U.S. Can’t Relax Anti-Terror Steps

The terrible bombings in Saudi Arabia remind us that, for all the impressive progress against al-Qaida over the past 20 months, that organization and its affiliates remain serious threats to Western interests.

This latest tragedy is exactly what one would expect from a weakened but still capable al-Qaida organization. The attacks used traditional tactics and weapons – by now truck bombings and such are well known terrorist methods, within reach of most terror organizations, not just al-Qaida.

However, the discipline and competence needed to execute simultaneous attacks, such as Monday night’s is a hallmark of Osama bin Laden’s organization.

Of course, these attacks are not the first since 9/11. Others have occurred in Pakistan, Tunisia and, worst of all, in Bali this past Oct. 12. Smaller-scale raids also have continued in Afghanistan. And attacks were attempted in the case of the December 2001 shoe bomber’s attempt to down an airliner and last November’s surface-to-air missile firings in Kenya against an Israeli jetliner and bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel there.

United States territory has been generally spared, though its citizens have plainly not been (a number of European countries and Australia have, however, been hit even harder than we have in the past year and a half).

This picture is partly worrying, partly reassuring. The good news is that overall numbers of attacks are down, and we have not experienced another 9/11.

The bad news is that attacks have continued, some have been quite bloody, others that almost succeeded could have been even bloodier, and al-Qaida and affiliates remain capable despite our successes on the battlefields of Afghanistan and in the international law enforcement field.

As we mourn the losses from the bombings in Saudi Arabia, there are several policy observations and implications to bear in mind.

First, it has not been even worse since 9/11. The men and women of the U.S. military, law enforcement and intelligence communities, as well as their international counterparts and their political leaders, deserve thanks and continued support.

The Iraq war may have not made much of a difference in the global terrorist campaign, but the war in Afghanistan and worldwide intelligence and law enforcement activities surely have.

Second, we must continue to work hard with our international partners to counter terrorism. That means, among other things, patching up relations with Europeans as much as possible. Some parts of the Bush administration still wish childishly to punish those who did not agree with us on Iraq policy, but they need to see the bigger picture and recognize the need to get alliance relations back on track before the bad blood has effects on the war on terror.

Third, we simply must make progress in the latest round of Mideast peace talks. If that means pressuring Ariel Sharon as well as the Palestinians, so be it. The latter are beginning to take the steps we demanded, reducing Yasser Arafat’s power and reforming their security institutions. Prime Minister Sharon of Israel now needs to voice strong support for the U.S. road map for Mideast peace, and take appropriate steps to ease conditions on the Palestinians.

Instead, he is equivocating on his willingness to eliminate certain Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Soon, it will be time to threaten reductions in U.S. aid to Israel if this policy persists. Such a strong step should only be actually implemented after the Palestinians have worked harder to make progress against terror, but it might need to be threatened fairly soon.

Finally, homeland security efforts need more resources and greater dedication here in the United States. We may be experiencing nothing more than a temporary hiatus in al-Qaida attacks on American territory. Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge has been prudently leading a very realistic and serious exercise in Seattle and Chicago this week to deal with an imagined terrorist strike, even as Saudi and U.S. officials half a world away deal with the aftermath of a real attack.

We need to lend our support, and the necessary resources, to make sure that lessons learned in such exercises are applied to prevent the next attack from being even worse, and a lot closer to home as well.