There are two bad ways to fight terrorism. As Governor Romney said in Monday's presidential debate, one unsuccessful tactic is to simply try to kill all the terrorists you can find. It won't work. They'll just make more. But you also can't beat terrorism simply with optimism -- declaring the threat largely over as a result of your past actions. Those two tactics seem to be the mainstay of the current administration, however.
I can understand the motivation. The huge toll of blood and treasure that Al Qaeda has extracted from us provides powerful impetus to want to see them and their supporters tossed in the dustbin of history. But Americans need to be careful that we don't let our desire to declare that Al Qaeda has been swept away, blind us to evidence that they are still very much with us.
The State Department's annual terrorism report released on July 31 said that the death of Usama bin Laden and other successes have put Al Qaeda "on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse." Pundits announced that complex mass casualty attacks may be beyond the organization's reach and that our main concern should be "lone wolf" and less spectacular attacks. And then came September 11, 2012.
Even when presented with clear evidence of a persistent terror threat, some in our government struggled to grasp at any alternative explanation. When a group of terrorists conducted the coordinated attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya on the anniversary of 9/11, the administration was eager (with scant reason) to blame it on spontaneous reactions to an obscure video.
The Obama administration rushed to judgment -- weaving together disparate threads of information to construct a tapestry that would resemble the world as they wanted to see it. Having spent a year or more repeating the mantra: Bin Laden is dead and terrorism is dying, they believed their own hype.
If there is one thing which can be learned from observing Al Qaeda, it is that they are a resilient and relentless foe. Almost every one of their major mass casualty attacks was preceded by several failed attempts. Before 9/11 there was the mostly unsuccessful attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. Before the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 there was an aborted attempt to blow up the USS The Sullivans the year before.
Time and again Al Qaeda has returned to attempt to simultaneously blow up multiple airliners. Their first such attempts date back to the mid-1990s, their most recent a decade and a half later. We saw earlier this year that the group continues to try to conduct underwear bombings of aircraft. Had Al Qaeda selected its bomber more carefully, that attack may well have succeeded. The events of Abbottabad represent victory in one battle -- not in a war.
After painfully learning in 2001 that they were not as safe as they thought, the American people backed an aggressive war on terror. In the years immediately after 9/11, we did well in killing and capturing many Al Qaeda leaders. Many of those captured provided critical intelligence that helped thwart attacks on the United States and our interests (including embassies, consulates and military bases abroad.)
As they will be the first to tell you, the Obama administration deserves great credit in helping bring about the death of Usama bin Laden. But their campaign rhetoric from four years ago has made them reluctant to hold and interrogate prisoners. So instead they have adopted what essentially is a “take no prisoners” policy. They have captured almost no terrorists -- they kill them.
Killing terrorists is good when you have no other option. But by failing to capture and interrogate them, we fail to collect intelligence about Al Qaeda’s plans and intentions for future attacks.
I cannot tell you whether the administration’s reluctance to hold and interrogate terrorists has contributed to the disaster in Benghazi or not. I do know that their policies have resulted in our being more in the dark than we ever should be.
Rather than "spiking the football" over the death of bin Laden and acting like the threat of terrorism lies at the bottom of the sea with him, we should act as if today were September 12, 2001 and pound away at the terror target.
We should do so quietly when possible without the need to declare victories or take credit for successes. Neither party should try to score points using the war on terror as a cudgel to pound their political opponents. Our attention and our animus should be saved for those who deserve it -- Al Qaeda.
Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr. is the former director of the CIA's National Clandestine Service and author of "Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives."