- The Washington Times - Monday, January 11, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Obama administration is currently embroiled in a public relations and policy vortex that threatens to consume an increasingly larger proportion of the shrinking agenda of the president and Congress if some swift actions are not taken.

Well after the holidays have ended, the White House continues to flak questions over whether the president had too much on his plate to anticipate and halt the twisted plots of terrorists. As legendary scribe Helen Thomas put it Tuesday, the president “blew it” when it came to preventing Nigerian-born terror suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding a plane bound for America’s heartland.

The sad commentary is none of this matters. The “systemic failures” this president is setting out to correct will yield no lasting impact unless and until the administration addresses an extremely dangerous and often visible enemy in our midst.

According to one CIA analyst I spoke with last week, al Qaeda sleeper cells are embedded in most U.S. cities with sizable Islamic communities. “Why do you think 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta traveled to Maine the night before the attacks?” asked the analyst. The obvious answer, he explained, was that Atta was meeting with a “handler” to receive final instructions. There is no doubt, explained the analyst, that thousands of al Qaeda sleeper agents, including conspirators involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, remain in the country.

These covert networks are ticking time bombs that wield the capacity and hatred to carry out acts worse than 9/11. What’s shocking, explained the analyst, is not the existence of this widespread covert network, but that law enforcement has largely been neutered in its response. According to the analyst, “the Agency” knows where most terrorist cells are located in the United States. But their hands are tied until the cells actually “go hot,” or move into action.

Obviously, this is not the most effective way to combat terrorism. The most effective way to prevent another 9/11 style attack is to root it out before it even starts. That means taking advantage of the modern intelligence we have and abducting members of domestic terrorist cells before — not after — they “go hot.”

The Christmas Day attempt by Mr. Abdulmutallab to detonate a bomb aboard a crowded Northwest Airlines flight should serve as a stark reminder of the threat presented by these cells. Though the New York Times is reporting that Mr. Abdulmutallab acted alone, the evidence suggests the opposite. Mr. Abdulmutallab studied in London, trained at Yemeni camps and departed from Holland to America. The obvious implication is that terrorist cells are interconnected.

It is equally clear that al Qaeda’s desire to deliver mass murder to America has not weakened in the nine years since Osama bin Laden declared the Sept. 11 attacks a “glorious success” and called for a “thousand more operations like these.” Since then, there have been at least 29 foiled terror plots against the United States.

According to ABC News, Mr. Abdulmutallab told interrogators that he was one of many bombers being groomed by al Qaeda to blow up American-bound aircraft. Get it?

The terrorists intend to destroy us. They will strike again. They have told us so. A teetering Pakistan only increases the possibility that the next attack will involve weapons of mass destruction, including radiological dispersion devices.

Unfortunately, attempts to prevent al Qaeda from constituting within our own borders are being hampered by the Obama administration’s apparent uncertainty about how to treat sleeper cells. The Geneva Conventions, which govern the treatment of enemy combatants, simply do not contemplate non-state members of sleeper cells.

If the decision to hold criminal trials for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other 9/11 masterminds is any indication, this administration is unwilling to take swift remedial action. President Obama’s desire to be liked by the international community has led him to risk American lives on the gamble that he can secure criminal convictions against the 9/11 masterminds.

But what if there is a mistrial? Or classified documents are leaked? Or we are legally unable to detain them? More generally, it seems that the administration’s misguided insistence on criminal trials signals an ideological unwillingness to employ counterterrorism tools proactively.

This is a terrible mistake and it betrays a dangerous ignorance of how our enemies operate. In Afghanistan, not only are rapists and murderers punished, but the next three generations of their family are treated as criminals. There is a bloodlust that runs through their society that will not be cured by Mr. Obama’s public policy overtures.

Following the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda brazenly declared its goal of building an Islamic empire capable of wiping the “infidels” off the face of the planet. There will be another terrorist attack. This is certain. The ability of our law enforcement authorities to mitigate the damage turns in large part on our ability to infiltrate terrorist cells and to undermine their operational infrastructure. A good place to start would be with those cells that we know to be operating within our own borders.

Where such cells exist, they must be shattered — preemptively. I understand the importance of due process. But we can find common ground on this point and still do the right thing. We are at war. And no war has ever been resolved by saying we’re not going to be better than the enemy.

So, to the president, I offer this modest proposal: Take full advantage of our modern intelligence to wipe out terrorist cells before — not after — they spring into action.

On Christmas, we were lucky. The only thing that prevented Mr. Abdulmutallab from blowing up a crowded plane was a faulty fuse and vigilant passengers. Next time — and there will be a next time — we may not be so lucky.

• “The Armstrong Williams Show” is broadcast on XM Satellite’s Power 169 channel from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. weeknights.

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