Taking Our Worst Enemy Seriously
History is littered with the bodies of leaders who fought the wrong enemy in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s what George W. Bush and his neocons have been doing for the last four years. Only our status as the world’s sole remaining superpower and our uncontested technological supremacy have saved us from the worst consequences of their blunders. But time is running out.
There is so much fog about the “war on terror” and the war in Iraq that simple facts get lost in a blizzard of speculation and spin. But the basic facts stare us in the eye every day. Sometimes, it helps to restate the obvious and put it in perspective.
On September 11, 2001, a shadowy movement calling itself “Al Qaeda” pulled off a stunning coup. In just two hours, it obliterated a major commercial center in the chief commercial city of the world’s only remaining superpower, killing nearly 3,000 people. At the same time, it badly damaged the Pentagon, the citadel of that superpower’s armed forces and seat of the most powerful military machine the world had ever known.
To assess the magnitude of that feat, think of World War II. In four years of the greatest armed conflict in history, neither the Nazis’ nor Imperial Japan’s war machine could accomplish such a feat, although both would have loved to do so. Japan managed a similar coup at Pearl Harbor, but Honolulu is a long way from New York City and the Pentagon. Stalin and perhaps Mao also might have liked to deliver such a blow, if they could have done so secretly. So how did a small group of Islamic radicals manage to accomplish what the Nazi war machine, the Japanese armada, Soviet technology, and the Chinese Red Army could not do?
The answer is simple but profound: surprise. Al Qaeda invented a new kind of warfare that the world had never seen, for which we were unprepared.
The warfare that Al Qaeda invented was new in two ways. First, it made innocent civilians a primary and intended target, rather than mere “collateral damage” in raids against military facilities or war-production plants. It thus carried the atrocities of World War II to their logical extremes.
Second, Al Qaeda turned spycraft into warfare. It converted infiltration into a primary means of combat, rather than a method for gathering intelligence. Specially trained agents, inserted secretly into foreign territory and nurtured in “sleeper” cells—perhaps for years—would not just spy on the enemy but would murder its innocent civilians on a massive scale. The world had never seen this kind of warfare before.
In order to invent this new kind of warfare, Al Qaeda also had to invent a new religion. Islam has strong prohibitions against murdering innocent noncombatants, especially women and children. So Al Qaeda had to invent a new form of Islam. It rationalized killing “infidel” women and children as required by the asymmetry in technology and armed force between Islamic and “infidel” nations.
But justifying the murder of fellow Muslims—especially their women and children—was harder. The Koran’s prohibitions on that sort of murder are especially clear. So Al Qaeda invented a new doctrine called takfir. Under this doctrine, a Muslim who does not share an extremist’s murderous goals and methods is not a true Muslim and is therefore an “infidel.” As such, he can be murdered for the cause just like any Christian, Jew or atheist. Among many other things, that doctrine justified killing Muslims in the Twin Towers.
It is odd indeed that some Westerners persist in calling Al Qaeda “fundamentalists.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Fundamentalist Muslims, who believe in the literal truth of the Koran, do not justify wanton killing of innocent civilians. Far less do they justify killing women and children, and far, far less fellow Muslims. In this regard Al Qaeda’s takfiris are on their own. Some Muslims could not stomach their gross departure from Islamic morality and left the movement for that reason, often risking death as “traitors.”
Al Qaeda is thus new in human history. It invented a new kind of warfare and a new warriors’ religion to justify it. But that is not all. Al Qaeda also did something else unique. It openly declared war on the world’s sole remaining superpower. In February 1998, bin Laden and his comrades issued a declaration, purporting to be a fatwa. It said that “to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it[.]”
At first glance, this bold declaration of war seems reckless. Didn’t an open declaration undermine the very methods of Al Qaeda’s new form of warfare, which requires stealth and secrecy?
But the contradiction was only superficial. Like any war, Al Qaeda’s war against the United States needs foot soldiers. Its foot soldiers are its “martyrs,” young people (mostly men) willing to give up their lives to kill innocent “enemy” civilians. By declaring war against the United States openly, and by framing his war as Islam against America, bin Laden hoped to attract foot soldiers from all over the Islamic world.
So far, he has been very successful. The world has 1.3 billion Muslims. All bin Laden has to do is attract one-hundredth of one percent of them—one out of every ten thousand Muslims—and he will have an army about the size of our army in Iraq. Surely there are that many angry, disaffected, poverty stricken young men within the Islamic world.
If all of them can hide in cities in the West, waiting to slaughter us as we go about our normal lives, our civilization will change beyond recognition for at least a century. Either we will stay vulnerable to random mayhem in our cities, or we will throw away our civil liberties and our freedom in a vain effort to stay safe. As the last six years have shown, both results are equally likely.
The recent attempted bombings in Glasgow and London give us an idea how bad it could get. The perpetrators were doctors, for God’s sake—people supposed to protect and help us when we are weakest and most vulnerable. Imagine having to worry whether your personal physician secretly wants to kill you and, in so doing, kill thousands of your fellow citizens as well. Then extend that worry to your airplane pilot and the unseen person who prepares and packages your food, tests and purifies your tap water, or operates your local dam’s spillway, power plant, or hazardous chemical factory.
An enemy’s menace is a combination of its intentions and its capabilities. Al Qaeda is the only enemy that has declared war on the United States. It alone has stated in writing its intention to kill Americans, civilian and military, wherever they can be found.
As for capability, Al Qaeda shares with Pancho Villa the dubious distinction of being the only foreign non-state actor ever to have attacked the United States on its home territory successfully. If you include nations, Al Qaeda joins a very small group indeed: Britain during our formative period and Imperial Japan at Pearl Harbor and in Alaska. The fact that Al Qaeda has (as yet) no nuclear weapons or no uniform-wearing army is irrelevant. Since the end of the Vietnam War, Al Qaeda has already done us more direct harm than the Soviet Union, “Red” China, modern Iran, North Korea, and Castro’s Cuba combined.
Yet we have never really taken Al Qaeda seriously. Bill Clinton didn’t begin to take it seriously until after the near-simultaneous bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. His cruise-missile strikes were ineffective and (in striking a mis-identified pharmaceutical plant) counterproductive. George W. Bush ignored the memo on his desk warning of an imminent strike here at home. Both men’s administrations missed chances to take out bin Laden with air strikes, for fear of collateral damage. And now we are bogged down in a civil war having little or nothing to do with Al Qaeda, whose aggregate collateral damage would make the unintended killing from a single air strike look like a pinprick.
We still aren’t taking Al Qaeda seriously. If we did, bin Laden and Zawahiri would not be alive and free somewhere in northwestern Pakistan, continuing their highly sophisticated propaganda campaign to recruit and train terrorists to attack our homeland. Our latest National Intelligence Estimate would not be warning of a resurgence of Al Qaeda in its new safe haven. Bush’s bravado of five years ago, when he promised to treat those who aid and harbor terrorists as if they were terrorists themselves, lies forgotten in the dust.
The primary reason for this neglect is the war in Iraq. Forget about what might happen there if we “lose” or withdraw too quickly. The fact is that Iraq has little to do with Al Qaeda because our purposes for going there and staying there have never had anything to do with Al Qaeda.
There were many reasons for invading Iraq. Among them were: (1) getting rid of Saddam Hussein; (2) bringing a semblance of democracy to a centrally located Islamic Arabic country; (3) protecting the Iraqi oil fields and preserving them for normal market exploitation; (4) countering Iran’s influence and expansion; and (5) lately, quelling the civil war that our invasion helped provoke. None of these goals had or has anything directly to do with facing the threat that Al Qaeda poses from its safe haven in Pakistan.
Today’s claim that Iraq itself will become a safe haven for Al Qaeda if we “lose” there is nothing more than a post-facto rationalization for the invasion. We didn’t invade Iraq to quell Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia because when we invaded that organization did not yet exist.
Even today and on its own terms, that rationalization makes no sense. The self-identified “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia” is at most a local franchise of the mother movement in Pakistan. It gains strength and recruiting power from the mother movement, not vice versa. If we cut off the head, the arm will wither. More important, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia faces well-justified enmity from all three ethnic groups in Iraq—Sunnis, Kurds and especially the politically dominant Shiites. It will have its hands full fighting them for the foreseeable future, no matter how precipitously we withdraw. It can never pose the same threat to us as the mother movement’s worldwide recruiting drive for “martyrs” for the specific purpose of murdering us at home.
Nearly six years after 9/11, and despite Al Qaeda’s numerous successful attacks on our installations abroad, we still aren’t taking our worst enemy seriously. Somehow, we just can’t seem to get it through our heads that a bunch of turban wearing, bearded fanatics hiding halfway around the world can do us serious harm. But they have, and they can again.
As time goes on, their chances of doing so increase exponentially. Before the 2004 election, I wrote a piece warning of a possible future nuclear strike in Washington, D.C. That piece was not a prediction, only a warning. I think we still have a few years before Al Qaeda can get its hands on a nuclear weapon or fissile material. But the warning was real, and time is not on our side.
Every day that Al Qaeda’s propaganda machine remains in business, more prospective “martyrs” flock to its cause. As the Glasgow-London affair shows, they are not all uneducated losers. They can be doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, airplane pilots or generals. In schools, colleges, mosques, prisons, and meeting halls—even in our own country—they meet to become radicalized and to plot against us. Bin Laden’s and Zawahiri’s faces appear on posters from Jakarta to Riyadh. The steady stream of “martyrs” will flow swiftly as long as Al Qaeda’s home office in Pakistan stays in business.
That is why Barack Obama’s recent speech on terrorism is so important. By saying things that some might think better left unsaid, he put the focus of our national-security policy back where it belongs, on our worst enemy. Not only that, he proposed a practical means of stopping the hateful propaganda and training machine: going after bin Laden and Zawahiri in their lair if Musharraf won’t. Sometimes it takes a brilliant mind like Obama’s to see the obvious: Al Qaeda in Pakistan is indeed our worst enemy, and eliminating it is the best way to promote security against terrorism.
I do not agree with Obama’s promise not to use nuclear weapons, far less his refusal even to consider them. In the right place and at the right time, a 100 megaton bomb might be a useful last resort to cut off the hydra’s primary head and motivating force. In the remote and sparsely populated mountains of Waziristan, it would likely cause far less collateral damage than we have already caused in Iraq. Nuclear force would make extremists around the world, who respect nothing but force, think twice about using civilization’s amenities to destroy civilization.
That no one is even thinking about having to resort to such weapons shows how far we are from taking seriously the threat we face. If Al Qaeda had nuclear weapons, it would use them without hesitation. Osama bin Laden himself has said so.
Whether or not we would actually use them, taking nukes off the table removes a powerful deterrent that we need against a ruthless and determined enemy. What Obama’s uncharacteristically thoughtless remark shows is that even he—by far the smartest of the presidential candidates—doesn’t really take Al Qaeda as seriously as he should, at least not yet.
It is a common and deadly mistake to underestimate your enemy. So far, that mistake has lost us two embassies, seventeen sailors on a warship, the Twin Towers and nearly 3,000 people in them, and part of the Pentagon. Instead of attacking the source of the threat, we have reacted by invading an irrelevant third country. We have also begun a national movement to abandon our civil liberties for safety. If we suffer another major terrorist attack at home, let alone a nuclear one, many of us may wish to sell our nation’s soul for a false sense of security, and demagogues like Bush will cheer them on.
Obama has done us all a great service by speaking out. He has directed our attention to the most dangerous menace against us. Now he and everyone who aspires to leadership needs to follow that direction to its logical conclusion. We need to focus on our worst enemy and figure out how to defeat it, directly, decisively and soon. Making sure that bin Laden and Zawahiri and their present hate-training camp in Pakistan don’t survive the next president’s first term would be a good start.
It took us eight years, from 1933 to 1941, to take the Nazi menace seriously. We didn’t begin to fight it in earnest until after being attacked by a third party at Pearl Harbor. We have already suffered a Pearl-Harbor-like surprise attack at the hands of Al Qaeda, but six years have passed with little effective action.
No person who seeks our presidency should lack a credible, concrete, and comprehensive plan for defeating this menace decisively. Victory will require more than unfocused, Giuliani-style tough talk or Clinton-style triangulation. It will require brains, imagination, cunning, daring and perseverence. Others may carp at Obama’s outspokenness, but where are their plans?