Had the recent bomb plot against U.S.-bound flights from the U.K succeeded, it would have been the most spectacular terrorist attack since 9/11. It also would have been a brazen taunt to U.S. authorities: No matter what you do to protect airplanes, they are still not safe. Thwarting this latest attack was a huge law enforcement and intelligence success. But five years after 9/11, the plot also confirms that we have moved into a new stage in the war on terrorism, one that will require more tools than the military, law enforcement, intelligence, and homeland security solutions that have dominated our efforts to-date.
Islamic extremistsâ€™ fascination with airplanes has not abated, despite the nearly $20 billion weâ€™ve spent since 9/11 to make them harder targets. Airplanes are ready-made for human casualties. They fit the bill for spectacular theater. And, Al Qaeda also places a premium on inflicting significant economic damage.
The often overlooked aspect of terroristsâ€™ aviation fascination is that intercontinental air travel is a shining symbol of globalization. While many view the forces or modernization, mobility, and interdependence as forces of positive change, reaction against those forces feeds Bin Ladenâ€™s radicalism as well as the growing disaffection of segments of Europeâ€™s indigenous Muslim youth, the young men behind the London transit bombings and this latest plot. In the reactionary worldview, globalization is an engine of western imperialism and injustice.
Arguably though, Bin Laden himself is a product of the globalizing trend, the son of a wealthy Saudi businessman and educated in engineering and business. Similarly, many of the 9/11 bombers were western-educated with technical and law degrees. As with the London transit bombings, many of these most-recent plotters were second-generation Pakistanis born and raised in UK. The westernized children are more radical than their first-generation immigrant parents. No irony is lost on the fact that the intended bombing paraphernalia included i-Pods and Gatorade bottles â€“ two other icons of global capitalism.
The susceptibility of indigenous Muslim communities in Europe to terrorist radicalization is a vexing problem that will last for more than a generation. How do you prevent the alienation of young men from societies into which they were born? How do you counter or defuse the deep antipathy toward the U.S. that results from our foreign policy in the Arabic and Muslim world? How do you increase intelligence and law enforcement scrutiny of Muslims in Europe without fueling radicalism or alienating the overwhelming majority of law-abiding Muslim citizens?
Solutions will require patience and perseverance from societies that want security now. They will also require a greater engagement by â€œwhiteâ€ Europe of a â€œbrownâ€ Europe that it has traditionally tolerated but which it has never integrated. Policies must obviously include improving education, increasing economic opportunities, and bettering relations with police. At the same time, Muslims themselves must do more to turn their own against extremism. This is harder said than done, though: European Muslims who have cooperated with their governments have often lost credibility in their communities.
Americaâ€™s war on terrorism has resorted to military solutions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Away from the hot wars, the counter-terrorism fight is banking on law enforcement, intelligence, and technology for its success: detect and prevent plots before they happen. As terrorist cells increasingly reflect autonomous and home-grown risks, however, it is unrealistic to think that detection and prevention will always succeed.
As we approach the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the United States and its allies must develop a strategy to defuse the threat of a â€œEurabianâ€ fifth column, extremists within European immigrant communities bent on attacking their own countrymen.
The military, intelligence, technology, and aggressive police work are the right tools against the symptoms of terrorism, but do little to address terrorismâ€™s root causes. While tough-on-terror politicians scoff at â€œsofterâ€ tools, education, outreach, and better economic opportunities are the right counterweight to radicalizing influences. If we are serious about waging and winning the long war on terrorism we must bring every possible tool to bear. Our political leaders need to realize that while hammers are essential, all problems are not nails.
Daniel B. Prieto is Senior Fellow and Director of the Homeland Security Center at the Reform Institute. Previously, he was Research Director of the Homeland Security Partnership Initiative at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.