In 2001, one would-be shoe bomber forced millions of travelers to take off their shoes. In 2006, terrorists planned to bring down aircraft on transatlantic flights by smuggling liquid explosives onto plane. They were thwarted but they succeeded in preventing passengers from bringing liquids into airline terminals.
Lesson number one: In this terror war, the jihadists have the upper hand. THEY are in charge. THEY are the ones who choose to use a new weapon and they are also the ones who – by using simple logic -- have refrained from using the same terror weapons more than once. In fact, since September 2001, Al Qaeda’s henchmen have avoided rushing into the cockpit of an airliner with box cutters. Does this mean we were successful in deterring the terrorists? Of course: as long as we can prevent them from using the 9/11 methods, they won't be naïve enough or foolish enough to repeat the same strategy. So are we winning the fight with Al Qaeda by using these measures? No, we are simply protecting our population until we win the war. But winning is not measured by surviving potential copycat attacks.
Instead, this war will be won by striking at the mechanism that produces the jihadists. And on that level, we haven’t won this war either under the previous administration nor under the incumbent one. For, as President Obama admitted late last month after a near-terror attack on Northwest Flight 253, there is a "systemic failure" in our defense against the jihadi terrorists.
In my analysis, it has to do with the refusal by our leaders -- based on the opinion of their own experts -- to attack the factory that produces terrorists and instead to wait passively until the jihadists show up at our country's ports of entries.
We have been fighting this war inside our own trenches and often behind our own lines of defense. Preventing Al Qaeda’s zombies from killing our airline pilots and flight attendants by securing cabin doors with steel and installing machines to detect liquid, creams and potential explosives is like fighhting an invading army inside our own trenches and neighborhoods with bayonets. If anything, it means that our strategists have no way to remotely detect this threat and they can't even decide what is and isn't a threat until it actually strikes us or is a few inches from us. It is a pretty ironic situation when the grand narrative of our government is that we are fighting terrorists or extremists (pick your word, it has the same conclusion) in Waziristan, Afghanistan, and beyond, so that our defense perimeters are thousands of miles away.
So are we wrong to institute any of the security measures? No, we need to take all possible measures to secure the population, but we also need to take them in the framework of a grand strategy to defeat the threat. And in this regard we do not have one. The jihadists are monitoring our actions, our measures and I do assume also are comfortably spying on us and looking into the deepest of our security mechanisms. [See Editor's Note at the end of this column.] The enemy knows our defense strategy, and some would argue that they are already inside our walls. As we’re learning -- constantly and dramatically -- the so-called “isolated extremists” are not that isolated and those believed to be "lone wolves" are in fact part of a much greater, well-camouflaged packs. The jihadists are way ahead of our security measures -- even though we need to apply them nevertheless.
In the wake of the Abdulmutalib terror act the Obama administration announced that any travellers flying into the United States from foreign countries will receive tightened random screening, and all passengers from "terrorism-prone countries" will be patted down and have their carry-on baggage searched before boarding U.S.-bound flights. The list includes Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria as well as those travelling from Nigeria, Pakistan and Yemen. But here is the problem: In the jihadi war room, this was duly noted. Thus, the next human missiles will be selected from the “other” countries, and there are many countries where combat Salafis are indoctrinated and readied: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Indonesia to name a few, by the way all U.S. allies. Even better, the jihadi strategists could task recruits with German, British, French as well as Australian and Canadian passports to wreck havoc in our cities. The past year has shown us that the jihadis can also emerge from North Carolina, Illinois, New York and other states all across the land. Most likely the “emirs” of Al Qaeda will recommend dumping the use of powder to blow up planes, and soon another Zawahiri tape will rail at us for spending millions on a path they won’t use for a while.
As we move to implement our mammoth security measures, the swift men of jihadism are already mapping out the endlessly open areas of our underbellies. In strategic terms we’re not going even going anywhere near that direction, it is a dead end. The Al Qaeda jihadists will keep coming, each time from a different direction, background, with a new tactic. And they will surprise us. Unfortunately, that is the price of a national security policy that identifies terrorism as a “manmade disaster” and jihadism as form of yoga.
Dr Walid Phares is the Director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the author of The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad
APRIL 13, 2010: Editor's Note: At the request of the author, the following line has been removed from this op-ed: "After the Nada Prouty and Nidal Hasan penetration cases no one can convince me that neither Hezbollah nor Al Qaeda haven’t deployed more agents throughout our national security apparatus."