- The Washington Times - Friday, June 21, 2002

Lawyers and civil libertarians have killed billions of electrons on the talk shows of late trying to figure out what to do with Jose Padilla, aka Abdullah al Muhajir, a.k.a. the "dirty bomber." My recommendation is to keep him locked up for self-protection. If the good citizens of the United States don't take it upon themselves to lynch him, he's liable to kill himself out of sheer stupidity. We have here a guy whose short-lived and exceedingly unsuccessful life of crime was undermined by chronic laziness and inattention to detail. He reportedly often foiled his own attempts to adopt an alias by putting his actual home address on his new identification. This is no Pretty Boy Floyd.
Mr. Padilla's attempt at a high- profile al Qaeda reconnaissance mission was cut mercifully short when he was arrested on the tarmac immediately upon arriving in the United States. In short, Mr. Padilla is the Brutus Thornapple of terrorists; he is the proverbial "born loser" or perhaps the Beetle Bailey of international terrorism. That doesn't mean he deserves our sympathy. If anything close to what is being said about him is true, he is a traitor and a potential mass murderer, albeit an incompetent one.
One has to wonder then, what has become of the vaunted al Qaeda professionalism and competence in planning terrorist operations when they are reduced to sending in an obvious fourth-stringer to be the advance man for a planned attack by a weapon of mass destruction? One answer put forward is that he is a "throw away" designed to put U.S. law-enforcement officials off the track or to lull us into a false sense of security. Maybe, but I doubt it. With his English and Spanish language skills and knowledge of this country, Padilla was potentially too valuable an asset to waste, and al Qaeda is not generally recognized as a wasteful organization. Up until September 11, they would not even buy a round-trip ticket for their suicide bombers. We need to remember that the original World Trade Center bombers got busted when one of them tried to get back the deposit on the rental truck they used in the bombing. Mr. Padilla should have had adult supervision, but where was the adult?
There is a distinct possibility that this may have been the best the al Qaeda could do after the devastation of Afghanistan and world-wide attacks on their personnel and financial infrastructure. We can hope that, but we can't afford to count on it.
The problem with fighting organizations like al Qaeda, drug cartels and even the Viet Cong is that we lack measures of effectiveness. Not knowing how big the organization is, or exactly what resources it had to begin with, it is difficult to assess whether the capture or death of 100 members is a crushing blow or a pin-prick. The compartmentalized nature of these organizations makes it hard to assess the true nature of the damage, because most low- and mid-ranking members don't have any idea of the organization's scope and scale. Even the capture of their operations officer may not be truly revealing. No one is better positioned to feed us disinformation than he.
The battle with the Viet Cong is a good example. Since we never knew the true size of the organization or its table of organization, we did not know that by 1968 we had actually devastated it as an effective military and political force. When the North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive in the winter of 1968 many of their regular units disguised themselves as Viet Cong. This led to the myth, believed by such luminaries as then presidential adviser Walt Rostow, that the Viet Cong were Phoenix warriors who could rise from the ashes. This led to the myth that there was "no light at the end of the tunnel," and that the war could not be won. Once the leadership believed it, the rest of the nation followed.
The dilemma that the al Qaeda face, with their emphasis on martyrdom, is similar to that which the Japanese created for themselves in World War II with their pilots and front line soldiers. Early in the war, the Japanese made a decision to keep their best warriors in the field indefinitely, while the Americans opted to rotate theirs periodically back home to share their skills with new trainees. Eventually, attrition took the best of the Japanese warriors, while the Americans refilled their coffers with well-trained rookies and returning veterans. The Americans, on the other hand, achieved qualitative and numerical superiority. Mohammed Atta was a bad man; but he was also smart, fanatical, and effective. There aren't many Attas, and we can only hope that al Qaeda has expended the best of them. It's easier to fight Beetle Bailey than Gen. Patton.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine colonel with the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

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