- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2003

How should we assess the war on terrorism? This is a legitimate and timely question on the second anniversary of the September 11 attacks. A more appropriate restating of the question would be — are American interests at home and abroad safer today than they were on September 12, 2001? The answer is yes.

The attacks were an expensive and traumatic wake-up call that exposed the vulnerability of our homeland to foreign terrorism, revealed the competitive and uncooperative nature of our federal intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, disclosed our security gaps and divulged the correct dimensions of the threat that al Qaeda posed to the United States.

Those 3,000 Americans killed during those attacks did not die in vain. The attacks energized the administration, Congress, intelligence and law-enforcement agencies and our allies to mitigate this terrorist threat. The record so far speaks for itself. There have been no terrorist attacks in the United States over the past two years, and no attacks on U.S. aircraft at home or abroad. We have witnessed the elimination of two overt terrorist safe havens — Afghanistan and Iraq — the arrest of over 3,000 terrorists and the destruction or incapacitation of over 65 percent of al Qaeda’s leadership.

Another point is that since late 2001, al Qaeda and its supporters have been subjected to constant pressure by U.S. and allied intelligence, military and law-enforcement agencies. This pressure has disrupted the organization’s communications and finances, damaged group morale and increased the operational risks it faces. It has kept al Qaeda off-balance and suspicious. This pressure has so far prevented al Qaeda and its affiliates from conducting a sustained, systematic terrorist campaign against U.S. interests at home or abroad. Moreover, the security awareness and vigilance of many Arab and Muslim states has increased dramatically since September 11. Al Qaeda’s hospitable areas are shrinking.

Simply put, U.S. and allied counterterrorism and anti-terrorism actions are gradually eroding al Qaeda’s operational capability, constricting its operational area and reducing its ability to bounce back after setbacks like the arrests of its leaders and members and the discovery of safehouses and weapons caches.

There is still some unfinished business. Osama bin Laden is apparently still alive. Al Qaeda affiliates maintain a capability to periodically surface and carry out limited attacks against generally soft targets in certain areas of the world, and our occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan has probably triggered a temporary increase in new al Qaeda recruits. This simply highlights the fact that the most realistic outcome in the war on terror is not the total defeat of the enemy but the reduction of the terrorist threat to a more manageable level.

There will doubtless be more attacks like those in Bali, Mombasa, Riyadh, Casablanca, Jakarta and Baghdad. It is important that one put such attacks in a proper perspective. These attacks, which have been sporadic, dispersed and aimed at unprotected targets, demonstrate a reduced operational capability. Such attacks were and are to be expected. They should not be perceived as major setbacks in the war on terrorism, but as bumps along a road that will hopefully lead to a lessened terrorist threat.

I tell my students that the current effort to neutralize al Qaeda is like dealing with an infestation of head lice. There is no single application of a magical shampoo to destroy the infestation. The most effective solution is to methodically examine each strand of hair for nits or lice eggs while searching for adult lice scampering around on the scalp. If you miss one nit, the infestation could return. In addition, you must sanitize all pillows, blankets, towels and clothes, so that the infestation does not spread to others. For those who are metaphor-deficient, the nits represent new al Qaeda recruits, the adult lice are the al Qaeda veterans and the pillows, blankets etc. represent al Qaeda’s ideological message and propaganda apparatus.

The indisputable bottom line is that since September 12, 2001, the United States has progressed in the war on terror. Yet, it is undeniable that more needs to be done, and that past performance is not a guarantee of future success.

Dennis Pluchinsky teaches courses on terrorism at four universities.

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