Will the United States in its near future be hit again in the manner of the 9/11 attacks of thirteen years ago? The destruction of the World Trade Center, the suicide implosions of four passenger airliners, and the attack on the Pentagon unfortunately have become far-off memories. They are now more distant from us than was the Vietnam War was from the Korean War.
Two questions will determine whether radical Islamic terrorists will attack us once more: one, are the post-9/11 anti-terrorism protocols that have so far stopped major terrorist attacks still viable and effective, and, two, is Al-Qaeda or an analogous Islamic terrorist organization now still as capable as were Osama bin Laden’s henchmen in 2001?
Unfortunately, the answers to those two questions should raise great concern. Take the current status of the so-called war on terror in all of its manifestations. The southern border of the United States is less guarded than at anytime since 9/11. For all practical purposes, enforceable immigration laws simply no longer exist. The result is that we have no idea who is crossing into the United States or for what purposes.
Some of the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols are still in operation—renditions, preventative detention, the Guantanamo detention center, and the Patriot Act. However, the NSA, IRS, and VA scandals, along with the Edward Snowden and Wikileaks revelations, have created an understandably strong public backlash against government surveillance, which will lead to new protocols limiting our ability to monitor terrorist suspects.
Many other anti-terrorism procedures have been weakened, circumvented, or caricatured to the point of making them irrelevant. Foreign terrorists, for example—like the murderers of U.S. personnel in Benghazi—expect to be tried in civilian courts with all the rights of U.S. citizens. We are not bringing apprehended terrorists to Guantanamo, but instead insidiously releasing them, most notoriously swapping five Taliban terrorist kingpins for probable U.S. Army deserter Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl—a precedent that may have encouraged ISIS to put up captured American journalists on the trading block in expectation of concessions.
Drone strikes continue at a vastly accelerated pace under President Obama, but they also raise existential hypocrisies about our approach to terrorism. Why are drone strikes aimed in the vicinity of terrorist suspects abroad morally superior to the roundly condemned practice of subjecting confessed terrorists to enhanced interrogations at Guantanamo Bay? The president has not yet explained that paradox of getting tough with confessed wrongdoers while killing outright suspected ones (and anyone caught in their environs when the missiles strike).
If popularity polls are any indication, the President’s six years of concentrated Islamic outreach has not won over the Muslim Middle East. More disturbing, these efforts may have instead given the region an impression of administration confusion or even apology. Certainly President Obama’s derision of the war on terror both before and during his presidential campaign caused confusion (e.g., renditions: “shipping away prisoners in the dead of night”; military tribunals: “flawed military commission system”; preventative detention: “detaining thousands with charges or trial”; the Patriot Act “shoddy and dangerous”). Such an impression was only magnified by creating an entire array of euphemisms—like overseas contingency operations, man-caused disaster, workplace violence—that did not project an image of righteous anger at radical Islamic terrorism, much less surety that any would-be attacker would be swiftly killed or captured.
Confusion about the radical Islamic threat abounds even among top administration advisors, in a way that was not true of American officials even in the chaotic days following 9/11. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assured us that our ambassador to Libya and three other government personnel were murdered by a spontaneous gathering of rioters in Benghazi, sparked by a video-maker. The truth apparently was unpalatable in an election year that the killings were a preplanned hit by an ascendant al Qaeda affiliate.
CIA Director John Brennan in the past has derided the fear that radical Islamists hope to create a caliphate—the current rallying cry of the murderous ISIS—by dubbing such a notion “absurd.” Brennan also had assured us that the jihad is nonviolent and indeed “a Holy Struggle” and a “legitimate tenet of Islam.” Former Director of National intelligence James Clapper sermonized that the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was “largely secular.” Even NASA Administrator Charles Bolden insisted, to al Jazeera no less, that the “perhaps foremost” charge of NASA “was to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science…and math and engineering.” The president’s now infamous 2009 Cairo Speech, aimed at reminding Muslims how the U.S. has appreciated their manifest contributions to Western civilization, was riddled with inaccuracies and relied on a mythology of Islam rather than a review of history. To make matters worse, he invited radical Muslim Brotherhood operatives to the speech.
The Middle East of the last six years is perhaps the most chaotic since World War II and it reflects the administration’s confused and therapeutic rhetoric. “Leading from behind” in Libya, and then leaving after bombing Moammar Khadafy out of power, ended in a Somalia on the Mediterranean, where Egypt and its Gulf allies now occasionally bomb suspected terrorists. Redlines issued to Syria quickly became pink. We find ourselves in the Orwellian predicament of being forced to bomb an ascendant ISIS terrorist group that is the sworn enemy of Bashar Assad whom just two years ago we threatened to bomb and previously had ordered to surrender power.
Taking every U.S. soldier out of Iraq was a good 2012 campaign talking point, but it ensured that a relatively stable Iraq that Vice President Joe Biden had envisioned as the administration’s “greatest achievement” would sink back into chaos. No one believes Iran, in response to the sudden and unexpected lifting of tough sanctions, has ceased comprehensive nuclear enrichment. Mixed messages about U.S. counter-terrorism strategy are now daily events. Vice President Joe Biden has promised to go to the “Gates of Hell” to punish ISIS that has now beheaded two Americans—at about the same time that the President said both that the U.S. would reduce ISIS to a “manageable problem” and yet also would “destroy and degrade” it.
The president has bragged of a special relationship with Recep Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey, but Turkey and Qatar—the latter where U.S. CENTCOM forces in the Persian Gulf are based—have supported almost every radical Islamic group or nation at odds with the United States. Turkey is insidiously becoming more a neo-Ottoman Islamist power than a member of European NATO. Distancing ourselves from traditional ally Israel neither won the United States applause in the Middle East nor has led to quiet—as the recent Gaza War attests. Egypt is emblematic of U.S. confusion: We ordered the Mubarak government to leave, then embraced elections that ushered in the Muslim Brotherhood, then announced them our new partners, then watched silently as a military coup overthrew such Islamic extremists, and now publicly damn the junta even as we privately are relieved that it subverted the new Egyptian constitutional before the Muslim Brotherhood could.
If our own defensive anti-terrorism measures and deterrents have eroded since 9/11, what about the relative offensive capabilities of our enemies? For all the criticism over U.S forward positioning in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was undeniable that the American military killed thousands of jihadists far from the United States who had flocked to both theaters to kill Americans. We are now out of Iraq and soon will be from Afghanistan. Radical Islamists seem ready to retake the latter as they are now attempting to do in the former. The chaos in Syria and Libya has allowed all sorts of jihadists, insurgents, and terrorists to operate in the sort of safe havens that we once went into Afghanistan to eliminate. An Al Qaeda affiliate proved that it could destroy the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and kill our ambassador with relative impunity. ISIS—which even Al Qaeda spokesmen have dubbed “brutal”—promises to follow the beheadings of American journalist Richard Foley and Steven Sotloff with similar executions of other captive Western journalists, and to bring such violence to the shores of the West.
But can it? In comparison to bin Laden’s al Qaeda network of 2001, ISIS appears to be far more formidable. Huge swaths of Syria and Iraq are now under de facto ISIS control—a far greater territory than ever enjoyed by Osama bin Laden. Hundreds of jihadists with European and American passports have flocked to their battlegrounds in Syria, and voice a desire to return home in fury. Such terrorists have the tacit support of Sunni Muslim tribes angry at Alawite power in Syria and Shiite-dominated rule in Iraq. Control of some of the Iraqi oil fields could augment the money they stealthily receive from the Persian Gulf.
We should not underestimate either the desire or ability of ISIS to replicate bin Laden’s attack of 2001. Not long ago a confused President Obama admitted in an interview that he thought ISIS was analogous merely to the “jayvees.” In a more recent press conference he confessed that four years after the ascendance of ISIS, the U.S. still does not have a strategy to deal with it. He made things still worse by later remarking that the world is not really chaotic, but only seems so due to the advent of global social networking.
In truth, the world has dropped its vigilance since 9/11; Western populations are exhausted by economic hard times and acrimony over the wars in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. The charge of Islamaphobia means that Western societies have trouble confronting radical Islamists in their midst, like Major Hasan, the Tsarnaev Boston Marathon bombers, and throngs of virulently anti-Semitic Muslim immigrants in Europe. The United Nations is about as useful as was the League of Nations during the rise of fascism. As in the case of the rise of the Nazis, we naively write off the savagery of ISIS as having no place in our century, as if brutality is always premodern rather than enhanced by postmodern technology. Neo-isolationism and appeasement have swept the West and have eroded the national will to confront radical Islam in the manner of the last 1930s—with all the familiar scapegoating of the Jews and “war-mongers.”
In sum, we are less vigilant than ever after 9/11. Our enemies are not only more audacious, but more encouraged that we are depressed. That is a bad combination if we are to stay safe from the new generation of radical Islamists.