The Real Risks
Prison breaks, the embassy shut down, and an al Qaeda comeback all reveal one thing: we're still handling the terror threat wrong.
With each passing day, it becomes even clearer that despite what appears to be a very serious current terrorist threat, the greatest risks facing America come from our own misplaced priorities and mistaken assumptions.
As recently as late last week, I spoke with a very senior administration official — one of the White House’s best and brightest — who forcefully described the significance of America’s successful destruction of "core" al Qaeda. White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated this point in comments to the press on Monday. But two errors in that assessment have now become abundantly apparent. The first is obvious given that the current alert is reportedly due in part to communications between a still-active core al Qaeda led by Ayman al-Zawahiri and lieutenants in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The second and perhaps more important revelation is the enduring notion that al Qaeda could effectively be defeated (or the risks associated with it could be contained) by targeting its so-called core.
A large part of the threat associated with al Qaeda has to do with the fact that it is not a traditional hierarchic organization, operating with a structure that allows it to recover from even heavy blows, move to new locations, as well as reform and resume operations. Further, of course, as we see the by-product of the upheaval throughout the Arab world (in particular in places like Syria), extremists come in many forms with many allegiances, so targeting any one organization doesn’t necessarily reduce the threat. On top of which, the spread of weak regimes and chaos in the region actually accelerates the recruitment of new fighters, the development of new organizations (such as al-Nusra in Syria), and a diffusion of risks that makes managing them even tougher.
The confluence of these last two factors is well illustrated by the fact that the alleged Zawahiri communication was with al Qaeda’s new "No. 2" — its leader in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasser al-Wuhayshi. Formerly Osama bin Laden’s personal secretary, Wuhayshi was imprisoned but escaped and moved to Yemen, one of the region’s weakest states. He has since taken the reins of a steadily strengthening local operation with global aspirations. (Ibrahim al-Asiri, the 31-year-old Saudi master bomb maker who was behind recent plots like the underwear bombing and printer cartridge explosive device is reportedly also in Yemen and part of AQAP.)
Wuhayshi’s escape from prison also happens to underscore yet another of our misplaced priorities. While America has engaged in an overly politicized and overly loud debate over the tragedy of last September 11 in Benghazi, there has been precious little discussion over a much more worrisome set of failures: the series of prison breaks at facilities housing dangerous extremists. This list most recently includes Abu Ghraib, a prison in Pakistan, and one outside of Benghazi. As a result of just these last three breaks, reports say nearly 2,000 extremists have been freed.
Where is the investigation into how this pattern of prison breaks was allowed to unfold, why it wasn’t flagged earlier as a serious risk, and why there wasn’t tighter security? Indeed, it could well be that while we have understandably focused on security errors at the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, lapses of greater consequence subsequently occurred.
Another set of misplaced priorities has been associated with the intelligence that led to the current alert. As noted in Shane Harris’s recent FP piece, it is clear that the Edward Snowden revelations that produced such a firestorm in Washington did not eviscerate our ability to use intelligence to intercept terror plots. But the administration’s decision to leak that intercepts were behind the current embassy shut-down alert also put U.S. sources and methods at risk. Though the decision to reveal the nature of the information undoubtedly was made after careful consideration, it underscores the inherent nature of the cat-and-mouse game that we and these extremists play — communications and intercept techniques constantly shift and evolve.
Of course, the greatest misplaced priority associated with our intelligence program is the notion that stopping terrorists is worth undercutting the basic privacy rights of U.S. citizens and our allies. Terror threats are limited, fleeting, and literally impossible to fully contain — all reasons that should have never been allowed to undercut those other, enduring principles. It is important we are able to see and acknowledge this point, even when a current threat is looming.
However, many in Washington are already trying to use this asserted threat to justify the intelligence programs exposed by Snowden, as well as our other over-reactions to terrorism. Were there to be another attack, they would surely do likewise. There is a pattern here that we need to view dispassionately rather than with fear. The Patriot Act was an over-reaction. Building up the NSA surveillance programs was an over-reaction. And, it must be said, shutting down scores of U.S. diplomatic facilities is an over-reaction. We must protect our diplomats. But we also must avoid appearing to be cowed by terrorists (or those who would engage in political sniping back at home). And, of course, there are other choices than the wholesale closing of a massive cross-section of America’s diplomatic capacity across the Islamic world.
Other countries, other embassies, and other facilities are at constant risk of attack. Yet they choose to remain open. They harden defenses. They restructure facilities. They take lower-key precautions. And they make these choices to avoid producing panic and also because shutting down scores of facilities only makes other facilities the target.
This brings us to the ultimate mistaken assumption — that it is actually possible to win a war on terror. We can suffer defeats, to be sure. These come when we pursue the wrong targets, employ the wrong tactics, and fail to assess risks wisely. Indeed, we can lose such a war if we let terrorists set our policies, drain our resources, and mesmerize us with a shadow game that never ends, one that offers only illusory victories and leaves us distracted from our real needs and priorities, and the many greater threats we face.
No, the only way to avoid losing such a war is to avoid framing it as such. We must protect ourselves — but against not just the terrorists but ourselves and our terror. Cool perspective is more effective than all the drones, special ops, and surveillance programs we can muster. That is not to say we shouldn’t be on guard or that we shouldn’t strike hard against demonstrated threats and those who have conducted past attacks. We must. But we also need to get a grip — to understand what elements of this we need to be prepared to deal with on a continuing basis, to prepare accordingly, and to focus on the real risks rather than simply those that cause the biggest hue and cry among the hysterics on Capitol Hill and in the American media.