ostentatious displays of security measures that don't necessarily do much in terms of safety, but that make citizens feel better about flying? What would be the implications of not creating this façade? A bad economy? Low morale? And does this mean that, in fact, we don't really need airport screenings?

Sidebar:

Pitfalls of the Air Defense Identification Zone
A consideration of the "preposterousness of the regulations."

I have such a bad attitude about the whole TSA-era approach to airline safety that I probably shouldn't even start on this topic. I will say that the single stupidest thing the U.S. government has done in the name of homeland security involves one aspect of aviation "safety."  (By the way, this is not the single most destructive thing the U.S. has done, which is the crackdown on visas for foreign graduate students. Nor is it the single greatest missed opportunity, which is the failure to mobilize any kind of real national effort after 9/11.) But for sheer stupidity, you can't top the establishment of an "Air Defense Identification Zone" in a couple-thousand-square-mile plus area around Washington, D.C. I will spare you the details—more can be found here. Suffice it to say that many aspects of the security theater of air safety will look strange in retrospect—like the "duck and cover" drills of my elementary school days, in which we were taught to hide under school desks to "protect" ourselves against a nuclear blast.

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Abigail Cutler is a staff editor at The Atlantic.

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