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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Was the Big One Foiled?

ABC News aired a special version of Primetime tonight (8/10/2006) covering the story of the 10-plane bombing plot. The subtitle of the show alone, "Was the Big One Foiled?", says a great deal about how little we've learned from fighting terrorism.

NO. "The big one" was not foiled. The phrase "the big one" implies there is one pinnacle of destruction to which the terrorists aspire (there isn't) and that the bombing of a jet or multiple jets out of the sky is that pinnacle (it absolutely isn't).

My most vivid memories of the morning of September 11, 2001 are:

1) Thinking back at my failure of imagination when a friend / coworker walked into my office and said "you gotta see the news, a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center" -- upon hearing the word "plane," my initial reaction was "hmmm, must have been a dark rainy morning in NYC, I guess a Cessna had equipment trouble, got lost and crashed into the building" -- my imagination was incapable at the time of imagining someone purposely flying jets directly into skyscrapers.

2) Sitting in the reception area of my company watching television shots of BOTH towers burning and noticing 20 people around me literally in shock and tears.

3) Suddenly realizing about an hour after the attack that in some sad sense, America STILL got off "easy", in the sick sense that if the terrorists had aimed for sheer economic and ecological damage rather than symbolism, they would have taken out chemical plants or nuclear power plants, potentially killing TENS OF THOUSANDS immediately or over time.

The most important lessons we still need to learn about terrorism are:

1) Islamic terrorism has grown well beyond its Middle East roots. The British attacks last year and the 10-plane plot all involved native born citizens, not newly immigrated foreignors. America's second biggest terrorist attack (The Murrah Building in Oklahoma City) was made in the USA with no help from Osama bin Laden.

2) We are fixating on air travel as the preferred delivery mechanism of terror at our peril. I'd love to think that all terrorists have agreed to spend 95% of their time and effort blowing up planes so we can focus virtually all of our efforts on airline security. That would be perfect. In reality, terrorists will eventually focus on other targets with weaker protection. Some of those targets could be far more deadly than jetliners exploding over the Atlantic.

3) Because we cannot protect every potential target, a strategy focused solely on stopping attacks is guaranteed to fail. Focus must also be applied to eliminating the economic and political conditions that breed terrorists. By no means will a "pax economus / democratus" of worldwide prosperity and democracy stop every nutjob from acting on private conversations with Muhammed, Jesus, or (fill in your favorite deity...) but we need to break the cycle of failed policies that are producing so many ready-made, brainwashed recruits for the nutjobs to use as pawns.

4) This would-be British attack was foiled PRIMARILY because of inside information from an informant within the cell. That was followed by lots of traditional international intelligence work and local police work. There is no evidence Britain's troops stationed in Iraq provided any help in chasing down these bad guys. There's no evidence that information gathered by torturing detainees in Guantanamo Bay broke the ring wide open after the initial tip from the insider. There will never be any evidence that the presence of 130,000 American troops in Iraq chased any bad guys out of the woodwork in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Kirkuk or any other place we've lost 2500+ lives occupying.

5) Though the British enjoyed some degree of cooperation from Pakistan's ISA in nabbing some of the cell members, the cooperation may not have been complete. ABC's story tonight indicated the ISA had the ringleaders of this cell under surveillance but the process of triggering the beginning of the arrests somehow tipped off the key leaders, allowing them to avoid capture. Do some searching on the web about our efforts to capture bin Laden in Afghanistan in 2001 and the assistance provided by Pakistan (our ally) and see if a pattern emerges. ABC's coverage tonight also indicated some of the cell members traveled to Pakistan for advanced training in bomb making. Pakistan. Our "ally" in the war on terror.

I'm very happy the British uncovered this plot. I'm hopeful uncovering these 25 plotters will expose more of the web of contacts providing funds, designs and materials for future attacks. If the British case against these suspects holds up, I hope they get the maximum penalty.

Terrorism won't ever be eliminated. However, we have another example of how large-scale, systemic terrorism can be combated by using information, insight and imagination. None of those have been used much to date in America's "war on terror."