Monday, August 9, 2004
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Locating the Terrorist Threat
Dan highlighted an article by Dan Byman last week which suggested that we are safer than the current terror warnings might suggest. Terrorist arrests both inside and outside the United States since Byman’s article bolster his claim. The arrests highlight two different types of threats that we face—and raise the specter that we may be undermining our security by treating them the same.
On the one hand, we have the arrest last week of Abu Issa al Hindi and the newly announced arrest of Qari Saifullah Akhtar. [Update: Thanks to reader Skip for pointing out that Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan was a very bad example.] These two exemplify the threat we must counter most urgently. Both men have in common that they are hardened al Qaeda operatives, involved in the logistics and planning of ongoing plots, one or two degrees from Osama bin Laden, and, significantly, were captured outside of the United States. They share these traits with other captured al Qaeda big fish like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al Shibh.
On the other hand, we also saw last week the arrests of two mosque leaders, Mohammed M. Hossain and Yassin M. Aref, in Albany as a result of an FBI sting operation. The two are accused of helping a third man, an FBI informant, launder money supposedly generated by the sale of Stinger missiles. (Some Muslim groups and the men’s attorney are crying foul, claiming that they were victims of entrapment. Indeed, the Stinger sting has become a bit of a pattern and has been used in operations in Newark, San Diego, and Houston. In my view, entrapment is illegitimate because it takes advantage of our baser, but natural impulses to get us to commit a crime—supporting terrorist acts does not qualify as a natural impulse, however.) Leaving that aside, the Albany arrests also fit a pattern: the two men had no obvious terrorist ties and appear to be rather inept operators (trusting a guy who just shows up with a missile and so on). In this respect, they resemble the Portland terror cell (six people who tried to travel to Afghanistan to join the Taliban but got lost in Asia along the way) and the so-called paintball jihadists (who practiced for holy war in Kashmir by playing paintball in Virginia). I have studied the details of more than two dozen prominent terror arrests since 9/11 and we have apparently not broken up anything resembling a 9/11-style cell of al Qaeda operatives.
Bottom line: the most serious threats appear to be people outside the United States, while within the country we face a more amorphous and apparently less severe threat of sympathizers or fellow-travelers with radical Islam. This suggests that with respect to the first threat we should keep doing what we’re doing: securing our borders and carefully screening entry into the United States, as well as working with foreign intelligence services to roll up al Qaeda’s worldwide apparatus.
But with respect to the second threat, we can’t conduct sting operations offering to sell missiles to everyone who might be thinking malign thoughts about the United States. It seems to me that the only hope of policing this is to rely much more on Arab and Muslim communities across the country to identify “bad actors” (to use a Bushism) sitting in their mosques and coffee shops. There have been some attempts at community outreach by federal law enforcement, but I think they are in danger of being smothered by a deeply suspicious and harsh federal attitude toward Muslim-Americans and Muslim immigrants. The median sentence for “terrorism” prosecutions in the two years after 9/11 was an astonishing fourteen days—because most people caught up in the federal dragnet were not terrorists at all. The danger, of course, is that we alienate the very populations whose cooperation we need through ham-handed prosecutions that leave them afraid to talk to the government at all. Walter Russell Mead has a funny line that Europe created an angry, impoverished urban underclass in just 30 years, while it took the U.S. 300 years—and slavery—to do the same. We should not add to that underclass through misguided counterterrorism efforts at home.
"On the one hand, we have the arrests last week of Abu Issa al Hindi and last month of Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan. These two exemplify the threat we must counter most urgently. Both men have in common that they are hardened al Qaeda operatives, involved in the logistics and planning of ongoing plots, one or two degrees from Osama bin Laden, and, significantly, were captured outside of the United States."
It's my understanding that the capture of Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan may have been an enormous blunder -
- and thus probably not a very good example of a "threat".posted by: Skip on 08.09.04 at 03:25 PM [permalink]
Bottom line: the most serious threats appear to be people outside the United States, while within the country we face a more amorphous and apparently less severe threat of sympathizers or fellow-travelers with radical Islam.
My theory - biggest reason for this is b/c American Muslims are more economically integrated & dispersed throughout the country than their UK / French counterparts.
Commerce is the biggest peacemaker.posted by: vinod on 08.09.04 at 03:25 PM [permalink]
Back up a minute, if you please. The two guys arrested in Albany were not the victims of a random sting operation--the feds did not just open a phone book looking for Muslim sounding names and happen upon them. At least one of the men had his name in a Pakistani "bad actor's" rolodex. How'd it get there? And, begging to differ with you, but if you offered cheap missiles to random "disgruntled" members of the public I daresay you'd find few takers. And since when did incompetence, even stupidity, serve as a defense against charges of terrorism and treason? From what I've read, half the hijackers of 9/11 would have fallen into one or the other category had they been apprehended before that fateful day. One or two brighter than average bulbs can make up the deficiencies of the dim ones around them.
Outreach to Muslims is all well and good, and we certainly hope that steps are being made from within these communities to police their own, but that's not quite enough for me. If you need to tempt some rats out into the open with a piece of cheese, let's not blame the cheese for being too tempting but the rat for being greedy and stupid.posted by: Kelli on 08.09.04 at 03:25 PM [permalink]
The arrest of Kahn was not a "blunder"... It was a calculated act by the administration.
The bush white house burned a priceless intelligence asset for political reasons. Clearly winning the election is what they care about, even above national secuirty.posted by: Shogun on 08.09.04 at 03:25 PM [permalink]
Other sources indicate that US officials confirmed Khan's identity and rolled him up only after the NY Times indicated that it was prepared to expose him, based on information from Pakistani officials. I'm not sure we know enough yet to be sure whether it was the administration or the NYT who burned this asset for self-serving reasons.posted by: Tom T. on 08.09.04 at 03:25 PM [permalink]
"Other sources indicate that US officials confirmed Khan's identity and rolled him up only after the NY Times indicated that it was prepared to expose him, based on information from Pakistani officials."
What other sources? The NYT was prepared to deliberately blow an intelligence asset this valuable in the face of administration objections? And the administration was thus intimidated into confirming what could easily have been Pakistani disinformation (Pakistani loyalties being very mixed in this fight)? I'd like to see the documentation on that.posted by: Martin Bento on 08.09.04 at 03:25 PM [permalink]
Hmm - no - the NYT didn't blow an intelligence asset - the administration did. I saw the Blitzer interview with C. Rice in which she admitted that the administration revealed Khan's name "on background" - which means the information may be revealed but not the source.
I think I've seen the transcript of the Blitzer/Rice interview in a couple of places - the quickest link I have is Josh Marshall
I was stunned when I saw the interview, and reading about how the revelation of Khan's name hurt British anti-terror efforts (no link to hand right now - I think it was the Guardian) caused my jaw to really hit the ground.
I simply do not understand what this administration is doing. I don't understand.posted by: Skip on 08.09.04 at 03:25 PM [permalink]
“If you need to tempt some rats out into the open with a piece of cheese, let's not blame the cheese for being too tempting but the rat for being greedy and stupid.”
I agree completely. These individuals, according to any reasonable legal definition, were not even slightly entrapped. If an undercover police officer can persuade someone to be involved in a Stinger missile sale to those they believe will murder American citizens---then they need to be sent to jail!
Most adherents of Islam are peaceful. But this fact alone should not encourage us to drop our guard. There are supposedly a billion Muslims throughout the world. Even if only a mere 5% are extremists, this results in a grand total of around 50,000,000. That’s a hell of a lot of people who are dedicated to putting Westerners to death. Many of them are quite young and should still be alive in the middle of 21st century. In other words, the war on terror is not going to disappear anytime in the near future. Our grandchildren may still be dealing with these monsters.posted by: David Thomson on 08.09.04 at 03:25 PM [permalink]
The undercover FBI didn't try to sell a missile to the mosque; he was 'looking' for someone to launder the money he had received from a fictional missile sale. The two charged really acted as sympathizers more than anything else, as implied above.
On a more important point, I don't think anyone can, at this point, accurately measure the success of homeland security. Interagency cooperation and stricter security clearances for everyone may build a stronger security institution, but it doesn't address the lack of vigilance or ease of exploitation of the average individual.
Although I don't have the time to link the references now (but will if anyone wishes), I've just recently read articles on both the suseptibility of nuclear plants and, a few months ago, our ports. The nuclear agency's own administered security tests continually fail, and even homeland security acknowledges the weakness of our ports. Last time I checked, it cost only $5000 to ship a full sea-container across the atlantic. How many of these sea-containers get opened and have their contents inspected?
I simply find it hard to believe that it is possible to increase security to the point where you can credibly prevent any sort of terrorist action. No matter how many airport officials, policeman, and customs officials are hired, it will always be possible to bring committed persons through.
Most adherents of Islam are peaceful. But this fact alone should not encourage us to drop our guard. There are supposedly a billion Muslims throughout the world. Even if only a mere 5% are extremists, this results in a grand total of around 50,000,000. That’s a hell of a lot of people who are dedicated to putting Westerners to death.
Most republicans support democracy. But this fact alone should not encourage us to drop our guard. There are supposedly 50 million republicans throughout the country. Even if only a mere 5% are neocons, this results in a grand total of around 2,500,000. That’s a hell of a lot of people who are dedicated to destroying democracy.
Reuters reports that "The New York Times obtained Khan's name independently, and U.S. officials confirmed it when it appeared in the paper the next morning." It seems to me that once his name is in the NYT, he's burned. And I don't see, at least from the quoted excerpt, that Rice's statement contradicts this sequence of events.
The NYT was prepared to deliberately blow an intelligence asset this valuable in the face of administration objections?
Isn't this every reporter's dream?posted by: Tom T. on 08.09.04 at 03:25 PM [permalink]
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