I have several questions I’d like to ask in relation to the thwarted car bombings this past week in the United Kingdom.
It’s been a fascinating few days as the British and Scottish authorities have raced to gather evidence, identify and arrest suspects and fully understand the nature of this latest potential attack. What has been equally fascinating has been watching the response from the public and the media to this event. As a result, I thought I’d use a bit of PWB space to throw out some questions to the readers in the hope that it generates some discussion.
First up: When there's a terror attack or attempted terror attack in the UK or elsewhere (Iraq being the notable exception), why do we in the U.S. still respond with shock and surprise?
The terror threat from Al Qaeda, people and groups inspired by Al Qaeda and other similarly twisted and driven violent, radical jihadists isn’t going away any time soon. I’ll go out on a limb here and say it’s not going away in our lifetime. Sorry for the lack of optimism.
Unfortunately, here in the U.S., we suffer from a collective short attention span. In the immediate aftermath of an attack somewhere around the globe, particularly if it happens in Europe, we spend a great deal of time asking how it could have happened, could it happen in the U.S., are we prepared, who's responsible and how can it be prevented.
And then, we move on ... until the next attack. At which time, the response seems to be, Oh my God, how could that have happened?
I’m not saying that we should spend every waking moment focused on the terror threat. It’s actually healthy to be able to compartmentalize. We don’t want to be constantly worried about the possibility of an attack — that only leads to stress, anxiety and gas. But let’s quit acting like we’re startled every time some raggedy group of plotters manages to pull off an act of terror or some thwarted event comes to the public’s attention.
Also, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we spend much less time stressing over terror attacks that occur in other regions such as the Middle East or Asia.
An attack this week in Yemen killed several Spanish tourists visiting an ancient site outside of the capital of Sana. The Yemeni government has been waging a campaign against Al Qaeda for some time now. It is highly likely that Al Qaeda was responsible for the car bomb attack that killed the tourists outside the ancient temple in the Marib. Care to guess which incident, the thwarted attacks in the UK or a deadly bombing in Yemen, pulled more ink from the media and fueled more conversation here in the U.S.?
As an aside, over in the UK, the public attitude or mindset toward terrorism in general is different than it is here in America. The “bulldog spirit,” “stiff upper lip” or whatever it’s called does actually exist. Shaped in part by the blitz experience of WWII, and more recently by the bombing campaigns of the IRA, the public in the UK tends to react with less soul searching, navel gazing and self flagellation to attacks such as the deadly July 7, 2005, London transport bombings and the thwarted car bombings of the past week.
Here in the U.S. we tend to go through a certain cycle when it comes to terror attacks or discovered plots … surprise, anxiety, analysis and finally blame. Have you noticed how we as a nation like to assume immediately that someone, other than the terrorists of course, is to blame for an attack? In the UK, the tendency is to get on with it. As a nation, they seem to better understand that terrorism is an ever present threat and that the law of averages suggests that there will occasionally be a successful attack.
Next question: Why were people initially dismissive of the thwarted car bomb attacks in London this past week, referring to them as ‘unsophisticated’?
At what point did we decide that a terrorist plot is only dangerous, clever or sophisticated if it involves something other than a car bomb or a rudimentary but effective explosive device? Big brain think tankers, terrorism experts and pundits of various persuasions were initially dismissive of the car bomb plot in London due to the use of gasoline, propane and nails.
What? Sure, the bar was set high with 9/11, but that devastation was carried out with box cutters, intimidation and airplanes loaded with gasoline. Just as we shouldn’t be surprised that terrorists are always plotting, we shouldn’t be surprised that the methods and resources used will vary.
As a quick reminder, let’s look at a few basic truths about this “War on Terror” (by the way, interestingly, the green Mercedes loaded with fuel and nails that was found outside the nightclub in London was sporting a bumper sticker that said “John Edwards is wrong”):
• Whether they are certified, card-carrying members of Al Qaeda, persons or small groups inspired by Al Qaeda, radical jihadists with similar agendas or people who turn violent under the influence of fundamental Islamofacism, there is an element grouped under the category of “terrorist” that is constantly looking to harm us and destroy our way of life.
• Terrorists are adaptive; they will attack whatever target is deemed available and will use whatever resources are accessible.
• Simple resources and delivery mechanisms can have horrific results. Your average terrorist is not Lex Luthor, and your average, deadly terrorist attack does not involve a laser beam.
• It is not our fault that those lumped in the “terrorist” category want to kill us. Let’s quit with the obnoxious whining of “Why don’t they like us?” and “Maybe if we stop oppressing people around the globe they’ll leave us alone.” Have you ever been to the Middle East and seen how oppressive some of these countries are towards their own citizens? Tony Blair correctly noted the other day that Muslims in Britain have far more rights and religious freedoms than in some of their own countries.
Third question: Why the surprise that some of the alleged plotters in the London car bombing incident are educated and hold medical degrees?
Terrorists come in all shapes and sizes. I know the stereotype is that every terrorist looks like Usama bin Laden, and all bombers are crazed, uneducated, unemployed young males, but that is far removed from the truth. Repeat after me ... terrorists are out there looking to kill us, terrorists are adaptive and will use whatever means are available, terrorists can come from all walks of life, terrorists can be homegrown. Again, I apologize that the column isn’t more uplifting this week.
And a final question: Is it wrong to expect Muslim leaders, clerics and respected authorities around the world to unite in a strong, vocal and moral stand against terror and the killing of innocent people?
This isn’t rocket science, and I don’t feel politically incorrect making this statement. How tough is it for Muslim leaders, and particularly clerics, to stand up and declare loudly that God doesn’t reward you for engaging in acts of terrorism? Is that a problem? I fully admit that I’m not a scholar of Islam and haven’t read the Koran. Frankly, I haven’t picked up a bible in a very long time, either. I don’t claim to be a regular churchgoer and I’m not in the habit of wearing my beliefs on my sleeve. But this would seem to fall under the category of religious common sense.
Maybe it’s already happened and I haven’t seen the news. Maybe there has already been widespread condemnation from Muslim authorities, but folks outside the Muslim communities don’t know it. I don’t mean an occasional comment by a Western-based cleric who says the terrorists are misguided.
Help me out here: Has there been a collective effort by those carrying the responsibility of religious authority within the Muslim community to declare that God says thumbs-down to murder? Perhaps I’m being simplistic, but isn’t it logical to assume that, regardless of your sect, Allah would view murder in the same negative way? I can’t imagine it’s a tough position to take that God doesn’t actually hand out virgins, winning lottery tickets, trips around the globe or sets of luggage to reward blowing people up.
Now unfortunately, the vast majority of peace-loving, industrious and honorable people in the global Muslim community will feel singled out, picked upon or discriminated against as a result of the ongoing War on Terror. The sad reality is that their global community has generated the terrorists we currently face. But we must be careful not to promote stereotypes, not to paint an entire religion or community with one broad brush. That’s our responsibility.
Shouldn’t it be the responsibility of those who lead the Muslim community to provide an authoritative voice against the terrorists who disrespect their religion and kill innocent people, including members of their own community? Whether in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, the UK, the United States or anywhere else, why should that be a difficult position to take?
That’s just my opinion. Let me know yours … send your thoughts and comments regarding the above questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Till next week, stay safe.
Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures. In addition, Baker is a writer for a BBC drama to begin production in July 2007.