Let’s not learn the wrong lessons from the gang of terrorists in Great Britain who could not shoot straight. It’s tempting to equate their failure with a diminished capacity for terrorists attacking the United States. That’s just what the terrorists want us to do. The botched events in London and Glasgow point to the growing dangers of the al Qaeda ideology. The threat is much more complex and sophisticated than it was on September 11.
We should take no comfort in incompetent terrorists. Not all of them will be incompetent. What we should be concerned about is a growing number of disaffected people, influenced by the al Qaeda ideology, who are beginning to adopt martyrdom as an accepted tactic of expression. For them, a democratic society’s outlets for dissent are not enough. In fact, they discount the validity of democratic government entirely, believing that only God, not man, should rule on earth. True, this growing number of jihadists who turn to violence is small. They represent a tiny, tiny percentage of Muslims who mostly reject al Qaeda’s violent approach.
But it doesn’t take many to bring chaos to free societies. And that’s just what the surviving leadership of al Qaeda foresees: attacks that bleed the West both economically and culturally. We have seen their modus operandi. They hit economic targets, hoping in this just-in-time economy to get lucky and disrupt our way of life. And they seek to spread fear, hoping to turn us inward and against each other. Whether the British doctor-terrorists are al Qaeda operatives or wannabes makes no difference. They and all the other self-selected violent jihadists are part of a growing threat that has calculated the destruction of what we hold most dear a safe, prosperous society for ourselves and our families.
These self-styled Mohammad Attas are buying time and diverting our attention while al Qaeda regroups and regains capability to deliver a post-September 11 blow. While this occurs, academics are increasingly spreading the word that the threat to the United States is overblown. At the same time, U.S. policy emphasizes military approaches to fighting terrorists. What we need is a more balanced approach that also brings our political and diplomatic skills to the task so we can influence “hearts and minds” and reduce al Qaeda’s recruiting pool.
The Department of Homeland Security seems more concerned with passing immigration legislation and not repeating the response to Hurricane Katrina. While this occurs, the terrorist threat, the reason the department was established in the first place, continues to build. Almost six years after the attacks of September 11, we still have no national terrorism prevention doctrine. Programs continue to be episodic and not based on a plan for prevention. State and local government homeland-security budgets continue to be cut, while daily priorities take precedence.
The recent attempted attacks in Britain should be a wake-up call. Those events represent a major intelligence failure. It was only the quick thinking of first responders and the ineptitude of the terrorists that prevented an attack. That is not prevention. It is just luck.
Mike Walker was acting secretary of the Army and deputy director of FEMA in the Clinton Administration. He is chairman of Plexus Scientific Corporation.