The Calm Before the Storm?
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Published: April 13, 2005
So here's a question that I've been wrestling with lately: With all these reports about the bungling of U.S. intelligence, and the C.I.A.'s relying on bogus informants with names like "Curveball" or "Knucklehead" or whatever, why have there been no terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11? I've got my own pet theory about what's produced this period of calm - and, more important, why it may be coming to an end.
Let's start with the facts. Despite all the code reds and code oranges we've been subjected to by the Department of Homeland Security, and despite the mountain of newspaper articles about how underprotected our ports and borders are, the fact is that not only has there not been another 9/11, but there has not even been a serious failed attempt that we know of.
I'm not complaining - I'm just wondering why. It still seems to me ridiculously easy to blow up a car in the heart of Chicago. And anyone who has flown on a private jet since 9/11 can tell you that security at these private terminals is still so lax that if you showed up in a Saudi headdress with a West Virginia driver's license under the name of "Billy Bob bin Laden" and asked for flight directions for your chartered Learjet to Lower Manhattan, there's a good chance no one would stop you.
So, how then do we explain the calm? To begin with, I'd give a tip o' the hat to the C.I.A., the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security. I have no doubt that their increased vigilance - and coordination with European and Arab intelligence services - has made it much harder for terrorists to organize. Moreover, thanks to Gen. John Abizaid's Centcom forces in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda no longer has a whole country from which to plan, train and coordinate terrorist attacks with impunity. The fact that Al Qaeda effectively controlled a country is what made it unique. Also, new U.S. visa policies have made it much harder for bad guys to get into America.
If your name is Muhammad and you are a 21-year-old single Arab man and you have not visited Disney World yet, well, you may want to consider Euro Disney, because your chances of getting a U.S. tourist visa are very low. Frankly, I wish this were not the case because we're keeping a lot of good, talented Arab men and women from getting educated in America, which is the best way of building friends. This is one of the sad byproducts of 9/11 - but it has undoubtedly made it more difficult for the few bad apples to get in as well.
Despite all of that, I fear that we may now be entering the most dangerous period since 9/11. Why? Because I've always believed that one of the most important reasons there has been no new terrorist attack in America has to do with the U.S. invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not only that the Bush administration has taken the fight to the enemy, but that the enemy has welcomed that fight.
To the extent that the Baathists and Jihadists have a coordinated strategy, their first priority, I think, is to defeat American forces in the heart of their world. Because if they can defeat America in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world, it will have so much more resonance than setting off a car bomb in Las Vegas - especially now that 9/11 has set the terrorism bar so high in terms of effect.
If the Jihadists can defeat us in the heart of their world, and force us from Iraq, it will have a huge impact on the Arab street and shake every pro-American Arab regime. The Jihadists have always understood that Iraq is the ballgame. Iraq is the big one. Winning there is what really advances their agendas.
The reason things may be getting more dangerous now is that the formation of a freely elected government in Iraq may signal that the Baathist-Jihadist insurgency is being gradually defeated. The U.S. may even be able to withdraw some troops. And there is nothing worse for the Baathists and Jihadists than to be defeated in the heart of their world - and, even more so, to be defeated in the heart of their world by other Arabs and Muslims who are repudiating the Jihadists' vision and tactics.
I fear that when and if the Jihadists conclude that they have been defeated in the heart of their world, they will be sorely tempted to throw a Hail Mary pass. That is, they may want to launch a spectacular, headline-grabbing act of terrorism in America that tries to mask, and compensate for, just how defeated they have become at home.
In short, the more the Jihadists lose in Iraq, the more likely they are to use their rump forces to try something really crazy in America to make up for it. So let's stay the course in Iraq, but stay extra-vigilant at home.
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