All Writings
January 11, 2004

Are We Winning The War On Terrorism?

The answer to the question, "are we winning the war on terrorism?" is different depending on who is being asked. If it is administration officials, they generally boast about the many successful anti-terrorist measures taken since September 11, 2001, to which they attribute the fact that no terrorist attack has occurred in the United States since that date. If one asks administration detractors, they point to the increased number of assaults on American friends and allies-such as Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Turkey, the growing anti-Americanism throughout the Arab and the Muslim world, and the daily deadly attacks on our troops in Iraq along with the heavy casualties resulting from them.

It is true that many of the administration's counter-terrorist measures have been effective in impeding short-term attacks on our homeland. But to suggest, as some administration officials do, that we are much safer today than we were before 9/11 is to promulgate a most dangerous illusion. If the administration continues to ignore the sources and causes of terrorism, base its strategy on key countries led by strongmen like Musharef in Pakistan and Mubarek in Egypt, rely on inaccurate and at times misleading intelligence, or selectively choose intelligence to support a preconceived strategy, we should expect a sharp rise in terrorist attacks on our friends and allies as well as on our own soil. Election-year politics have certainly played their part in some of the current distortions. Administration officials have for some time now been engaged in politicizing the war on terrorism, emphasizing achievements like the establishment of the Homeland Security Department, the on-going cooperation with many nations in regards to intelligence, and the ouster and the capture of Saddam Hussein. In the process they have neglected any careful assessment of our real verses our imaginary progress against terrorism and what measures we really need to take to prevent another catastrophic attack on us in two, five, or ten years from now.

What this administration seems to underestimate or willfully ignore is that many of the terrorist groups, especially Al Qaeda, have long-term global agendas. Terrorist cells can submerge themselves and wait for years preparing for an attack and then surface at will. Despite the severe setbacks Al Qaeda sustained in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the organization remains extremely potent because of its ability to adapt quickly and flexibly to new conditions and environments, however harsh and inhospitable. The sense of a common enemy enhances the willingness of diverse terrorist groups to cooperate with one another, regardless of their national background, and this "glue" helps them to forge new alliances and adopt new causes. Their shared values–especially those in religion–offer them a comprehensive view of life: fighting for these values in the name of Allah becomes addictive, empowering individual terrorists and bestowing on them an exalted status. Terrorizing America and its allies, whether they are Western or Arab nations, becomes a career and a noble one at that. From its experience in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda has learned to decentralize its command and operations. It has expanded the number and role of leaderless cells, permitting locals operatives to chose and attack soft targets when and where these operatives deem appropriate. Al Qaeda has also expanded its recruiting network, focusing on educated Arabs and Muslims residing in the West with clean records and encouraging women to join its ranks. And Al Qaeda is hard at work to recruit and train new (and old) members in the use of sophisticated weapons, particularly surface-to-air-missiles and other unconventional weapons, including nuclear weapons. To suggest that we have successfully made Iraq the battleground and that it is the so-called last holdout of the various terrorist groups is for these reasons deceptive and therefore dangerous. Our focus on Iraq has, by all informed accounts, distracted us from the real dangers which are looming, daily gathering strength because the rapid growth of these terrorist organizations far outpaces the methods and the resources with which we are attempting to contain them.

A quick look at South East Asia tells another less rosy story. The undisputed swelling anti-American sentiments in many large and small countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore, Malaysia and even the mostly Christian Philippines raises serious questions about the realistic possibility of stemming such a tidal wave. To add fuel to the fire, our so-called friends, the Saudis, continue to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into thousands of religious schools (Madrasat) throughout the region that teach exclusively the Saudi brand of religion called Wahabism. Instructors in these schools routinely use Koranic teachings to stir up hatred against the unbelievers: America and the Jews. These schools help to insure that Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups have deep roots in these countries and will always have a huge pool from which to draw the new generation of terrorists dedicated to Islam and to hatred of the United Sates and Jews. This administration pays only lip-service in trying to avert this horrifying prospect. The domestic vulnerabilities of the governments of these countries in the face of the escalating strength of Islamists obviously limit our ability to make a dent. Yet, our not even making a serious effort to stop this trend will ensure that the current level of international terrorism represents only a small sampling of what is to come.

Regardless of what happens in Iraq, however stable or unstable the country becomes in the months or years ahead, it has not been and will never be the last hold-out for international terrorism. We have wrongly judged Saddam Hussein's involvement with Al Qaeda, we have wrongly assumed that Iraq could be a model of democracy in the Middle East, and we have squandered billions on an adventure that has as yet to show any kind of return for our outlay by combating the terrorism gathering like an immense storm cloud outside of Iraq. We need to streamline our intelligence gathering and how we then share this information through integrating more than twenty databases and allocating considerably more financial resources to scores of other countries in Asia and the Middle East whose governments are willing to cooperate with us but desperately need more funds to do a better job. And we must find ways to change the public perception of America by Arabs and Muslims if we are to save ourselves from a future dominated by international terrorism. Our dependence on single strongmen in many countries does not bode well for us. There is no reason to assume that this administration has a road map of what to do about the growing Islamic militancy in Pakistan, a country with nuclear weaponry, if another attempt on Musharef's life is successful, or if, in Egypt, Mubarek, who has used brutal force to silence the Islamic insurgency there, abruptly departs the scene, or if the Saudis' public discontent reaches a boiling point and threatens the stability of that monarchy. Let us hope that if there is such a road map it does not meet the same fate that other famous road map has met–the all but abandoned Road Map for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

It is highly doubtful that this administration, now totally embedded in the reelection and mired in Iraq, can or will do anything to tackle the sources of international terrorism or change its strategy in dealing with its causes. Meanwhile, it has fostered the illusion of greater safety when we may be even more vulnerable than ever before.