Thirteen years ago this morning nineteen young men carried out a horrific attack on the United States.
The 911 Commission wrote it “was a day of unprecedented shock and suffering.”
Our shock might have been less if we had given greater collective attention to a range of precursor events, including the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the Bojinka plots of the early 1990s.
If — most of us would say, when — we are attacked again we may suffer as much, but it will not be a shock.
Last evening the President of the United States spoke to us for a bit more than thirteen minutes. He explained that we will, once again, take action in Iraq — and this time in Syria too — to preempt another attack here at home.
Here are two aspects of the President’s message worth highlighting, especially for those with a particular interest in homeland security. Each serve to frame the President’s strategic understanding — accurate or not — regarding the threat at hand. Last night the President said,
… we continue to face a terrorist threat. We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm. That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today. And that’s why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge. At this moment, the greatest threats come from the Middle East and North Africa, where radical groups exploit grievances for their own gain. And one of those groups is ISIL — which calls itself the “Islamic State.”
Please notice the problem originates with evil in the world. The problem is set-in-motion by small groups (plural) of killers. The problem is amplified by the ability of these small groups to manipulate unjust situations for their evil purposes.
Yesterday I heard John Brennan, the CIA director, call ISIL “evil incarnate.” The President also said, “ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”
Our current problem-focus is only one of many such groups. We ought expect that whatever our success in this case, there will be future cases requiring our response.
The President outlined a multilateral, collaborative, and regionally-oriented approach that involves both US leadership and considerable, even preconditional, US restraint. All of this is worth further analysis. I will let foreign policy and national security bloggers, reporters and pundits do most of this.
For our purposes the second aspect worth particular attention is when the President said, “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.”
He might have offered the same operational descriptions without applying the label. The label is important.
To really hear last night’s meaning, we need to study the speech given at West Point on May 28. In those more extended remarks the President said,
For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism. But a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable. I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy — drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan — to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.
And the need for a new strategy reflects the fact that today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized al Qaeda leadership. Instead, it comes from decentralized al Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in countries where they operate. And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of U.S. personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi. It heightens the danger to less defensible targets, as we saw in a shopping mall in Nairobi.
So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat — one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin, or stir up local resentments. We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us… Our actions should meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.
What we are hearing and beginning to see is the most dramatic execution yet of this “comprehensive and sustained” CT strategy. It has already been unfolding in Yemen, Somalia, Mali and elsewhere. I perceive it has important — and to date, not much discussed — domestic corollaries.
Evil persists. Small groups caught up in evil can do great harm. Terrorist potential is amplified by authentic injustice, oppression, and grievance. We ought take care that our response does not gratuitously inflame this potential. But we are called to act, as best we can, against sources of evil.
If this is true in Raqqa, is it true in Rockford? If it is true in Mosul, is it true in Memphis?
In another post — or more than one — it is worth thinking together about the accuracy of this worldview. Is it helpful? Is it skillful? But this is what I have heard. What about you?