Agrowing number of analysts think al Qaeda's core organization, based primarily in Pakistan, is on the verge of strategic defeat, while homegrown terrorists are unable to mount significant attacks here at home. Those analysts also point out that al Qaeda affiliates have failed to launch successful attacks inside the United States.
At the same time, severe economic and fiscal pressures could result in substantial cuts to national defense and homeland security, reducing resources currently provided for preventing future terrorist attacks.
One new approach would place more responsibility on public "resilience" instead of the current policy of prevention. This stems from a growing belief that the threat of future Sept. 11 attacks has been tamed and future plots will be smaller and less lethal. More emphasis would be placed on Americans taking responsibility for their own protection as we "see something; say something." "Resilience" also would require Americans to accept the fact that not every one of those smaller plots will be disrupted. We would be asked to shrug off future Najibullah Zazis, who may kill dozens instead of thousands.
Throughout our history, we have proved to be a resilient nation. But how alert will we be when our national and personal attention is consumed by issues such as jobs and day-to-day economic challenges? And how forgiving will we be if government, which has kept the nation safe for a decade, formally accepts successful low-level attacks as inevitable?
In recent years, al Qaeda affiliates have shifted to a "strategy of a thousand cuts" aiming to wear down America's resolve over time with low-level economic attacks. Perceived complacency in the United States, combined with cuts to federal, state and local security expenditures will, no doubt, embolden terrorist leaders to continue to pursue that strategy.
Some analysts apparently believe we are on the verge of a knockout blow to Salafi jihadist-inspired terrorism. Recent public opinion polls show the vast majority of the world's Muslims continue to reject the terrorists' violent ideology. Al Qaedaism has failed to inspire a mass movement as communism and fascism did. Furthermore, the terrorists' brutal tactics and targeting of fellow Muslims have repelled the very people al Qaeda sought to influence. If you believe news reports, Osama bin Laden understood this and was seeking to "rebrand" the organization.
But terrorist leaders always viewed al Qaeda to be a "vanguard" organization, the forward element of a focused movement. Seen through that lens, the failure we see may not be as clear to the terrorists. Those same polls that show Muslims in large numbers shunning the terrorists also reveal 21 percent of Indonesians and 21 percent of Egyptians having favorable views of al Qaeda. Another 21 percent of Pakistanis expressed confidence in bin Laden just weeks before he was killed. A terrorist leader might look at those numbers and see a potential recruiting base of more than 100 million people in those three countries alone. Of course, very few of those people will ever become terrorist operatives. But the numbers do indicate that the radical narrative continues to resonate with large numbers of disaffected people around the world.
Here in the United States, a recent Pew Poll found 81 percent of American Muslims having unfavorable views of al Qaeda. That same poll revealed, however, that another 5 percent had favorable views and another 14 percent were not sure. In other words, more than 100,000 Americans identify with the narrative of America's sworn enemy, and many others may.
In 2009, the United Kingdom's counterterrorism strategy warned that even if Osama bin Laden were killed and al Qaeda militarily defeated, the ideology and, thus, the threat, would continue. That seems to be where we find ourselves today.
Some appear willing to bet the farm that we will soon root out senior al Qaeda leaders before they are able to regroup and rebuild expeditionary capabilities. They also seem to believe that by ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we will be eliminating the very issues that inflame so many people around the world.
Today, tens of millions more people are attracted to the terrorists' narrative than was the case on Sept. 11. Al Qaeda is not the only lethal Salafi jihadist organization, just the best known. A syndicate of terror thrives, particularly in Pakistan. Perhaps more immediately threatening, individuals and small cells with little or no training but with a perceived grievance against America constitute a disbursed network of terror.
This brand of terrorism teaches patience. It doesn't take many individuals or much training to kill people. Even small attacks can have strategic impacts. So, it will take much more than resilience to deal with dead Americans in shopping malls, schools or sporting events. But that's the direction in which we may be headed because some analysts think we are winning. This is no time for complacency or retrenchment from the priority of prevention.
Mike Walker is a former acting secretary of the Army and deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Clinton administration.
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