In the War On Terrorism, There is No Finish Line
September 22, 2011
By: Charles Faddis
Ever since Osama Bin Laden was finally killed by US Special Forces, there has been a chorus of voices talking about the possible end of Al Qaeda and a victory in the war on terrorism.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had barely settled into his new office at the Pentagon after leaving the CIA when he said we are “within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaeda."
Shortly thereafter, Panetta's successor as CIA Director, Gen. David Petraeus, opined that Bin Laden's death had "very significantly disrupted … [Al Qaeda’s] efforts,” adding: “it does hold the prospect of a strategic defeat, if you will, a strategic dismantling, of Al Qaeda."
I find it a tempting vision that holds out the prospect of a return to a pre-9/11 world. It’s a vision we all share - to wake up one day to find we’d indeed crossed the finish line and that the nightmare was over; that we’d been able to relegate airport security and the war on terrorism and Al Qaeda to the dust bin of history.
But I also find it to be a very disconcerting mindset that suggests the possibility of a loss of focus and a slackening of effort against terrorism.
I listen to the ongoing discussion and I worry that we will decide simply to declare victory and, well, just ‘go home.’ I worry that if we do so we will pay a terrible price - we will suffer another major attack on US soil.
White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan’s recent comments about Al Qaida did nothing to ease my concerns.
Speaking about the recent killing of Atiyah Abd Al Rahman, the Al Qaeda second in command, Brennan stated that the loss was a “huge blow.” He said Al Qaeda is “on a steady slide” downward, “taking shots to the head and the body.” In Brennan’s worldview, Al Qaeda's leadership is now too busy hiding and trying to stay alive to plot new attacks.
"If they're worrying about their security ... they're going to have less time to plot and plan," Brennan said of the militants. "They're going to be constantly looking over their shoulder or up in the air or wherever, and it really has disrupted their operational cadence and ability to carry out attacks."
It’s a rosy picture. But is it accurate? Let’s review some recent developments.
Two weeks ago the emerging Islamist terrorist group, Boko Haram, which has ties to Al Qaeda, pulled off a suicide car bomb attack on the UN headquarters in the Nigerian city of Abuja. Twenty-three people were killed and 76 were wounded. The building itself was severely damaged. The bombing marked a significant increase in the sophistication of Boko Haram's attacks, and a dramatic escalation from local, to international, targets!
After a lull, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the Al Qaeda franchise in Iraq, has resumed operations. Today, there are roughly 200 terrorist attacks a month in Iraq, a significant portion of which are attributable to ISI. One of these attacks on a mosque two weeks ago killed 28. According to the Department of Defense, there are 1,000 Al Qaeda operatives inside Iraq, far exceeding the Islamist terrorist group’s strength in Pakistan.
In a new paper by the nonpartisan New America Foundation, counterterrorism analyst Brian Fishman warned that the ISI will likely shift to attacks on Western targets outside of Iraq in the near future.
The Majority Staff of the House Committee on Homeland Security recently released a report on the recruitment and radicalization of American citizens and the threat it poses to national security. The report focused primarily on the activities of Al Shabaab, a Somali terrorist group allied with Al Qaeda. According to the report, there’s a significant danger that American Al Shabaab fighters will return to the US to carry out attacks, or to assist Al Qaeda and its affiliates assault the homeland.
Among the numerous formal findings in the report is the existence of an operational alliance between Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda, the training of American members of Al Shabaab by senior Al Qaeda operatives, and the creation of direct operational links between Al Shabaab and the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
American intelligence officials recently warned that AQAP is actively involved in efforts to produce the deadly poison ricin for use in attacks inside the United States. According to analysts, the poison would likely be packed around small explosive charges that would disperse the deadly toxin on detonation. Ricin is so deadly that even a minute quantity can kill someone if inhaled or otherwise absorbed into the blood stream. But while American intelligence is aggressively pursuing investigation of this threat, it’s severely hampered by the chaos on the ground in Yemen. The virtual collapse of Yemen's government has allowed Al Qaeda to expand its operations throughout the country.
That Al Qaeda has been severely battered since 9/11 is self-evident. That Al Qaeda as a centralized, hierarchical entity based in the tribal territories of Afghanistan and Pakistan is close to extinction is also clear. But what also is equally obvious is that while ten years later we remain mired in large scale conventional military operations in Afghanistan and what amounts to a strategic bombing campaign in Pakistan, the enemy has shifted, morphed and evolved. It’s no longer the enemy we woke up to find on the morning of September 11, 2001.
The center of gravity of this conflict is no longer in the Pak-Afghan region. In fact, there may no longer be any such thing as a single center of gravity. The most immediate threat to the homeland is not a plot directed by some senior Al Qaeda operative in Pakistan, but rather “lone wolf” operations carried out by individuals with American passports dispatched by some alliance of African and Middle Eastern Al Qaeda affiliates. Killing Bin Ladin did nothing to lessen that threat, nor will subsequent killings of senior Al Qaeda personnel in Pakistan.
A decision on our part to rush to declare this conflict won will not somehow magically render the fantasy of impending victory into reality. When the last Al Qaeda cell in Pakistan has been hunted down and exterminated, we will still be at war.
The truth is, there is no finish line - there is only eternal vigilance.
Charles Faddis is a retired CIA covert operations officer and the former head of the Agency’s WMD terrorism unit. He is author of, Beyond Repair: The Decline and Fall of the CIA, and, Willful Neglect: The Dangerous Illusion of Homeland Security. His first novel, Codename Aphrodite, which is based on his experiences as a covert operative abroad, was published in June. Faddis’ last commentary for Homeland Security Today was The Islamic Nuclear Bomb Already Exists.