No Sequel – Yet

Charles Krauthammer asks and attempts to answer an interesting question:

The single most puzzling – and arguably most important – question of the day is the one no one raises in public: Why have we not been attacked again? We are coming up on 2-1/2 years since 9/11. Think back: on 9/11, everybody was waiting for the other shoe to drop – within days or weeks, but surely within months. When nothing happened, it was said that Al Qaeda works on 18-month cycles, with long planning and preparation.
It’s now almost a year plus 18 months. And while there have been terrorist attacks against generally soft targets in other (mostly Islamic) countries, we have not had a single attack, major or minor, in the U.S.

He, of course, wants to give the credit for this to the brilliant foreign policy of the Bush Administration. But he doesn’t go quite that far.

I ask it of almost every intelligence expert I meet. Their speculations fall along two lines.

The first is that Al Qaeda has been degraded and disrupted. It has lost its Afghan base, lost much of its funding and is reduced to going back to where Islamic radicals were years ago: launching minor guerrilla operations in Pakistan/Afghanistan and sending operatives out to hit soft targets such as synagogues in Tunisia and embassies in Istanbul.

A variation on this theme is the idea that as Al Qaeda International shrinks, terrorism is becoming more regionalized. That may not be a terribly good development for the world, but it would explain why America has not been attacked. If you are an Indonesian terrorist, your objective is to destroy your government and to take it over. Hitting the Vegas Strip – no matter how spectacularly – becomes a distraction.

***

The other explanation is that it is a matter of pride. Having pulled off the greatest terrorist attack in the history of the world, they do not want to sully their reputation by resorting to the cheap car bomb.

Or to put it less psychologically and more strategically, part of the appeal of Al Qaeda – what it uses to recruit people and funds – is its mystique: superhuman feats, brilliant execution, masterful planning. That aura feeds its ideology of historical inevitability, that ultimately it will prevail over Western decadence because the seeming high-tech West lacks the diabolical and methodical will that Islamism brings to the war.

***

I don’t know. I tend to favor the second theory. But I have no doubt that reorganizing homeland security, redirecting law enforcement from locking up bad guys to preventing worse guys from attacking and increasing vigilance at the borders have had a significant deterrent effect.

I presume the real answer involves a combination of these factors–we have seriously weakened al Qaeda and they don’t want to follow 9/11 with something comparatively piddly–but the answer isn’t particularly satisfying. If the point of terrorists is, well, terror, then keeping up the pressure has to be part of their strategy. Most Americans have adjusted to the inconveniences of post-9/11 life and give little thought to terrorism on a day-to-day basis.

I’m quite pleased that al Qaeda hasn’t started using human bombs like the Palestinian terrorists have been using in Israel for years. But nothing that we have done in either the War on Terror or the strengthening of homeland security would prevent them from doing so any time they wanted.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Paul says:

    I’m not so sure about #2.

    If you plant 10 car bombs in the 10 biggest cities in the country and they all go off within a few minutes of each other, you have a spectacular event with minimal effort.

    It is a fantastic question but as you say, neither answer is particularly satisfying.