December 12, 2004 | Quote

Three Years and Counting

The U.S. Has Not suffered a Major Attack Since September 2001. Why?

The September 11 attacks still reverberate profoundly. Of that, there is no better indication than George W. Bush’s decisive reelection. For all the trendy talk about “values voters,” the campaign was run principally on national-security issues, and the president won a surprisingly large majority. The nation was convinced that he had a superior handle on how to keep us safe.

And there's a reason for that conviction: In the three years since 9/11 and the still-unsolved anthrax scare that followed hard on it, the U.S. has not suffered a domestic terrorist attack. One might ask: Is that truly attributable to President Bush's stewardship? After all, we are continually told that Islamist militants are gifted with preternatural reservoirs of patience; could it not be that we are simply in another cyclical downturn, a calm before the next inevitable storm?

Not a chance. The failure of al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and assorted Wahhabi wannabes to strike us when we have every indication they are desperately trying to is a direct result of the Bush doctrine, announced and implemented in the aftermath of 9/11. The president, the Pentagon, and the Justice Department are to be commended for persevering in it despite a relentless barrage of criticism from the media, civil-liberties extremists, and, regrettably, too many Democrats. Especially salient on this score have been two aspects of the doctrine: a comprehensive strategy that brings to bear all of government's arsenal, and the admonition to state sponsors that they will be considered just as culpable, and will be treated with the same lethality, as the terrorists they abet. Most of all, however, success has been the result of getting serious.

The holistic approach to terrorism has a number of advantages so palpable that the more interesting question is why it took a cataclysm of 9/11 dimensions to get it implemented. Most obviously, our military has killed or captured thousands of militants overseas. Incapacitated terrorists don't commit attacks. This is not a trite observation. First, unlike sovereigns, sub-state terror groups have extremely limited resources. To be sure, lost terrorists can be replaced in numerical terms — and are being replaced owing to prodigious funding streams globally backing madrassas that churn out an alarming number of terrorists-in-waiting. But instantly replacing the deadly competence of experienced hands is impossible. Second, the pantheon of jihadists who have become household names over the last few years — bin Laden, Zarqawi, Zawahiri, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman (the blind sheik), Ramzi Yousef, and others — do not strike once and retire. Motivated by hatred and depravity masquerading as spirituality, they are even more likely to be recidivists than ordinary criminals. Neutralizing them does not prevent just one atrocity — it nullifies many.

On par with targeting the sheer number of terrorists has been addressing their motivation. Prosecution in the criminal-justice system was virtually the exclusive American response to terrorism from the time of the infamous “Black Hawk Down” debacle in Somalia in early 1993 — after which the U.S. became resolutely casualty-averse — through October 2001, when President Bush dispatched the military to crush al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The result? Although the nation was attacked repeatedly in that eight-year interim, fewer than three dozen terrorists were convicted in federal court — and those at a cost of unknown millions. Eliminating such a piddling fraction of a committed enemy at a time when its ranks were swelling into the tens of thousands was a sure prescription to be hit repeatedly. Nothing galvanizes an opposition, nothing spurs its recruiting, like the killer combination of successful attacks and a conceit that the adversary is pusillanimous. For zealots willing to immolate themselves in suicide-bombing and hijacking operations, mere prosecution is a provocatively weak response.

Similarly, appeasement is an invitation to more barbarity. Yet, as Norman Podhoretz detailed in an important essay (“World War IV”) in the September issue of Commentary, it was a consistent element of U.S. counterterrorism policy in the quarter-century before 9/11. Indeed, the Reagan administration's disastrous pullout from Lebanon in 1983 after a barracks bombing by Hezbollah killed nearly 250 Marines is still a standard talking point for bin Laden and other jihadists — who bray to recruits that Americans give in when the body count gets high enough.

President Bush has now bulldozed that image. By making clear that his intention is not merely to contain but to eradicate international terror networks that threaten the U.S.; by indicating that terrorism is essentially a military challenge, as to which law enforcement plays an important but decidedly subordinate role; and by following through with formidable force in Afghanistan and Iraq, he has not merely decimated the enemy's numbers and its capacity to project power. He has also dramatically altered the enemy's perception of America as a nation to be trifled, rather than reckoned, with. Even those who despise us were guaranteed to become more tepid once it was certain that a swift and devastating response would be the price of a strike.

This assurance has had an underappreciated effect on state sponsors. Yes, al-Qaeda is a serious enemy . . . for a terrorist organization. But it is not a nation. It has no navy, it has no air force, and it has (at least we currently believe) neither ballistic missiles capable of striking the U.S. nor the types of payloads that can make such weapons an existential threat. To be a credible enemy, even the most professional terrorist network needs help from sovereign powers. Without such help, mounting an attack — while far from impossible — becomes much more difficult. The U.S., once again, becomes a tough target because of the natural advantages of geography and resources that made us a world power in the 19th century, before the age of air forces, submarines, and ICBMs seemed to make those advantages passe.


It has been popular in the past ten years or so for theorists to wax eloquent about a post-sovereign world in which the major threats come from sub-national entities. But this view dramatically underestimates the key role still played, and advantages still enjoyed, by modern states. Only countries have borders that are protected from attack by international law; have personnel that operate in other countries — even unfriendly countries — under the cover of diplomatic immunity; have the capacity to collect and disseminate sensitive intelligence (among other things) with impunity via diplomatic pouch; have the authority to issue travel documents that facilitate international movement; have the ability to tax people to support their agendas; and have military entities privileged to conduct training and weapons production (and, as we've seen in Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Libya, and elsewhere, able as a practical matter to develop weapons of mass destruction).

At its most potent, al-Qaeda basked in state support. Sudan, Afghanistan, and, later, Iran gave it safe haven for command and control, training, and recruitment; and, as Clinton counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke asserted in the late 1990s, Iraq also offered bin Laden a soft place to land. The war we are currently fighting should have begun after our East African embassies were attacked in August 1998, and certainly no later than the USS Cole bombing in October 2000. But President Clinton declined to apply his considerable skills to unwinding al-Qaeda's sovereign safety net, which included not only its Taliban hosts but their allies in Pakistan (which freely allowed its borders to be crossed for terrorist recruitment and training purposes, and whose intelligence service was compromised in bin Laden's cause). Al-Qaeda enjoyed a steady influx of precious funding that would have been impossible without countenance, if not outright complicity, on the part of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other bastions of Sunni dominance. Bin Laden, moreover, received weapons-development assistance from Iraq, as well as from Iran and Syria through Hezbollah.

None of this was a mystery to U.S. intelligence. Indeed, some of it was publicly charged in indictments filed against various terrorists. The Clinton administration, however, subordinated these concerns to other priorities — the desire to be seen as an honest broker rather than an Israeli ally in the so-called “peace process,” the elevation of challenging Pakistan on nuclear proliferation over cultivating it on counterterrorism, the fear of creating instability and resentment in the Muslim world, etc. The Bush doctrine has changed all that. This doesn't mean the problems the Clinton administration grappled with were not real ones; they clearly were. Now, though, other nations are on notice that the U.S. regards ending state support of terror networks that threaten America as its most urgent policy imperative, and that we are willing to risk setbacks in other areas to promote national security.

The effect has been startling. Nations that once coddled al-Qaeda are now American allies, or at least feel the need to demonstrate concretely that they have ceased to support bin Laden. Without such support, al-Qaeda is a shell of its former self, and the remnants of its upper echelon have to spend their waking hours on how to survive until tomorrow, rather than on scripting tomorrow's attack. The nature of bin Laden's organization has thus undergone a radical change. It is still a threat, but an atomized one. There are cells throughout the world, but the command structure is decimated, and the cells — staffed with less experienced recruits — are not as capable as the halcyon al-Qaeda of the late 1990s.

This development plays strongly to our advantage: Cells operate best when they can blend into the community at large, and it is therefore not surprising that bin Laden's greatest achievements prior to 9/11 occurred in places like Mogadishu, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, and Aden — Islamic cities with pockets of ardent militant sympathizers. Such places do not exist on the same scale inside the U.S. While 9/11 was a spectacular terrorist success, it has not altered the reality that it is not an easy proposition for a guerrilla faction without a navy or air force to attack American territory. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing took over a year to plan, and the laborious bomb-building (involving numerous meetings, other communications, renting safehouses, purchasing and transporting chemicals, etc.) took months. With law enforcement and public awareness now at unprecedented heights, it is an extreme challenge for militants in a vastly non-Muslim country to go undetected through the exertions required for a major attack.

That could all change if we lost our resolve. We are unlikely to, however, because of three developments. First, under the direction of attorney general John Ashcroft and FBI director Robert Mueller, the Justice Department and FBI have undergone a seismic culture shift. Their philosophy is now prevention first and prosecution second; they are more focused on stopping the next attack than on securing indictments after innocents have been slaughtered.

The other two changes have to do with the good and the bad of the Clinton years. As for the good, President Clinton and his Justice Department deserve enormous credit for revamping anti-terror law in 1996. Prior to that time, the bias in the federal penal code was toward prosecuting completed acts of mass murder. The 1996 legislation significantly modified the law, placing desperately needed emphasis on the preparatory phases — by, among other things, criminalizing the provision of material support to terrorism; geometrically increasing the penalties for conspiracies, attempts, and threats to commit terrorist acts; and making it far easier for the Treasury Department to choke funding channels. To the limited extent the post-9/11 Patriot Act affected these areas, it was merely to refine what was already in place.

Unfortunately, much of the good done on the prosecution side was undermined by the Clinton Justice Department on the investigative side, including, most perilously, the needless heightening of the so-called wall that prevented intelligence agents and criminal investigators from pooling information to — as the numbingly repeated phrase goes — “connect the dots.” While it is very unlikely investigators could have prevented 9/11, with such an impediment in place they never really had a chance.

The Patriot Act's dismantling of the wall is a signal achievement, and the Justice Department rightly credits it with several convictions rung up on conspiracy and material-support charges in the last three years. These prosecutions, necessarily involving nascent plots and ambiguous threats, have occasionally been belittled as overkill in the mainstream press, which bizarrely compares them unfavorably with the sensational terror prosecutions of the 1990s. But, of course, those cases seemed weightier because they usually followed murderous terror attacks. If we are to continue to avoid attack, less flashy enforcement — focusing on preparatory crimes, money laundering, immigration violations, and the like — must be the wave of the future. The prevention-first philosophy also means maintaining other Patriot Act improvements that sensibly gave agents conducting intelligence investigations the same evidence-gathering tools long available to criminal investigators. These tools, many of which — like repeal of the wall — will sunset at the end of 2005 if not extended by Congress, have made it feasible to strangle domestic terror threats in the cradle.

Three-plus years without an attack is not itself insurance against future threats, but neither is it an accident. It is the direct result of a national-security strategy that takes the battle forcibly to the enemy overseas, strenuously discourages other countries from providing terror networks with urgently needed support, and, domestically, makes prevention and diligence paramount over post-attack prosecution. It is a stunning achievement.

– Mr. McCarthy, who led the prosecution of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and a contributor to National Review Online.