U.S. Looks for Terrorists in all the Wrong Places

Thursday, 07 Jan 2010 12:06 PM

By Walid Phares

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In 2001, one would-be shoe bomber forced millions of travelers to take off their shoes. In 2006, terrorists planned to bring down aircraft on trans-Atlantic flights by smuggling liquid explosives onto planes. They were thwarted, but they inspired rules restricting the liquids passengers can take into airline terminals.

Lesson No. 1: In this terror war, the jihadists have the upper hand. They are the ones who choose to use a new weapon and they also are the ones who employed simple logic to refrain from using the same terror weapons more than once.

In fact, since September 2001, al-Qaida's terrorists have avoided rushing into the cockpit of an airliner with box cutters. Does this mean we were successful in deterring the terrorists? Of course: As long as we can prevent them from using the 9/11 methods, they won't be naïve enough to repeat the same strategy.

So is the United States winning the fight with al-Qaida with these specific measures? No, we simply are protecting our population until the war is won.
But winning is not measured by surviving potential copycat attacks. Instead, this confrontation will be won by striking at the mechanism that produces the jihadists. And on that level, no significant advances have been made either under the previous administration or under the incumbent one.

For, as President Obama admitted late last month after the failed terror attack on Northwest Flight 253, there is a "systemic failure" in our defense against the jihadi terrorists.

In my analysis, it has to do with the refusal by decision makers — based on the opinion of their own experts — to attack the factory that produces terrorists and instead to wait until the jihadists show up at our country's ports of entries.

In an imaged vision, the United States has been fending off the jihadi operations inside its own trenches and often behind its own lines of defense. Preventing al-Qaida’s zombies from killing our airline pilots and flight attendants by securing cabin doors with steel and installing machines to detect liquid, creams, and potential explosives is like fighting an invading army inside our own trenches and neighborhoods with bayonets.

If anything, it means that our strategists have no way to detect this threat, and they can't even decide what is and isn't a threat until it actually strikes us or is a few inches from us. It is a pretty ironic situation when the grand narrative of U.S. official strategies is that we are fighting terrorists or extremists (pick your word, it has the same conclusion) in Waziristan, Afghanistan, and beyond, so that our defense perimeters are thousands of miles away.

So are we wrong to institute any of the security measures? No, we need to take all possible measures to secure the population, but we also need to take them in the framework of a grand strategy to defeat the threat.

But we do not have one in this regard. The jihadists are monitoring our actions and our countermeasures. I assume they also are spying on us and looking into the deepest of our security mechanisms.

After the Nada Prouty and Nidal Hasan penetration cases, no one can convince me that neither Hezbollah nor al-Qaida hasn't deployed more agents throughout our national security apparatus. The enemy knows our defense strategy, and some would argue that it already is inside our walls.

As we are learning — constantly and dramatically — the so-called “isolated extremists” are not that isolated, and those believed to be "lone wolves" are in fact part of a much greater, well-camouflaged packs. The jihadists are way ahead of our security measures, even though we need to apply them nevertheless.

In the wake of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempted terror act, the Obama administration announced that any traveler flying into the United States from foreign countries will receive tightened random screening, and all passengers from "terrorism-prone countries" will be patted down and their carry-on baggage will be searched before boarding U.S.-bound flights. The list includes Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria as well as those traveling from Nigeria, Pakistan, and Yemen.

But here is the problem: In the jihadi war room, this was duly noted. Thus, the next human missiles will be selected from the “other” countries, and there are many countries where combat Salafis are indoctrinated and readied: Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Indonesia to name a few, by the way all U.S. allies.

Even better, the jihadi strategists could task recruits with German, British, and French as well as Australian and Canadian passports to wreak havoc in our cities. The past year has shown us that the jihadis can emerge from North Carolina, Illinois, New York, and other states all across the land. Most likely the “emirs” of al-Qaida will recommend dumping the use of powder to blow up planes, and soon another Zawahiri tape will rail at us for spending millions on a path they won't use for a while.

As we move to implement our mammoth security measures, the swift men of jihadism already are mapping out the endlessly open areas of our underbellies. In strategic terms, we’re not even going anywhere near that direction; it is a dead end.

The al-Qaida jihadists will keep coming, each time from a different direction, background, with a new tactic. And they will surprise us. Unfortunately, that is the price of a national security policy that identifies terrorism as a “manmade disaster” and jihadism as form of yoga.

Dr. Walid Phares is the director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the author of "The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad."

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