Friday, August 11, 2006

Britain may have averted a plot to bomb passenger planes, but let’s not imagine that we are safer now than we were before 9/11.

Britain may have averted a plot to bomb passenger planes, but let’s not imagine that we are safer now than we were before 9/11.
By Christopher Dickey

Aug. 10, 2006 - This time, it seems, the terror was stopped. But as news broke this morning of a plot to blow up as many as 10 airliners between Britain and the United States, there were disturbing echoes of that slow-moving August before September 11, 2001. Then, American, European and friendly Arab intelligence services were getting frantic. From the chatter they picked up among known terrorists, it was clear that a group called Al Qaeda was plotting something big. But what? Where? How?

Just five years ago this week the CIA sent a memo to President George W. Bush, vacationing then as now in Crawford, Texas, with the heading “Bin Laden determined to Strike in U.S.” But there was more, as Ron Suskind wrote at the beginning of his recent book, “The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11” (Simon & Schuster). Panicked CIA analysts flew to Texas to brief Bush personally in 2001, “to intrude on his vacation with face-to-face alerts.” Bush sized them up, as is his wont, looking to judge the content of what they told him by the confidence with which the message was delivered. Bush wasn’t convinced. “All right,” said the president, “You’ve covered your ass now.”

The president would never be so dismissive again about the threats to the United States. Weeks later, after the devastation of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he would make the War on Terror the central theme of his presidency. And much good has been done. On the tarmac of an airport in Wisconsin this morning, Bush sounded the themes that have become so familiar since then. “The recent arrests that our fellow citizens are now learning about are a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation.” Cooperation with Britain, and cooperation among the often-competing agencies inside the United States was “excellent,” he said. That’s a significant improvement, for sure.

“This country is safer than it was prior to 9/11,” the president told us. “We’ve taken a lot of measures to protect the American people, but obviously we’re not still completely safe, because there are people that still plot,” he said. True enough. “And people who want to harm us for what we believe in,” the president went on, drifting into those generalities he loves. “"It is a mistake to believe there is no threat to the United States of America. And that is why we have given our officials the tools they need to protect our people."

Presidents cover their backsides, too. If this attack had succeeded, or another one still does, the people to blame wouldn’t be Bush or his advisors, the culprits would be those who limit his “tools.” Massive wiretaps? Secret prisons? The list is long. And Bush appears to think they’ve been key to winning—or not quite winning, it seems—his Global War on Terror.

But the long list of horrific attacks around the world since 9/11, from Bali to Madrid, Casablanca to London, Amman to Istanbul, should make anyone think again about such claims. So should the near misses. “Shoe bomber” Richard Reid fumbled his matches when he tried to blow himself up aboard an American Airlines flight in December 2001. But he came close, and if he’d succeeded, hundreds of people would have died with all traces of evidence lost in the wintry Atlantic. The plot revealed today would have killed more than 1,000 people. By some accounts there would have been three terrible waves of carnage: first three planes, then three more, then three more. Again, over the high seas.

Most of the terrorist attacks since 9/11 were carried out by people who were or would be suicide bombers, and their numbers seem to be growing in number every day. Is this merely some contagious madness? When Al Qaeda plotters Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Youssef plotted attacks on 11 American planes flying from Asia in 1995, their idea was to leave bombs on board hidden in life jackets after stopovers. The scanty information released thus far about the British plot suggests that teams of people, fully aware that they would die, were going to take components for the bombs on board separately, then assemble them to kill themselves and everybody traveling with them.

There is no excuse for those who would carry out such atrocities, but there are reasons that keep pushing recruits to take up the suicidal cause of attacking the United States. To blame “Islamic fascism” that “wants to destroy those of us who love freedom” dodges responsibility for making those reasons more abundant, and making them worse, over the last five years. What’s at work in the heads of those who would kill themselves to slaughter Americans is less Al Qaeda’s ideology, such as it is, than a pervasive sense that Muslims are under attack: their lands occupied; their men, women and children victimized around the world. The Iraqi slaughterhouse, besieged Gaza, wasted Lebanon are all examples in the minds of those who convince themselves that suicidal terror is the only way to fight back. While partly blaming Israel, their frantic logic finds easier targets among the people who elected the invaders of Iraq, the backers of Israel, George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The American failure to limit these scenes of carnage in the Muslim world, or even to understand them, has combined with shortsighted military policies to create a kind of breeder reactor for explosive terrorism. Today we are looking at a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, even as Osama bin Laden and his ideologue Ayman Zawahiri remain at large. Iraq is in the midst of an intensifying civil war that will only grow worse after today’s ghastly bombing in Najaf, which killed at least 34 people. Lebanon has become a cause that can cement ties among radical Sunnis and Shias against the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel. Iran is cooking up nukes and the inflammatory issue of Palestine is farther than ever from resolution.

So let’s be thankful that the plot in Britain was broken up when it was. But let’s not imagine for a moment that we are safer now than we were in August 2001. We should be. But we are not.