This post was written by Mike Walker. Mr. Walker was Acting Secretary of the Army and Deputy Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Clinton Administration. You can follow his comments on Twitter: @New_Narrative
Osama bin Laden is dead. Remaining senior leaders are being relentlessly pursued. Al Qaeda affiliates continue to bungle attempted attacks in the West. And the FBI keeps stinging homegrown terror wannabes.
Al Qaeda was also irrelevant to this year’s Arab revolutions. Throughout the Muslim world Al Qaeda’s support is crumbling. Key supporters have abandoned the organization.
As a result, some pundits conclude the war on terror has already been won. That Al Qaeda died with Bin Laden. And that the ideological fuel driving radicalization has been rendered impotent.
Soon, government spending for homeland security will increasingly be questioned, as will expenditures by the private sector for infrastructure protection.
Now, just days after the death of Bin Laden, we find ourselves at a crossroads. It is important to get the direction right, because the threat is not over.
Al Qaeda Central has not been run by a bunch of yahoos. Al Qaeda has been led by a group of sophisticated, well educated, adaptive men who believe they are doing God’s work on earth.
No doubt, the terrorists already had a plan on the shelf for their next phase without Bin Laden, who was, after all, the most hunted man in the world. And long before Bin Laden was killed, Al Qaeda Central and its affiliate organizations were also planning specific attacks in the West. We must assume planning for those attacks continues and that terror operatives are now looking for ways to accelerate those plots.
Just as likely, self-selected terror wannabes here at home are quietly hatching their own crude, but potentially lethal plots, inspired by internet terrorists like Anwar al-Awlaki
These are some of the reasons the Attorney General, the Director of the FBI and the Secretary of Homeland Security have all said Americans should be alert to the potential for revenge attacks by the Al Qaeda network.
Of course, the US intelligence community is exploiting every shred of evidence taken away from Bin Laden’s compound in an effort to detect plots in progress. But it would be a mistake to believe that an organization, which has deliberately decentralized since the 9-11 attacks, would leave all its secrets in one place.
Since 9-11, AQ has become a networked, learning organization. The terrorists have closely watched our tactics, techniques and procedures for a decade, and today they also have a much better understanding of our economic and social vulnerabilities.
Following the trauma of losing their most revered leader, the terrorists, though, must now be concerned about continuing to lose relevance in the Muslim world.
All these factors combine to make the next several months a very high threat period.
In the aftermath of the bold, successful operation by Seal Team Six, it’s easy to believe the Federal government will disrupt every plot. To believe that would be folly. The Federal government I was honored to serve for 32 years does have substantial capability. But that capability is not enough to keep Main Street America safe from attack.
The terrorists have made it clear: it is no longer just Washington, DC, and New York City at risk. The terrorists are planning to strike the heartland of America to shake our citizens’ confidence and harm the economy.
Dealing with the threat, in the aftermath of Bin Laden’s death, continues to be a shared responsibility. The responsibilities of state and local governments, the private sector and average Americans did not diminish when Bin Laden was killed. Already, almost a third of all terror plots have been foiled because someone called law enforcement and reported that something didn’t seem right.
So, during the post-Bin Laden period, we must continue to be vigilant. Months ago, the Secretary of Homeland security said we should assume terror operatives are already inside the country and could attack with little or no warning. We should especially be alert for a potential Mumbai in America, where lone wolves or small cells attack multiple soft targets with conventional weapons, and, perhaps, improvised explosive devices.
The good news is most analysts believe it unlikely the terrorists will be able to attack with weapons of mass destruction. For now, that potential may be beyond their capability despite efforts for two decades to achieve it. However, it is not out of the realm of possibility that radicalized scientists in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program could clandestinely funnel material for a dirty bomb or worse to their militant friends. The revelation that Bin Laden had been living for years in a community of active and retired Pakistani military officers only heightens this concern.
So, we must not let our guard down in the coming months. This is no time for complacency in America. The celebrations should wait until we deal with longer-term issues.
Al Qaeda’s strategy has been focused on attempting to persuade Muslims that Islam is under attack by the West and must be defended by any means. Clearly, the terrorists seek to provoke a clash of civilizations.
While many Muslims erroneously believe the West does want to divide and conquer Islam, the terrorists have only been successful in recruiting relatively small, but dedicated numbers to do their violent bidding. It is Al Qaeda’s own violence that has turned off the vast majority of Muslims, who are also repelled by the terrorists’ corrupt version of Islam. The failure by the terrorists to persuade Muslims that Al Qaeda is the vanguard of Islam has been the terrorists’ biggest downfall.
Despite the terrorists’ own failures, there are important long-term challenges we must address before we will tame the threat.
Gallup and Pew polls indicate that of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, hundreds of millions want to rid Muslim countries of Western influence and perceived exploitation.
The American military footprint around the world is a leading cause of radicalization both here at home and abroad. How we project power and protect our own vital interests in the future will make a difference in terrorist recruiting. As we saw in Abbottabad, it doesn’t take military divisions to deal with terrorists.
Likewise, the West’s addiction to oil and drugs, much of which comes from countries in the Middle East and South Asia, continue to weaken our influence and increase our image as exploiting Muslim countries. Moving toward alternative energy sources and reducing the national appetite for illegal drugs must become a higher priority.
The perceived plight of the Palestinians continues to be a major source, if not the major source, of frustration in the Muslim world. A final agreement for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians would take this issue off the table.
Here at home, a growing misunderstanding of the religion of Islam actually increases the potential for radicalization. The terrorists continue to persuade disaffected Muslims that the handful of Americans who burn Korans and those who oppose the so-called Ground Zero Mosque actually prove America is at war with Islam.
How we deal with all these issues will have a significant impact on future radicalization inside America and overseas.
Radicalization in America will also be influenced by whether or not we remain true to our ideals and civil liberties. The terrorists are counting on us turning against our own fellow citizens out of fear, because they believe that will ensure jihad in America and help them buy time to build new capabilities.
The death of Bin Laden has given us a window of opportunity to seize the initiative at a time the terrorists are off balance. Today, the threat remains. In the short run we must remain vigilant. In the long term, we have some significant policy decisions to make.