The presidential campaigns are being fought on several fronts. This week, energy policy is the most visible front line, but terrorism and the imperative to keep Americans safe at home will return to the front page soon. In that process, we’ll hear about why staying the course in Iraq is desirable as a means of “winning it the right way by winning it” as Senator McCain asserted yesterday at a celebtrity appearance before a crowd of bikers waiting to see Kid Rock perform. We’ll also hear from Senator Obama that the logic of staying in Iraq is based on a wish that America continue to vindicate bad decisions made ever since we invaded, to include the decision to invade in the first place.
All of this is important, but it is a secondary argument to the important question of determining what has worked and what hasn’t in achieving the indisputable success that no attack has been successfully carried out on the U.S. since 9/11. Depending on our answer to that question, we can focus on continuing those efforts that are constructive and promptly end those efforts that are ineffective or counterproductive, or both.
It is hard to make the case that the invasion of Iraq has allowed the U.S. to fight terrorists overseas rather than here on the CONUS. If anything, that war has made the U.S. less secure by a number of measures (overstretched military, denuded international legitimacy, skyrocketing national debt, inflamed rather than defanged terrorist adversaries, etc.). However, by taking a comprehensive assessment of efforts we as a nation have undertaken, those developments that are reasonably out of our control but still relevant, and the indirect consequences of a combination of the two trends, we can gain a useful understanding of what has worked and what hasn’t.
Fortunately, national security analysts at SAIC and professional staff from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Advanced Systems and Concepts Office conducted an open-source literature review to identify hypotheses explaining why the United States has not been attacked successfully by terrorists since 9/11. This two hundred page study organized the reasons why we’ve not yet been attacked successfully into two categories:
Capabilities – Terrorists have been unable to succeed in conducting another large-scale attack on the homeland due to the effectiveness of U.S. defenses or because of the terrorists’ limited capabilities. The authors further address this thesis as part of two different “baskets” of issues:
• U.S. and Allied Counterterrorism Efforts: U.S. and allied initiatives have decisively limited terrorists’ capabilities to conduct attacks on the homeland by driving al-Qaeda’s leaders from their Afghanistan sanctuary, disrupting several terrorist plots, and forcing operatives to focus on preserving their own security rather than training for and carrying out new attacks. At home, potential targets have been hardened, coordination between government agencies has improved, and public awareness has increased scrutiny of suspicious behavior.
• Terrorist Attack Capabilities: Limitations on terrorist capabilities that are less dependent on U.S. and allied counterterrorism activities have prevented terrorist attacks on the U.S. This treatment suggests that a number factors independent of our anti-and counter-terrorism efforts are to credit. Examples of such factors include the time needed to recover from damage done to al-Qaeda and the requirements necessary for deploying terrorist veterans of the Iraq war, the challenged of acquiring WMD capabilities, and the broad assimilation of U.S. Muslims limiting the pool of potential “homegrown” jihadists.
Motivations – While a number of terrorist groups possess the ability to attack the United States, they have chosen not to do so for a variety of reasons. These categories are further subdivided into the following four baskets:
• Another Attack is a Bad Idea: Terrorists have concluded that another strike on the United States is ill-advised. This category suggests that al-Qaeda’s leaders prefer to wait until they can perpetrate an attack that surpasses 9/11 in terms of destruction and symbolism or that terrorists are concerned that another attack on the homeland would be counterproductive/ineffective in achieving their objectives.
• These Are Busy Times: Various groups maintain a significant attack capability, but other targets (i.e. n Europe, Middle East, and apparently China) are more attractive than the U.S. homeland due to operational challenges or political inclinations.