This commentary appeared in Los Angeles Times on November 2, 2003.
WASHINGTON — "It is no secret that warding off the American enemy is
the top duty after faith and that nothing should take priority over it," said
the terrorist leader. "Crusader military forces" of the United States and Britain,
he warned, had established a beachhead in the Muslim world to impose a new imperialism
on the Middle East and gain control of the region's oil.
The words of an Iraqi resistance leader? No. The words of Osama bin Laden in
his "Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two
Holy Places" in 1996.
The American beachhead Bin Laden was referring to was Saudi Arabia, but his
followers, active supporters and sympathizers today view his words as prophetic
of the U.S.-led invasion and conquest of Iraq. We don't know the identities
of the terrorists behind the recent wave of attacks in Iraq, but they appear
to have a variety of backgrounds - Hussein loyalists, Iraqis seeking to empower
various factions, Al Qaeda terrorists and other anti-American forces. But we
do know their fundamental metric of success is their ability to attack and terrorize,
and that the media can bring news of a terrorist attack to billions of people
within a few hours. Terrorists crave the regenerative power of a single, new,
dramatic attack that can put them in the spotlight.
In this respect, governments are inevitably only as good as their last failure.
No matter how many attacks they prevent, no matter how many people are not killed
daily by terrorists, what's remembered is the relatively small number of terrorist
attacks that succeed.
There's no question that the United States and other governments have made
significant progress in the war against global terrorism in recent months. Our
airports and planes are far better protected. Government buildings are surrounded
by new barriers and other security measures. Many terrorists are in prison cells
or in graves as a result of counter-terrorism work by the United States and
its allies. But all that's needed is one new, successful attack.
At the end of World War II, the once-mighty armies of Germany and Japan were
broken and simply stopped fighting. But despite the crushing defeat in Afghanistan
of Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies, terrorist incidents linked to Al Qaeda occurred
in the last two years in places as diverse as Tunisia, Pakistan, Jordan, Indonesia,
Kuwait, the Philippines, Yemen, Kenya and now possibly Iraq. The terrorist organization
has continued to use suicide bombers—at sea and on land. And commercial
aviation has remained a significant Al Qaeda target, as July's warning from
the Transportation Security Administration showed.
The war against terrorism thus appears to be in a transitional state. Our counter-terrorism
measures are becoming stronger. Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are scrambling
to adapt to new, less-congenial operational environments. During this period,
we are likely to see increased recruitment of second- and third-generation European
Recruitment efforts are already targeting Muslim youth living in the Netherlands
who were previously assumed to be thoroughly assimilated. Al Qaeda operatives
will seek to embed themselves in, and draw new sources of support from, established
overseas communities. Such recruits don't usually come under the scrutiny of
local or national law enforcement.
Al Qaeda's main challenge is to promote and ensure its durability as an ideology
and concept. It can do this only by staying in the news, by elbowing aside potential
terrorist competitors and by launching new attacks that reinforce its relevance
to the Muslim world. Violence will continue to be key to these objectives.
In the post-9/11 environment, terrorism's power—to coerce and intimidate,
to force changes in social behavior and to influence U.S. policies and spending—has
increased enormously. The stakes, accordingly, have grown, as have public fear
More and more, the measure of success in the war on terrorism is defined as
the ability of intelligence agencies and law enforcement organizations to prevent,
preempt or deter attacks. Conversely, the standard of success for the terrorists
has become simply the ability to spread death, destruction and fear. Unfortunately,
it's a lot easier to attack a single target than to defend an infinite number
of potential targets.
Although there is a world of difference between bombing a hotel in Jakarta
and attacking the Pentagon and laying the World Trade Center to waste, the impact
the terrorists seek is not necessarily dissimilar. Al Qaeda's power—and
the appeal of its idea of radical jihad—in the world stems from the extraordinary
success of its murderous 9/11 attacks.
All this points to a long, long struggle ahead in the war against terrorism.
There will be far more victories than defeats, but no matter how successful
we are, someone, somewhere, is probably plotting the next attack.
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