Monday, January 25, 2010

The chattering classes love to play up the existential threat Al Qaeda poses to the United States.  Nevermind that their greatest success, 9/11, managed to kill less than 3,000 Americans and that they have since been unable to strike a major blow against the homeland.  Terrorism has become the front-line foreign policy issue, despite the fact that AQ and their ideological brethren are just that - terrorists, not destroyers of nations.

I don't mean to downplay the significance of 9/11.  It was a horrific event, and every one of the 2,973 innocent deaths was a tragedy.  However, it was never going to cause the collapse of the United States.  Tragic, yes; existentially threatening, no.

And now, rapidly approaching the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, the hollowness of AQ is becoming evident.  The organization we all feared has been exposed as nothing more than a few misguided ideologues and incompetent bumblers.  AQ is not a nightmare combination of the Nazis, SPECTRE, and Stalinist hardliners; in fact it is far closer to the Three Stooges in operational ability.  The exploits of the "shoe bomber" Richard Reid and the "Undie-bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab make 9/11 appear to be a once-in-a-lifetime success for AQ, driven by good fortune and luck rather than evil genius.

As if to confirm these diminished capabilities, an audiotape purportedly from Osama bin Laden recently surfaced to praise the actions of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.  As is his style, bin Laden does not formally claim credit for the act, but heralds it as a reaffirmation of the message of 9/11 and promises more attacks.  At first glance this seems a chilling reminder of AQ, lurking in every shadow and airplane bathroom.  But a closer read reveals the emptiness of the message.

First of all, some analysts question the authenticity of the tape - is that really bin Laden, or a shallow impostor?  More importantly to my mind is the underlying question of why.  Why would bin Laden, the scrounge of the West and would-be slayer of imperialists, take to the airwaves in praise of someone who manged only to light his privates on fire before being subdued by unarmed civilians?

Perhaps the tape isn't from bin Laden because he is long dead or stuck incommunicado in a remote cave.  Or, maybe AQ does not have the ability to mount a successful operation inside the U.S. and has resorted to grabbing at any publicity it can in an attempt to remain relevant.  Either way, it should be clear that our deadly adversary needs to be redefined.  It is not an existential threat, it is a criminal nuisance.

There will always be terrorists and terror attacks.  If AQ is no longer a significant player there will be other groups to take it's place.  But terror is not a phenomenon confined to Islamic fundamentalists or bin Laden's disciples; who can forget Timothy McVeigh or Aum Shinrikyo?  We need to portray and understand terrorism for what it truly is - a source of tragic deaths, but not the potential downfall of the nation.


Jeff Schneider said...

Dave -- I think you make alot of good points here. However, I don't think it hurts to overestimate the capabilities of those who seek to attack the west. I think the entire media-storm that surrounds every sadly pathetic claim from Bin Laden is a bit silly (even though I engage in a bit of it myself...), don't forget that even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes, especially when that squirrel has a million dollars, and no self-preservation instinct! One thing that I absolutely agree that the largest threat facing the US is not from AQ core, I think the spread of AQ's brand of Salafi extremism and the impact that it has on the growing number of potential self-starters is worrying. As long as AQ is out there, and Bin Laden is in the media eye, there will be those who seek to replicate their actions -- and act as AQ's force projection. Not all of these young men will be as ineffective as the Undie Bomber.

All in all, a great post Dave! It got us all thinking!

Jeff Schneider said...

Props on the SPECTRE reference by the way.

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