The View from Ground Zero: Is America Safer?


Sep 12, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune on September 12, 2004.

In the three years since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has made great progress in dispersing al-Qaeda on the ground and in dismantling the organization worldwide. The al-Qaeda of Sept. 11, 2001, no longer exists.

The United States also has invested heavily in homeland security although here it is harder to measure the return. We can say only that since 9/11 there have been no further attacks on U.S. soil, even though recent alerts and publicly expressed fears about a major terrorist attack belie any expression of relief.

But while we have battered al-Qaeda, we have not dented its determination. Al-Qaeda has mutated into something very different, but still very dangerous.

Future military historians may see the most significant achievement in the campaign against terrorism as the invasion of Afghanistan, removal of the Taliban and elimination of al-Qaeda's training camps. This fundamentally altered the dynamics of the growing jihadist network.

The existence of these camps facilitated jihadist recruiting and operations worldwide. To think of them solely in terms of training the soldiers of jihad misses their importance in growing an organization. The camps provided volunteers with an accessible destination where they were subjected to further indoctrination, their commitment tested and lasting relationships formed. Al-Qaeda still relies heavily on these now dispersed Afghan veterans.

Toppling the Taliban not only removed the camps, but acted as a warning to other states that might contemplate offering asylum to al-Qaeda. There would be a terrible price to pay.

There are still other badlands where jihadists hide out and train: Waziristan, the southern Philippines, the Caucasus, remote reaches of Yemen, possibly Iran, Somalia, eastern Sudan and the Western Sahara. But these are dispersed, harder to reach, and absent a complaisant local or nearby government to facilitate travel, require a more dangerous journey. Actual training also may be conducted in many areas around the world in nearby woods or mountains or basements. But without a central facility, efficiency has been lost.

The elimination of an accessible center also has changed the dynamics of recruiting. Joining jihad today can no longer begin as an innocent quest for spiritual fulfillment, a romanticist adventure, an interim step before deciding to commit further, from which many turned back. With no Afghanistan, becoming a jihadist warrior now requires a serious initial commitment.

Although recruiting remains a multiple-step process from diligent attendance at sermons to paint ball battle weekends, to longer and more serious commitments, signing up for jihad now means moving more quickly clandestinely – the category of the hunted, a higher threshold to cross. We may begin to discern differences between pre 9/11 and post 9/11 recruits, with the latter scoring higher in their attraction and commitment to violence, but less prepared and disciplined – thugs replacing brains.

Some believe that jihadists will locate their new training camps in cyberspace. We already have seen a proliferation of jihadist Web sites and on-line training manuals. More computer literate young men will be exposed to jihadist propaganda and recruiting themes, such as terrorist Web casts of assaults and beheadings, and basic training in terrorist tactics. However, whether this virtual indoctrination and instruction can replace the bonding that comes with danger and physical hardship, create relationships of trust, and substitute for face-to-face assessment and recruiting for complex terrorist operations remains to be seen.

The loss of Afghanistan and the pursuit of al-Qaeda has undermined the organization's central role. The jihadist enterprise, always a loose alliance connected through al-Qaeda cadres, has decentralized with local groups and operatives pursuing operations. The center continues to communicate and exhort, but its operational role has been greatly reduced.

This is good news so long as local capabilities can be kept well below 9/11 levels, but it creates new challenges for diplomacy, intelligence and homeland security. Maintaining momentum and international cooperation against an increasingly disparate foe will be difficult. Many little al-Qaeda's will be harder to track than one central al-Qaeda.

And looking at al-Qaeda organizationally may miss the continued radicalization of the jihadists. Al-Qaeda may metastasize into a much more pervasive and persistent global anti-American Intifada that makes it increasingly difficult for Americans to operate in the world.

Although apparently a favorite of public officials, the least important measure of progress in the war on terrorism is the number of terrorists detained or arrested worldwide. Like body counts in Vietnam, it is an inflated figure and even more meaningless than it was in Southeast Asia. Very few of those detained would pass muster even as foot soldiers of jihad. Many are guilty of little more than bad company and poor luck. Few will ever be formally charged, and even fewer convicted.

Some truly innocent are detained and their reputations suffer, while some truly guilty may be released, for want of courtroom-quality evidence or for other reasons. Hopefully, they can no longer be trusted by former comrades who must wonder if they are still under surveillance or have switched sides. The reality is that sweeps do disrupt terrorist enterprises.

Of far greater relevance are the deaths or arrests of key operational planners. This is talent not easily replaced. We have made progress here, though limited. The repeated claim that three-quarters of the top terrorist leaders have been killed or captured reflects an accumulation in the killed or captured column, but no calculation of replacements or the unknown number of those still at large and not yet identified. Nonetheless, the relentless pursuit of terrorist kingpins has paid off in further degrading their operational capabilities, providing intelligence, and forcing those still on the run to be even more circumspect and less effective.

The number of jihadists still at large is another unreliable indicator. Estimates are extraordinarily imprecise, ranging from 800 to 18,000. The right answer is, they have enough to continue operations and will have for a long time to come. It is not a finite number from which we can subtract those killed or captured. Rather, it is a dynamic population fueled by new recruits.

Recruiting for jihad continues, not simply to serve operational needs, but as an end in itself. Al-Qaeda's brand of jihad is not just about punishing infidels; it is about building an army of believers. Terrorist operations themselves are above all recruiting posters – demonstrations of prowess and power, inspirational, instructive, offering a response to aggression and humiliation by the West, and an antidote to the corrupting influences of pervasive Western culture.

It is an appealing message that continues to attract recruits worldwide. Thus far, our efforts understandably have focused on preventing further attacks by destroying the jihadists' operational capabilities, and there we have had success. But if we ultimately are to prevail in the ideological contest, we must more effectively enter that theater of combat. We can slow recruiting by long-term efforts to infiltrate these groups. It will take many years to develop sources inside, and we may never reach the inner circles that direct the enterprise. But in the meantime, terrorist recruiters must be encouraged to see every eager acolyte as potential plant.

Increased intelligence has made the operational environment more dangerous for our terrorist foes. Local recruiters and scouts sent in to case targets know that we are watching more closely. We hear some reports of complaints that it is difficult to assemble reliable people.

Public and private statements by government officials underscore concerns about a continuing terrorist threat, especially between now and the elections. Our operative presumption must be that the jihadists remain determined to attack U.S. targets.

We also must concede that the United States, despite increased security, remains vulnerable. In Russia, we have seen terrorist attacks at apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, subways, passenger trains, busy streets, shopping malls, a rock concert, a theater. In Israel, terrorists have carried out suicide bombings on buses, at restaurants, shopping malls, and hotels; in Madrid, on commuter trains. The reality is that these are vulnerable targets in the United States as well.

Why the jihadists have not carried out terrorist attacks in the United States, we simply don't know. Perhaps intelligence and security are deterring terrorists, even though there are vulnerable targets. Al-Qaeda may no longer be able to mobilize and infiltrate a terrorist team; it may see doing anything less than 9/11 as a sign of weakness. Or it may be operating on a different time scale, waiting until we are inattentive. Local jihadists may be insufficiently motivated, lack resources or be constrained by local community pressure. Or perhaps they are deliberately discouraged from carrying out attacks, instead told to prepare and wait.

We are engaged in what military analysts call asymmetric warfare. Lacking the conventional means to defeat us militarily, our jihadist foes use different tactics and weapons that do not intersect with our own. But the thinking of the two sides is also asymmetric.

For Americans, war is a finite undertaking. Our strategic thinking is linear; sequential. We are concerned about progress. Our jihadist foes see warfare as a perpetual condition comprising isolated engagements, not campaigns. It is process, not progress-oriented. In their terms, they will lie in wait, attack us when we are inattentive, beleaguer us and make our lives untenable.

For the jihadists, fighting itself is a religious obligation. Their strength derives from their convictions, not their weapons, while they see us as soulless and spineless. Battle to them is an opportunity to demonstrate courage and sacrifice. Heroism is more important than outcome. The benefits are individual and internal.

America's invasion of Iraq is proof in the eyes of the jihadists that God is on their side. They believe the war in Iraq has split the infidels and provoked Muslims everywhere. And they believe Americans in Iraq will meet the disastrous fate of the Soviet Army in Afghanistan and be forced to withdraw in disgrace and defeat. That – in the view of the jihadists – will create chaos and lead to the installation of new jihadist governments in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Muslim world. They also may believe that jihadist beliefs could ultimately transcend Islam and become a pervasive anti-American ideology.

Aggressive fantasy, perhaps, but all the same, it is a harrowing view that suggests the struggle will continue for a very long time.

Jenkins is a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

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