(Paul Cruickshank is a Fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security).
I agree with Matt Levitt and others that tackling the threat of Al Qaeda terrorism should remain a top-tier national security priority. In the coming decades more significant challenges will no doubt emerge, most important of which will be managing the rise of China. And in the nearer term the Iran nuclear standoff will continue to loom large.
But Al Qaeda, impossible to deter like Iran, should still top the next President’s national security briefings. As others have pointed out, Al Qaeda has regenerated its ability to attack the United States from its training camps in Pakistan. There was no greater demonstration of this than a plot thwarted here in London in August 2006 to bring down up to seven commercial airliners en route to North America. The trial, which I’ve been attending, has revealed that the alleged plotters were trained in Pakistan in how to make explosive devices, and had assembled all the materials necessary to manufacture bombs that would have been undetectable by airport security.
British officials believe the plan may have been to explode the planes over American cities. Seven ‘Lockerbie’ type events over New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, Chicago and other densely populated North American metropolises would likely have produced a death toll larger than 9/11. If the plot had been successful, one can only imagine the impact it would have had on the global aviation industry, the U.S. economy, and the international financial system.
Unfortunately as long as Al Qaeda is able to train recruits with relative impunity in north-western Pakistan, it will remain a strategic threat to the United States.
New airport security regulations have made launching an attack on airliners more difficult, but there are still a range of attack scenarios that could cause significant damage the United States. While it is extremely unlikely that Al Qaeda could get hold of a nuclear weapon, it may more realistically be able to deploy a radiological device (or ‘dirty bomb’) in a U.S. city. Although such a device (essentially conventional explosives packed with radioactive materials) would cause less fatalities than sometimes speculated – with the danger to public health limited to about a city block -it could create tremendous public fear.
The next U.S administration should not, therefore, downgrade tackling the Al Qaeda terrorist threat as a national security priority. But resources should certainly be better allocated. Money spent on improving intelligence and law enforcement capabilities delivers much greater security gains per dollar than money lavished on border security fences or expensive scanners to screen container shipments for radioactive devices. That is not to say that resources should not be allocated to such defenses but given the dozens of ways Al Qaeda could get round them, the United States should steer clear of a Maginot mentality. As the title of a new book by former NYPD Counter-terrorism Commissioner Michael Sheehan makes clear, the priority should always be to ‘Crush the Cell.’
Will Al Qaeda’s still be the top national security priority in a decade? Much will depend on whether the Pakistani government wakes up to the threat posed by Al Qaeda in the tribal areas of the country. But there are some grounds for believing that Al Qaeda will be a lesser force in ten years. As Peter Bergen and I reported recently in The New Republic, there is an emerging backlash against Al Qaeda in Muslim countries, a function of it killing so many Muslims in recent years and so nakedly targeting western civilians.
A pattern has emerged, most visibly in Iraq but also now in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, that when Al Qaeda’s brand of violence comes to people’s doorsteps, sympathy for the terrorists dramatically decreases. Furthermore, leading Jihadists, with clout amongst Al Qaeda’s target audience of radical-leaning youngsters, have started to publicly articulate the differences between ‘legitimate’ Jihad and Al Qaeda’s campaign of terrorism.
The fact that Al Qaeda may be starting to self-implode has, I think, some implications for the second discussion prompt on the degree to which the U.S. military should be employed in combating terrorism. While given the current local dynamics, there are strong arguments for boosting U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, and maintaining a residual number of troops in Iraq, there should be strong restraint in deploying the military in other arenas. The last thing the United States should grant Al Qaeda, when it is facing so much criticism from within the Jihadist movement, is another ’cause celebre.’ Without the recruiting boost provided by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Al Qaeda, an organization on the ropes in 2002, would have been significantly less of a threat than it is today.
— Paul Cruickshank
This week long terrorism salon will continue to be hosted by The Washington Note and UN Dispatch.