We are losing.
Four years and two wars after the attacks of September 11, 2001, America is heading for a repeat of the events of that day, or perhaps something worse. Against our most dangerous foe, our strategic position is weakening. Inspired by Usama bin Laden’s boldness and outraged by America’s recent actions, more Muslims are sympathizing with the radical Islamists and joining their movement. Individuals who hitherto had no significant ties to radical organizations are enlisting themselves in the struggle and committing acts of violence, sometimes without any support from existing networks. In disparate places around the globe, from Indonesia to the Caucasus and from Pakistan to Western Europe, the jihadist ideology has become the banner under which an array of grievances is being expressed, and often that expression is violent. In many of these regions, local and global grievances are merging into a pervasive hatred of the United States, its allies, and the international order they uphold. Within parts of the Muslim world, social and religious inhibitions on violence are weakening, and the notion is gaining acceptance that an attack on infidels involving weapons of mass destruction would be justified.
The United States—and certainly its leadership—appears not to have comprehended the dynamic, ideologically driven insurgency whose heralds were four hijacked commercial jets. Instead of taking a comprehensive view of the phenomenon of radical Islam, only two indicators are used to show the measure of our progress in the war on terror: the number of days since 9/11 in which we have not experienced a second catastrophic attack, and the number of al Qaeda members who have been apprehended or killed. While it is true that bin Laden’s group has been seriously hurt by the capture of many of its leaders and the disruption of many of its cells, the administration’s focus on numbers feeds the widespread belief that the terrorist enemy is finite in quantity and destructible in the near term. The failure to look beyond al Qaeda and to recognize the multiplying forms that the jihadist threat is taking represents a serious failure of vision. We are repeating the errors of the time before 9/11 in believing, first, that what terrorists do abroad has little consequence for national security, and, second, that only states can truly threaten us. Unwittingly, we are clearing the way for the next attack—and those that will come after.
Not only are we not attending to a growing threat, we are stoking the fire. America’s invasion of Iraq has turned that long-suffering country into the central theater of the jihadist struggle. We destroyed one of the hated secular dictatorships of the Arab world that jihadists had been unable to dent but left an open field for radicals from outside the country and within to cause havoc. The terrorists have found in Iraq a better sanctuary, training ground, and laboratory than they ever had in Afghanistan. They have also been given what they desire most: American targets in close proximity. They can now demonstrate their valor and resolve to bleed America, and in doing so, to build momentum for their cause. We have slain the chimera of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but we are nourishing the all-too-real dragon of radical Islam.
It is unlikely that even in his most feverish reveries, Usama bin Laden could have imagined that America would stumble so badly and wound itself so grievously. By occupying Iraq, the United States has played into the hands of its opponents, affirming the story they have been telling to the Muslim world and adding to their aura as true warriors in defense of Islam. America’s image in the Muslim world has never been more battered, and the jihadist claim that the United States seeks to oppress Muslims has never seemed more plausible—no matter how noble we view our own sacrifices in the liberation of Iraq. There is, as has so often been said, a war of ideas going on, a battle for hearts and minds. Unfortunately, America has wound up on the wrong side.
We and our friends are paying a price for these errors. As this is being written, investigators are pursuing leads from the British Isles to Pakistan in connection with the July 7 bombing of three Underground trains in London and a double-decker bus. The attacks, carried out with the al Qaeda hallmark of multiple simultaneous blasts, appear to have been the work of three Britons of Pakistani descent and a Jamaican immigrant who had converted to Islam. It is not clear yet whether, as alleged, they benefited from bomb-making instruction in a jihadist training camp in Pakistan, but that is entirely plausible. Nor do we know what was going through their minds when they planned the incident that killed fifty-six people. But if they are anything like other recent terrorists, then their anger was fired by the presence of Americans, Britons, and others in Iraq. “Our military is confronting the terrorists, along with our allies, in Iraq and Afghanistan so that innocent civilians will not have to confront terrorist violence in Washington or London or anywhere else in the world,” Vice President Dick Cheney said in September 2003.1 It has not turned out that way.
We have compounded these mistakes by squandering the chance to build defenses against a new kind of enemy. The successes we have notched against the leadership of al Qaeda have bought us time, but the time has been wasted. When American political leaders wish to show seriousness they first declare war on a problem, then they decree a bureaucratic reorganization. Since 9/11, we seem to be caught in a perpetual loop of reorganizing our homeland security authorities and our intelligence community. The possibility that we need something other than a sweeping organizational fix seldom gets taken seriously. Lawmakers feel any other response would be incommensurate with the original cataclysm, and if they chose such an avenue, they would be showing a lack of seriousness. But while the legislation mandating a great conglomeration of agencies has been enacted, the leadership, vision, and resources to make that “rationalization” effective have been missing. Particularly in the realm of homeland security, the last three years have witnessed an extraordinary amount of wheel-spinning. These were years we could not afford to lose.
More disturbing, the signs are growing that the jihadist threat is a diminishing concern for the nation. Despite clear evidence of an increase of jihadist activity abroad, a recent decline in threat reporting against domestic U.S. targets has led Terrance W. Gainer, the chief of the Capitol Police, to remark in May 2005, “The imminence of a threat seems to have diminished. We’re just not as worried as we were a year ago, but we certainly are as vigilant.” This from a man whose officers guard a known al Qaeda target, and who is regularly briefed by the FBI and CIA. John O. Brennan, then acting director of the new National Counterterrorism Center, agreed, saying, “Progress has been made.”2 The declining sense of urgency has been apparent in President George W. Bush’s rhetoric, too. As one observer has noted, Bush mentioned the war on terror or some variant of the phrase more often in the thirty days prior to the 2004 election (seventy-one times) than in the six months after (sixty-six times).3 Before the London attacks in July 2005, only 12 percent of Americans thought of terrorism as the nation’s top priority, behind the economy, Iraq, health care, and Social Security—almost a 40 percent drop from the time of the November 2004 election.4 If past experience holds, this most recent moment of horror will be another brief peak in a downward-moving average.
An argument is now heard that the destruction of the World Trade Center was a once-in-a-millennium lucky shot, that everything broke the hijackers’ way. Others observe that the Muslim world has shown itself unwilling to hitch its wagon to bin Laden’s mad star, forgetting that acts of jihadist violence are increasing in number and that small opinion changes at the margins of a population of 1.2 billion people can have enormous effects. Although the bad news from Iraq continues to dominate the airwaves, in some ways, Washington in the summer of 2005 feels much as it did in the summer of 1999, when talk of the challenge from China was a dominant theme. Then the question was whether China had stolen satellite technology and interfered in American elections. Now it is China’s regional ambitions, its undervalued currency, and its military buildup. Though he has not spoken much of the global terrorist threat of late, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wondered in a major address in June, “Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment? Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases?”5
The focus has shifted. Few people are better bellwethers of the zeitgeist than New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. His latest book, The World Is Flat, a paean to globalization, shot to the top of the bestseller lists when it appeared in April 2005. But for Friedman the globalization that counts is the outsourcing of information technology jobs to Bangalore, manufacturing to China, and the computerization of the Third World—he approvingly quotes one source who proclaims, “Everyone in Mali uses Linux.”6 While Friedman recognizes the threat that al Qaeda poses to the benefits of globalization, he makes insufficient acknowledgment of the parallel globalization going on, in which the Internet has accelerated the spread of everything from radical Islamist ideology to the minutiae of bomb making for a growing community of jihadists around the world. The wired world is bringing lightning change to the global security landscape, but all eyes are on how technology is again revolutionizing the marketplace.
At a time when we should be well into our planning for a long conflict, our attention is drifting from the greatest threat we face. It is a recurrent theme in radical Islamist writings that we in the West have a short attention span while the holy warriors of jihad will carry on their fight for as long as they have breath. They look forward, they say over and again, to the day when America returns to its slumbers. If we are indeed doing that, then the true lessons of 9/11 will not be learned until after the next attack.
Copyright © 2005 by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon