Citing “new and unusually specific information” that merited a 10 on a 1-to-10 scale of reliability, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has issued a warning that al-Qaida has plans to attack several major financial targets in New York City and Washington, D.C., and raised the terror alert level in those areas to Code Orange. While ominous, such warnings are not new, and workers in targeted institutions were said to be “defiant” in the face of the heightened alert. After all, since the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, pundits and policymakers have warned that additional spectacular terrorist attacks on the United States were inevitable.
I have long been part of this pack of doomsayers. My reasoning was simple. Well before Sept. 11, al-Qaida had brutally demonstrated both its desire to kill Americans and its ability to do so. If anything, the carnage of Sept. 11 bolstered the organization’s desire to kill large numbers of Americans. Al-Qaida had captured the world’s attention, brought the war home to America, and inflicted considerable economic damage to boot. If this was not incentive enough, the ousting of al-Qaida’s patron the Taliban, the arrest or death of many senior leaders at the hands of U.S. forces, and the worldwide hounding of al-Qaida operatives should have redoubled its determination to strike back. Indeed, a bloody al-Qaida response would have met with considerable applause in much of the Muslim world angered by the U.S. war against and occupation of Iraq.
For these reasons, I still believe an attack is likely in the years, perhaps even months, to come. And if the flight attendants and passengers aboard American Airlines Flight 63 had been a little less alert (or if Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber,” had been a little less stupid), more Americans would be dead. But almost three years without an al-Qaida attack in the United States must be taken as a sign of progress, even if it is only a hiatus between Sept. 11 and another major strike. What explains this unexpected success?
The easy answer, and the wrong one, is that U.S. officials exaggerated the al-Qaida threat. By this reckoning, the Sept. 11 attacks were the devastating last gasp of a now-battered movement. Such an argument, however, ignores the fact that al-Qaida and organizations affiliated with it have become more active internationally since Sept. 11. Although the United States has, fortunately, been spared, the group or organizations linked to it have attacked in Tunisia, Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Kenya, Jordan, Russia, Indonesia, Turkey, and Spain, among others lands—to say nothing of Iraq.
Another specious argument is that the terrorists have migrated to Iraq and decided to confront America there rather than on U.S. soil. Iraq, of course, is a magnet for jihadists opposed to the United States, some of whom are linked to al-Qaida. Yet despite their zeal for killing Americans (and cooperative Iraqis) in Iraq, this has not stopped them from carrying out lethal attacks in Russia and Western Europe, among other places.
A more convincing explanation is that U.S. defenses are now better and popular vigilance is higher, making it more difficult for attackers to get through. The post-Sept. 11 FBI crackdown on potential terrorists and the increased scrutiny, however fumbling, of the various components of the Department of Homeland Security make it harder for radicals to strike. Most encouragingly, various FBI arrests do not suggest a massive logistics and recruiting infrastructure on U.S. soil.
But this is only a partial explanation, as FBI officials freely admit. The greatest blow to al-Qaida has come from the removal of its haven in Afghanistan and the disruption of the permissive environment it enjoyed in numerous countries in Europe and Asia. The leaders of the organization are under intense pressure, with killings and arrests commonplace. As a result, attacks that require meticulous planning and widespread coordination are far more difficult to carry out.
Al-Qaida has changed in response to these pressures. As former CIA Director George Tenet testified earlier this year, “Successive blows to al-Qaida’s central leadership have transformed the organization into a loose collection of regional networks that operate more autonomously.” Before Sept. 11, al-Qaida worked closely with various local jihadist movements, drawing on their personnel and logistics centers for its own efforts and working to knit the disparate movements together. Since 9/11, local group leaders have played a far more important role, taking the initiative in choosing targets and conducting operations, looking to al-Qaida more for inspiration than for direction.
This shift from a centralized structure to a more localized one has made the U.S. homeland safer. The United States, in contrast to many nations in Europe and Asia, does not have a strong, well-organized, radical Islamist presence on its shores. Although there are certainly jihadist sympathizers who might conduct attacks on their own or be used by foreign jihadists as local facilitators, the vast sea of disaffected young Muslim men that is present in Europe and elsewhere has no U.S. parallel. Similarly, the logistics network of forgers, scouts, recruiters, money men, and others is far less developed.
Safer does not mean safe, and the risk of less sophisticated attacks remains particularly high. Attacks on U.S. allies where jihadist networks are better organized and more resilient are a grave concern, and Americans traveling abroad are particularly vulnerable. Nor is the homeland necessarily secure, as al-Qaida has adjusted to U.S. vigilance. FBI Director Robert Mueller has warned that the organization is seeking recruits who will easily blend in to the United States. Tenet also darkly noted that for groups sympathetic to al-Qaida’s ideology, attacks on the U.S. homeland remain the “brass ring.”
Sadly, less sophisticated attacks do not necessarily mean less lethal ones. It is easy to kill. In the past, terrorists without a sophisticated organization behind them have used arson, car bombs, assassinations, and other low-tech means to wreak havoc. Even the complete destruction of al-Qaeda would not end this threat.
National and local leaders must walk a careful line. The threat, of course, remains quite real, and doom-saying is always the safest political strategy. Outrages in Iraq and elsewhere around the globe also demonstrate that the battle against terrorists has only just begun. While many components of the U.S. war on terrorism are failing, others may be going better than we think—a statement that remains true even if there is another major attack on U.S. soil tomorrow. At some point, Americans should recognize that the safety we’ve enjoyed at home comes from more than dumb luck.