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Friday, May 07, 2010

Real terrorism threats

The arrest of Faisal Shahzad, who tried to set a huge car bomb off in the middle of Times Square, was another highly revealing incident in the struggle against terror, as well as a lucky break for the United States. Americans of all political stripes, as I learn from my War College students year after year, are essentially idealistic when it comes to revolution. They nearly always think that violent revolutionaries are poor, hungry, and oppressed--in other words, that the act at least partly out of legitimate grievances for which remedies must be found. (Among the military this comes, I suspect, from the frequent invocation of Masloff's hierarchy of human needs, beginning with food, warmth, and shelter.) We also tend to believe that we are threatened by the most dedicated, radical adherents of Islam, and the Bush Administration actually launched a campaign to change conservative Muslim societies in order to make them more friendly. None of that, it turns out, is true.

I don't have the time to review the data on the 9/11 hijackers, but most of them were at least solidly middle class, and quite a few of them, critically, had already lived in the West. The same pattern has repeated itself here: Shahzad's father is a Pakistani general, and he had lived long enough in the US to become a naturalized citizen. The case of the Nigerian airplane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was strikingly similar: his father is a Nigerian banker and he had lived here as well. Nidal Hassan, the Jordanian-American doctor who opened fire at Fort Hood, was also an American doctor. Emotionally, it seems, the most dangerous terrorists are men who have experienced modernization first hand. The harder we push modernization, one could speculate, the more of them there might be. It is interesting, too, that both Nigeria and Pakistan were once British colonies and still include many English speakers.

There is another reason why the real danger to the west comes from isolated immigrants. If one takes the trouble to read the 9/11 report, some of which I went through a few years back, one thing stands out: even before 9/11, it was extremely difficult for Al Queda to get its people into the United States, and since then it seems to have become almost impossible. And even if they could get here, buying a van, propane tanks, chemical fertilizer, and other necessary equipment requires a certain familiarity with American society and some skill as an actor. And to actually bring off a terrorist attack successfully requires considerable training and mechanical skill.

That is where we have been lucky during the last six months--neither Abdulmutallab nor Shahzad had enough training to build a successful explosive device. (The same was true, incidentally, of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine killers, who would have murdered hundreds of students if their improvised bombs had gone off.) Shahzad could certainly have wreaked havoc in Times Square with an assault rifle, but he, unlike Nidal Hassan, evidently hoped to get away. A successful terrorist has to be sufficiently westernized to move among us easily, sufficiently crazy to want to kill dozens of people (and probably sacrifice his own life as well), and sufficiently skilled to make it happen. That combination remains very rare.

It is sad to note that some legal surveillance of Muslim-American and Muslim European communities seems to be necessary to look out for potential trouble, but no other conclusion seems possible. The European-American working class produced terrorists who killed a President and set off a huge explosion in Wall Street during the early decades of the twentieth century, but America survived. It does seem likely that Nidal Hassan will not be the last succcessful Islamic terrorist in the United States, and I think the President would do well simply to say so. We are not immune to small terrorist attacks, at least, any more than we are from oil spills. But it is not clear that the way in which Afghanistan governs itself has much to do with the safety of Americans now. There are far more Pakistanis and Pakistani-Americans furious about our drone strikes in Pakistan than there are Afghans likely to do any harm to the United States.

I originally posted this Friday evening. Today, to my amazement, the New York Times led with a long article on Anwar Al-Alwaki, a Muslim cleric whose jihadist cds and videos have apparnetly helped inspire all three of these terrorists. He fits the profile better than any of them: he was born in the United States in 1971 and educated in Colorado, and he led several mosques in the United States before leaving for Yemen, where he was detained for two years and is now in hiding. As the article shows, some evidence strongly suggests that he knew about 9/11 in advance, since two of the hijackers living in San Diego attended his mosque. He preached Muslim reconciliation with America after 9/11 but eventually changed his tune. Today he is apparently the only American whom US military and intelligence forces are authorized to assassinate--something which strikes me as utterly unconstitutional under the treason clause of the Constitution. In any event, his life further confirms that the threat comes from the intersection of the two cultures, not from deep within the Muslim world.

I've been reading an extraordinary and most disturbing book this week, No One Would Listen, by Harry Markopolos, the Boston-based financial analyst who tried for about nine years to bring Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme to the attention of the authorities. Next week it will probably be the subject of a lengthy post. I identify with Markopolos: he has a strong sense of right and wrong (and has had to wonder where it came from), and he is convinced that data does not lie. In the early 2000s I had a series of arguments on an email list of baseball researchers about Barry Bonds. No one had ever increased their home run production so spectacularly for a sustained period of years so late in their careers, I pointed out--no one, ever. Bonds simply had to be taking performance enhancers--but most of the people who posted on the topic violently disagreed with me and clung to the belief that he had simply improved his skills. In the same way Markopolos realized Madoff must be a crook, and probably the purveyor of a Ponzi scheme, as soon as he discovered that Madoff had been claiming an annual 12% return, year in and year out, in good times and bad--because no one had ever done anything like that. Yet it took nine years for the truth to emerge. How that could happen tells us, alas, a great deal about our financial community and our society, and I must finish the book and think it over. Stay tuned.


Seth C. Burgess said...

This article points out two waning qualities of American character--(1) the ability to pay attention and (2) intuitive reasoning.

Anonymous said...

David , While I certainly agree that we as a prople ought to heed factual data and throughly investigate the likes of Barry Bonds or Bernie Madoff -- but and a very big but: I don't see how under our Constitution the Govt. can legally single out the Muslim community for surveillance and still call it legal surveillance .

David Kaiser said...


We know the vast majority of American Muslims are law-abiding, but we also know that some Imams have preached Jihad and some terrorist conspiracies have formed in Muslim communities here. Thus, law enforcement needs informants to hear of anything that is going on--although I certainly do not approve of informants making bad things happen, which has evidently occurred already.

Anonymous said...

U.S. Approval to Kill a Cleric
Causes Unease

“Congress has protected Awlaki’s
cellphone calls,”
said Vicki
Divoll, a former C.I.A. lawyer who
now teaches at the United States
Naval Academy. “But it has not
provided any protections for his
life. That makes no sense.”


Bozon said...

Terrorism has never been a useful term.

The biggest threat of disorder, from our own denizens or from other civilizations, has been the 'liberal international economic order', foisted on us and them, to oppose communism.

It was a childish perspective, really, on the situation facing the West, to globalize to oppose communism or to try to promote world peace.

Additionally, globalization will advance neither of those things. There are many reasons for this, but can't go into all of them at one go.

Sad but true,
Gerald Meaders

Aunt Katie said...

I should point out, for completeness, that globalization itself, is not, by any means, a complete account of causes for intracivilizational disorders. Many people have pointed this out; Gilpin, Huntington, etc. But, re 'West versus the rest', it is most of it.