Mueller's entire article, which is only a few pages long, is fascinating. Here are some lengthy quotations to get you started:
. . . if it is so easy to pull off an attack and if terrorists are so demonically competent, why have they not done it? Why have they not been sniping at people in shopping centers, collapsing tunnels, poisoning the food supply, cutting electrical lines, derailing trains, blowing up oil pipelines, causing massive traffic jams, or exploiting the countless other vulnerabilities that, according to security experts, could so easily be exploited?
One reasonable explanation is that almost no terrorists exist in the United States and few have the means or the inclination to strike from abroad.
[. . .]
. . . Americans are told -- often by the same people who had once predicted imminent attacks -- that the absence of international terrorist strikes in the United States is owed to the protective measures so hastily and expensively put in place after 9/11. But there is a problem with this argument. True, there have been no terrorist incidents in the United States in the last five years. But nor were there any in the five years before the 9/11 attacks, at a time when the United States was doing much less to protect itself. It would take only one or two guys with a gun or an explosive to terrorize vast numbers of people, as the sniper attacks around Washington, D.C., demonstrated in 2002. Accordingly, the government's protective measures would have to be nearly perfect to thwart all such plans. Given the monumental imperfection of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, and the debacle of FBI and National Security Agency programs to upgrade their computers to better coordinate intelligence information, that explanation seems far-fetched. Moreover, Israel still experiences terrorism even with a far more extensive security apparatus.
It may well have become more difficult for terrorists to get into the country, but, as thousands demonstrate each day, it is far from impossible. Immigration procedures have been substantially tightened (at considerable cost), and suspicious U.S. border guards have turned away a few likely bad apples. But visitors and immigrants continue to flood the country. There are over 300 million legal entries by foreigners each year, and illegal crossings number between 1,000 and 4,000 a day -- to say nothing of the generous quantities of forbidden substances that the government has been unable to intercept or even detect despite decades of a strenuous and well-funded "war on drugs." Every year, a number of people from Muslim countries -- perhaps hundreds -- are apprehended among the illegal flow from Mexico, and many more probably make it through. Terrorism does not require a large force. And the 9/11 planners, assuming Middle Eastern males would have problems entering the United States legally after the attack, put into motion plans to rely thereafter on non-Arabs with passports from Europe and Southeast Asia.
If al Qaeda operatives are as determined and inventive as assumed, they should be here by now. If they are not yet here, they must not be trying very hard or must be far less dedicated, diabolical, and competent than the common image would suggest.
The rest of the article is filled with similar common sense reasoning about the threat posed by foreign terrorists to the U.S. mainland.
Not too long ago I posted a brief entry on Peter Bergen's new book The Osama Bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al-Qaeda's Leader. I mention the earlier post because I see that Aziz Huq has interviewed Bergen about his book for The American Prospect.
It's an old story that Osama bin Laden was allowed to escape from Tora Bora. The Bush administration, of course, has denied that this is what happened.
But here's a new development. Gary Berntsen, who was at Tora Bora, is about to publish a book entitled Jawbreaker that will tell his side of the story. OBL was at Tora Bora, he says, without a doubt. Michael Hirsh of Newsweek has written a brief piece about Berntsen and his forthcoming book.
Here's a telling paragraph from Hirsh's article:
. . . the CIA field commander for the agency's Jawbreaker team at Tora Bora, Gary Berntsen, says he and other U.S. commanders did know that bin Laden was among the hundreds of fleeing Qaeda and Taliban members. Berntsen says he had definitive intelligence that bin Laden was holed up at Tora Boraintelligence operatives had tracked himand could have been caught. "He was there," Berntsen tells NEWSWEEK. Asked to comment on Berntsen's remarks, National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones passed on 2004 statements from former CENTCOM commander Gen. Tommy Franks. "We don't know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora in December 2001," Franks wrote in an Oct. 19 New York Times op-ed. "Bin Laden was never within our grasp." Berntsen says Franks is "a great American. But he was not on the ground out there. I was."
Not quite a year ago I posted an entry about the failure to get OBL.
Don Van Natta, Jr. recently wrote a fascinating piece on Osama bin Laden for the The New York Times. I highly recommend reading the entire article, but here are a few excerpts to get you started:
What does Osama bin Laden want?
The vexing question emerged again last week with the release of an audiotape on which the Qaeda leader seems to be speaking. On it, he applauds the Dec. 6 attack against the United States Consulate in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, and urges the toppling of the Saudi royal family.
The tape indicated that Mr. bin Laden has apparently moved the fomenting of a revolution in his Saudi homeland toward the top of his lengthy and ambitious wish list, which also includes the reversal of American foreign policy in the Middle East, the retreat of the American military from the Arabian Peninsula and the creation of a Palestinian homeland.
[. . .]
Perhaps most striking is Mr. bin Laden's expression of frustration. Like any politician on the stump, Mr. bin Laden craves the ability to deliver an unfiltered message to his audience. Speaking directly to Americans in the pre-election address, he complained that his rationale for waging a holy war against the United States was repeatedly mischaracterized by President Bush and consequently misunderstood by most Americans.
To change this, Mr. bin Laden is testing what he apparently believes are more mainstream themes, while trying to dislodge the entrenched American view of him as a terrorist hell-bent on destroying America and all it stands for. In the pre-election address, Mr. bin Laden said Mr. Bush was wrong to "claim that we hate freedom." He added: "If so, then let him explain to us why we don't strike, for example, Sweden."
That remark surprised some counterterrorism officials and terrorist experts, who said the Al Qaeda leader rarely injects sarcasm into his public pronouncements. They took it as a signal that he was trying to broaden his appeal, particularly to moderate Muslims and possibly even some Americans.
[. . .]
"Osama is not a man given to humor, but when he told this joke about Sweden, I think it showed his frustration that Americans are not listening to him," said Michael Scheuer, a former senior C.I.A. official who tracked Mr. bin Laden for years and is the author of "Imperial Hubris." "We are being told by the president and others that Al Qaeda attacked us because they despise who we are and what we think and how we live. But Osama's point is, it's not that at all. They don't like what we do. And until we come to understand that, we are not going to defeat the enemy."
[. . .]
Mr. bin Laden's attempt to engage Americans is occurring while his message to drive the United States out of the Muslim world is resonating with those among the 1.2 billion Muslims who believe the Qaeda leader eloquently expresses their anger over the foreign policies of the United States and Israel. In recent years, he has emphasized the Palestinians' struggle. "His genius lies in identifying things that are easily visible and easily felt by most Muslims," Mr. Scheuer said. "He has found issues that are simple, and that Muslims see playing out on their televisions every day."
But Mr. bin Laden also wants Americans and Europeans to heed his messages and urge their leaders to change their Middle East policies. This has not happened and probably will not happen. "He is tuned out by most Americans and Europeans, and it's begun to really annoy him," said a senior counterterrorism official based in Europe.
[. . .]
Analysts say Mr. bin Laden's repeated refrain is that Al Qaeda's strikes are retribution for American and Israeli killings of Muslim women and children. "Reciprocity is a very important principle in the Islamic way of the world," Mr. Scheuer said. "They judge how far they can go by how far their enemy has gone."
Scheuer calls bin Laden's overall approach "principled hatred" see chapter 1 of Imperial Hubris.
Bin Laden is a true believer, but he isn't stupid. He's obviously an intelligent man, clearly familiar with cost-benefit analysis:
. . . he said the United States could avoid another attack if it stopped threatening the security of Muslims. He spoke at length about what he sees as the true motive for the Iraq war - to enrich American corporations with ties to the Bush administration. (He cited Halliburton.) And he spoke of bloodshed, but this time metaphorically, about the American economy.
He mocked the United States's budget and trade deficits, saying that Al Qaeda is committed "to continuing this policy in bleeding American to the point of bankruptcy." And he said that the 9/11 attacks, which cost Al Qaeda a total of $500,000, have cost the United States more than $500 billion, "according to the lowest estimate" by a research organization in London that he cited by name.
"It all shows that the real loser is - you," he told Americans, according to a transcript by Al Jazeera, the satellite network.
Pocketbook politics, like any good politician. As I said, an intelligent man.
As far as I know, no one of any seriousness who isn't a Republican shill denies that OBL escaped. For example, Peter Bergen recently wrote an excellent article entitled "The Long Hunt for Osama" for The Atlantic, in which he took up this issue, among many others that touch on OBL's current whereabouts.
Despite his campaign rhetoric of making America safer from terrorism, Bush hasn't shown much interest in the Department of Homeland Security, the creation of which, you might recall, he initially opposed.
The war in Iraq absorbed the administration's attention. Consequently, homeland security and thus not just the government agency officially responsible for it has been slighted.
Here is a short list of articles that look at this underfunded agency and other related topics:
Since I have only a textbook knowledge of Islam, I have to rely on other scholars and researchers for any insight into whatever connection there may be between Islam and Islamic terrorism. This article, entitled "The Religious Sources of Islamic Terrorism," appeared in the June 2004 issue of Policy Review. Despite the author's erudition, I find that I'm very disappointed with his strategic recommendations on how to fight Islamic terrorism.
The author is Shmuel Bar, an Israeli scholar. He begins by noting Western reluctance (which may be sincere or mealy-mouthed) to trace Islamic terrorism back to the tenets of Islam itself. Instead, various social and cultural grievances are usually highlighted as the cause of Islamic terrorism. (It's here that the "root cause" analysis finds its place.) Bar, however, thinks that Islam clearly has something to do with Islamic terrorism. Yet he offers the following warning at the end of his second paragraph:
A skeptic may note that many societies can put claim to similar grievances but have not given birth to religious-based ideologies that justify no-holds-barred terrorism. Nevertheless an interpretation which places the blame for terrorism on religious and cultural traits runs the risk of being branded as bigoted and Islamophobic.
I don't know about you, but whenever I come across such an admonition, I have to restrain myself from feeling bigoted and phobic by the end of the discussion. Usually, the author in question seems to make a strong case for the very bigotry and phobia that he or she is hoping to quash. But let's press foward.
Bar turns to radical Islam and jihad. The former, he says, has the following underpinning:
The underlying element in the radical Islamist worldview is ahistoric and dichotomist: Perfection lies in the ways of the Prophet and the events of his time; therefore, religious innovations, philosophical relativism, and intellectual or political pluralism are anathema. In such a worldview, there can exist only two camps Dar al-Islam ("The House of Islam" i.e., the Muslim countries) and Dar al-Harb ("The House of War" i.e., countries ruled by any regime but Islam) which are pitted against each other until the final victory of Islam. These concepts are carried to their extreme conclusion by the radicals; however, they have deep roots in mainstream Islam.
Well, I ask myself, if the concepts that undergird radical Islam have deep roots in mainstream Islam, then doesn't that mean that mainstream Islam is bound to be largely sympathetic to radical Islam? If so, Bar has failed to reassure me; and his views only become more disturbing to my peace of mind as he unfolds them further.
The 1980s, says Bar, witnessed jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan a holy war to be fought not only by Muslims in Afghanistan but also by other Muslims from nearby countries. All Muslims, it seems, are obliged to prevent the reversion to non-Islamic rule of lands once ruled by Islamic law, and since there are so many lands in which this has occurred, it seems to follow that all Muslims have a duty to join the jihad.
The jihad against the Soviets, Bar claims, is where many of our current troubles were born:
The Soviet defeat in Afghanistan and the subsequent fall of the Soviet Union were perceived as an eschatological sign, adumbrating the renewal of the jihad against the infidel world at large and the apocalyptical war between Islam and heresy which will result in the rule of Islam in the world. Along with the renewal of the jihad, the Islamist Weltanschauung, which emerged from the Afghani crucible, developed a Thanatophile ideology in which death is idealized as a desired goal and not a necessary evil in war.
An offshoot of this philosophy poses a dilemma for theories of deterrence. The Islamic traditions of war allow the Muslim forces to retreat if their numerical strength is less than half that of the enemy. Other traditions go further and allow retreat only in the face of a tenfold superiority of the enemy. The reasoning is that the act of jihad is, by definition, an act of faith in Allah. By fighting a weaker or equal enemy, the Muslim is relying on his own strength and not on Allah; by entering the fray against all odds, the mujahed is proving his utter faith in Allah and will be rewarded accordingly.
Bar then discusses some of the legal issues surrounding jihad: Who is to participate? Which means are acceptable and which are forbidden? And so forth. Nothing that he writes indicates that mainstream or moderate Muslims should somehow regard jihad as alien to their understanding of Islam. Quite the opposite is true, he says:
It can be safely assumed that the great majority of Muslims in the world have no desire to join a jihad or to politicize their religion. However, it is also true that insofar as religious establishments in most of the Arabian peninsula, in Iran, and in much of Egypt and North Africa are concerned, the radical ideology does not represent a marginal and extremist perversion of Islam but rather a genuine and increasingly mainstream interpretation.
Furthermore, moderate Muslims fear being labeled apostates; consequently, they are very wary of confronting the radicals:
Moderates are reluctant to come forward and to risk being accused of apostasy. For this very reason, many Muslim regimes in the Middle East and Asia are reluctant to crack down on the religious aspects of radical Islam and satisfy themselves with dealing with the political violence alone. By way of appeasement politics, they trade tolerance of jihad elsewhere for local calm. Thus, they lose ground to radicals in their societies.
If local governments aren't especially willing to combat the radicals who engage in terrorism, then what can be done? Bar says that we need a comprehensive strategy that remains true to our democratic values. He asks whether or not a strategy addressing the ideological roots of radical Islam is a possible one. He doesn't really answer his own question, unfortunately. Here is what his strategy would look like, leaving aside for a moment the issue of its likely success:
First, such a strategy must be based on an acceptance of the fact that for the first time since the Crusades, Western civilization finds itself involved in a religious war; the conflict has been defined by the attacking side as such with the eschatological goal of the destruction of Western civilization. The goal of the West cannot be defense alone or military offense or democratization of the Middle East as a panacea. It must include a religious-ideological dimension: active pressure for religious reform in the Muslim world and pressure on the orthodox Islamic establishment in the West and the Middle East not only to disengage itself clearly from any justification of violence, but also to pit itself against the radical camp in a clear demarcation of boundaries.
Such disengagement cannot be accomplished by Western-style declarations of condemnation. It must include clear and binding legal rulings by religious authorities which contradict the axioms of the radical worldview and virtually "excommunicate" the radicals. In essence, the radical narrative, which promises paradise to those who perpetrate acts of terrorism, must be met by an equally legitimate religious force which guarantees hellfire for the same acts.
He then fills out the details with six bullet points that I won't quote. You'll find them towards the end of the article.
Overall, I find Bar's recommendations very disappointing. He realizes that he is calling for an "Islamic Kulturkampf" (his phrase, found in his penultimate paragraph). But given what he has written earlier, can we reasonably expect one to take place? If we really are in a religious war (once again, his phrase, which I quoted above), is it rational to premise part of our strategy on reform within the Islamic world, when we have no good reason to believe that moderates will challenge radicals in the manner required by Bar's strategy? Perhaps they are willing to confront terrorists in some fashion to save themselves. But will they do so on our behalf? Bar doesn't answer this question.
Are moderates (and, of course, they exist) really willing to act in a fashion that in effect makes them our allies and the radicals (who are their co-religionists) their enemies? Perhaps they are, but why should we believe that they are so willing? What evidence of their willingness has Bar provided? In short, has Bar given us a viable strategy? The policy that he advocates seems nothing but fanciful.
As the Bush administration has learned during the past year, hope is not a plan. Bar is from Israel, as I noted at the beginning of this post. Could Israel have had any success with the strategy that he proposes? Not as far as I can tell. Look at how easy it has been to radicalize the Palestinian people. Perhaps the West might more readily pursue the strategy that Bar recommends, but his article isn't at all encouraging on this point. Instead, if Bar is right in his diagnosis of the religious roots of Islamic terrorism, then his prognosis ought to be commensurately gloomy. That is, we may be in a religious war without an end in the foreseeable future.
Burke argues, in short, that Osama bin Laden is not the leader of a centralized, tightly organized movement that threatens the West. Furthermore, he claims that the real threat is not al Qaeda itself, but rather "al Qaedaism," the worldview of al Qaeda and those who sympathize with its goals:
Today, the structure that was built in Afghanistan has been destroyed, and bin Laden and his associates have scattered or been arrested or killed. There is no longer a central hub for Islamic militancy. But the al Qaeda worldview, or "al Qaedaism," is growing stronger every day. This radical internationalist ideologysustained by anti-Western, anti-Zionist, and anti-Semitic rhetorichas adherents among many individuals and groups, few of whom are currently linked in any substantial way to bin Laden or those around him. They merely follow his precepts, models, and methods. They act in the style of al Qaeda, but they are only part of al Qaeda in the very loosest sense.
This article in The Washington Post made the same point not quite two months ago.
Fortunately for us, says Burke, the threat posed by WMDs is small: "Although Islamic militants (including bin Laden) have attempted to develop a basic chemical or biological arsenal, those efforts have been largely unsuccessful due to the technical difficulty of creating, let alone weaponizing, such materials." After citing the difficulties they face in developing such weapons or obtaining them from another country, e.g., Pakistan, Burke adds, "Confronted with such constraints, Islamic militants are far more likely to use conventional bombs or employ conventional devices in imaginative waysas was the case with the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and the March 11, 2004, train bombings in Spain." Burke advises us to calm down.
On the one hand, I agree with him. We don't seem to be facing an apocalyptic threat from a tightly knit conspiracy. On the other hand, though, I worry about his easy confidence with regard to WMDs. The war in Iraq, like it or not, was followed by revelations about weapons programs in Libya and Pakistan that were more than a little disconcerting. Much of the world that is predisposed to be sympathetic to al Qaedaism is opaque to us in important respects.
I'm undecided about this, but it might be wiser to err on the side of caution and pursue a more aggressive policy than the one Burke seems to recommend, even if this increases hostility towards us in the short run. Too many experts have been mistaken or ignorant about too many things for us to be complacent.
Regardless of my reservations, Burke's article is to be recommended. It offers a wider perspective on the issues than we normally get.