The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
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Dirty Little Secrets
Terror in 2004
Discussion Board on this DLS topic
by James Dunnigan
January 5, 2004
Since September 11, 2001, there has not been another al Qaeda attack in the United States. Of the hundreds of terrorist arrests in the United States over the last two years, few of the prisoners could be considered hard core terrorists who were about to strike. So what happened? Where are the terrorists and why haven't they attacked? We are certainly vulnerable, and the terrorists know it. Moreover, al Qaeda continues to lose credibility as months go by and America remains untouched by terrorist attacks.
In the months after September, 2001, it was obvious how vulnerable the United States was. In the arrests made right after September 11, 2001, several of the al Qaeda members had illegally obtained truck driver licenses for moving hazardous materials. Hundreds of times a week, trucks move explosives, gasoline, radioactive materials, propane and lethal industrial chemicals (ammonia, chlorine, sulfur dioxide, fuming sulfuric acid, fuming nitric acid, and hydrogen fluoride) around the United States. While the trucks are built to resist spillage or fire, there are still accidents each year. But only a dozen or so people are killed annually. A terrorist, however, could rig one of these tanker trucks with explosives and drive the load of dangerous materials into a densely populated area and set it off. Sure, except for one thing. Hazmat (hazardous materials) trucks are closely monitored electronically and are rarely driven anywhere near densely populated areas (even gas stations tend to be on the edges of major cities). Since September 11, 2001, drivers backgrounds are more carefully scrutinized. Moreover, the monitoring software alerts the dispatchers if the truck stops unexpectedly or deviates from its route, resulting in an alert to police. In some parts of the country, local police have run exercises to make sure they could get after a "hijacked" hazmat truck and catch it quickly.
Al Qaeda "how to" manuals are widely distributed and contain practical and proven information on how to carry out terrorist acts. One of the prime instructions is to carefully scout targets and only hit when you are pretty sure the attack will succeed. This is why many of those arrested in the U.S. during the last two years were "just looking." There are certainly plenty of choice targets out there. Shopping malls, crowded downtown streets, industrial plants, New York City's Times Square on New Years Eve, and major government buildings. Why hasn't al Qaeda struck?
It's not for want of recruits. While the vast majority of Moslems in America are loyal citizens, and provided many of the tips that led to arrests over the last two years, it only takes a dozen or so true believers to organize and carry out a major attack. But it's not enough to have volunteers. What made al Qaeda so dangerous was it's ability to train people in the necessary terrorist skills, via camps or paper and CDROM "how to" manuals, and then provide technical experts for things like bomb construction. The rapid conquest of Afghanistan, and round up of known terrorists world wide, shattered the training and technical advisor network. It's no longer so easy to have a specialist fly in to help you with the truck bomb, or bomb belts. Try and put these things together yourself and it will either not go off at all, or will go off when you don't want it to. Both has happened numerous times over the last two years because of a shortage of specialists. Israel has been particularly useful in showing how a campaign against the specialists leads to a decline in terrorist attacks, but the shortage has shown up elsewhere as well.
There is no shortage of targets in the United States, and the major danger is that Islamic terrorists are in it for the long haul. The first major attack was in 1993, a truck bomb going off in the basement of New York City's World Trade Center. The following year, another cell was arrested in New York City while they were assembling more truck bombs. Their al Qaeda specialist got away. Pressure from the FBI kept al Qaeda cells out of action in the United States for most of the 1990s, so the attacks against American targets moved off shore. But al Qaeda planned carefully and came back in 2001. They will try and come back again. As one IRA terrorist put it, in response to British police boasting of their successful anti-terrorism efforts, "we only have to succeed once."
With memories of September 11, 2001 still fresh, anti-terrorism efforts are at something of a peak. Al Qaeda fortunes are at something of a bottom. But for cultural and practical reasons, Islamic terrorists preach patience and persistence. Over the next few years, anti-terrorism efforts will weaken and terrorists know that. Al Qaeda will recruit more people who can get into the United States and operate there. If not 2004, than perhaps 2006 or 7, the terrorists will strike again. The only thing that will stop them is innovative and persistent anti-terrorism methods, a generational change, or the realization that the terrorism is not working. Israel and Britain have had some success in developing innovative and more effective anti-terrorism techniques. The U.S. is dipping into that well and trying to come up with something really new, and really effective.
Generational change is the typical reason for the decline of something like Islamic terrorism. The generation doing it has little success and the generation coming up behind notes this and acts accordingly. The only thing that can speed up this process is the realization, by the terrorists, that the attacks are not having the desired effect. This is what happened to the Palestinian terrorism of the 60s and 70s, as well as the European radicals of the 70s and 80s. But there is no central control, or logical thinking, in the Islamic terrorism movements. So Islamic radical terrorism will likely take a generation to run its course. Thus, as George Bush pointed out shortly after September 11, 2001, it's going to be a long war. And we're talking decades, not just years.