Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 10, 2009

Fragments from September 10, 2001… A war on terrorists or terrorism?

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 10, 2009

This is the  fourth in a series:

Fragments from September 10, 2001 (Monday)

Fragments from September 10, 2001… Losing momentum with Mexico (Tuesday)

Fragments from September 10, 2001… Climbing carefully into the Hindu Kush (Wednesday)

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The September 4 draft of NSPD-9 was tightly focused on eliminating the threat of al-Qaeda.  In one of several post-9/11 edits, the scope of the classified directive was expanded to the “elimination of terrorism as a threat to our way of life.”

On September 20, President Bush addressed a joint session of Congress.  He said,

Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there.  It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.

Americans are asking “Why do they hate us?”

They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other…

We have seen their kind before. They’re the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies. Americans are asking, “How will we fight and win this war?”

We will direct every resource at our command — every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence, and every necessary weapon of war — to the destruction and to the defeat of the global terror network…

Great harm has been done to us. We have suffered great loss. And in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment.  Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time, now depends on us.

Our nation, this generation, will lift the dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter and we will not fail.

In the days after September 11 it was clear:  freedom and fear, good and evil, light and darkness were engaged in deadly struggle.  We were certain of our role.

In a coincidence of the kind required by second-rate fiction, on the day before the attacks — eight years ago today — the Congressional Research Service released a new report entitled, Terrorism: Near Eastern Groups and State Sponsors. Kenneth Katzman, a long-time regional specialist, opens his analysis with,

Signs continue to point to a decline in state sponsorship of terrorism, as well as a rise in the scope of threat posed by the independent network of exiled Saudi dissident Usama bin Ladin.

During the 1980s and the early 1990s, Iran and terrorist groups it sponsors were responsible for the most politically significant acts of Middle Eastern terrorism. Although Iran continues to actively sponsor terrorist groups, since 1997 some major factions within Iran have sought to change Iran’s image to that of a more constructive force in the region. Pressured by international sanctions and isolation, Sudan and Libya appear to have sharply reduced their support for international terrorist groups, and Sudan has told the United States it wants to work to achieve removal from the “terrorism list.”

Usama bin Ladin’s network, which is independently financed and enjoys safehaven in Afghanistan, poses an increasingly significant threat to U.S. interests in the Near East and perhaps elsewhere. The primary goals of bin Ladinand his cohort are to oust pro-U.S. regimes in the Middle East and gain removal of U.S. troops from the region. Based on U.S. allegations of past plotting by the bin Ladin network, suggest that the network wants to strike within the United States itself.

Katzman then proceeds to list and assess twenty — very — distinct terrorist organizations.  He is clear on the al-Qaeda threat, “Over the past six years, Al-Qaida (Arabic for “the base”), the network of Usama bin Ladin, has evolved from a regional threat to U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf to a global threat to U.S. citizens and national security interests.”  In my judgment,  someone reading the report on September 10 would have perceived al-Qaeda as cause for serious concern, but presenting far less than an existential threat to the United States.  The nineteen other terrorist organizations would fall even lower on the risk list.

Iraq is listed by Katzman among the region’s five state sponsors of terrorism, but is the last to be considered and is judged much less than a clear-and-present danger.  Notice Iraq is not even mentioned in the report’s opening, quoted above.

With an even-handedness that is the pre-eminent art form of CRS, Katzman concludes his disaster-eve assessment by reviewing seven counter-terrorism strategies.  No singularly effective policy prescription is found.

On September 10 the threat was seen and recognized.  The need for urgent action was known.  The complexity of the situation was acknowledged.  We struggled with the possibility — probability — of unintended consequences. 

No doubt the morning of September 11 sharpened our attention and our resolve.  It did not, however, transform our realities, or our options, or the boundary of our wisdom.  Even so, we felt compelled — at least I joined many others in feeling compelled — to greater action.

Much of this action has been productive.  Our own capacity for collaborating, sharing information, and coordinating prevention, mitigation, and response has been enhanced.  The capacity of our adversary has been  distracted, disrupted, and diminished. 

But we have also allowed ourselves to be distracted.  We have given our adversaries the tools to portray us as vulgar and vicious.  We have allowed our most cherished values and institutions to be disrupted through the fear of a few.  We have allowed the claims of security to diminish our commitment to liberty.

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The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self.  They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest. The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will.  They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will. They underestimate the peril of anarchy in both the national and international community… It must be understood that the children of light are foolish not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness. They underestimate this power among themselves. (The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, Reinhold Niebuhr)

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1 Comment »

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 10, 2009 @ 7:47 am

It is my firm belief and opinion that AQ and UBL are not existential threats to the US and its polity and government. The reaction of the US to their joint threat may however result in severe damage to our democracy (republic) as long as the Constitution continues to have officaldom pretend it is not a safeguard to our democracy but a barrier to its survival. Suggest readers from time to time read the blog “Informed Comment” by Michigan Prof. Juan Cole and also read the writings of several of the Arabists (meaning English speakers who actually speak Arabic)! Do not look for those fluent in Arab language and culture in the State Dept. or CIA or FBI! Their cultures are almost totally ignorant of the world of ISLAM and most don’t know SUFISM from SUNNISM to SHIA! Hey and throw in PASHTO and URDU and Persian.

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