Terror and the theatrical paradigm

Pittsburgh was treated to an impressive show the week of the recent G20 conference. A nice assortment of military choppers of various types and missions, along with odder aircraft difficult both to identify and explain. Both police and the National Guard were out in force, with downtown nearly sealed off.

None of this hardware was used against the "3,000 - 4,000" (more like a few hundred) anarchist demonstrators when they turned their righteous wrath on a dozen Starbucks and a Whole Foods store. No serious confrontation was expected and none occurred. Because all of it - the Guard troops, the choppers, and of course the rioters -was theater. Certain unmentioned limits were in place. The Guard troops qualified as something called a "show of force", there to impress the international delegates as much as anyone else. The anarchists knew that they'd get home in time for Jon Stewart with their heads uncracked if they targeted only overpriced coffee and organic outfits. Everybody got to play, and everybody went away happy.

The problem with attitudes such as this is that they tend to become representative. They tend to spread, from public rituals of the G20 variety to arenas where they can do serious damage. One of these is the War on Terror, which is even now being engulfed by the theatrical paradigm. On the surface, the anti-terrorism campaign seems to be going well, maintaining the same momentum it possessed during the Bush years. This September witnessed two serious busts and the long overdue termination of a leading Jihadi commander.

A Law-Enforcement Problem

The Joint Terrorism Task Force arrested Denver-based Naijbullah Zazi and several others plotting to duplicate the July 2007 London transit bombings in New York City this past September 11. Not so widely covered was a similar arrest in Dallas, in which recent immigrant Hosam Maher Husein Smadi was bagged after trying to detonate a fake bomb provided by FBI agents inside the underground garage of the Fountain Place office tower. (Rudy Guiliani has offices in the building, a fact that may have played some role in the choice of target but which goes unmentioned in any coverage I've seen.) A third arrest in Illinois appears to be one of those sad cases in which a misfit adapted Islam as a mask for a hostile attitude against the world in general. And in Indonesia, Noordin Mohammed Top, planner of both the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings, was at last tracked down and killed on September 18.

Not at all bad, on the face of it. On appearances alone, it seems that the terror war is going great guns, with networks being rolled up one after the other.         

But at the same time there exist a number of disturbing developments, beginning with these very cases. Take the Zazi arrest. According to NRO's Andrew McCarthy,  a hot-dog New York detective squad nearly blew the case by questioning Zazi's NYC contact, the Queens imam Ahmad Wais Afzali, without FBI knowledge or approval. Afzali played stone-face until the cops left, then immediately warned Zazi, requiring the FBI to move in prematurely. What followed was a ludicrous back-and-forth questioning of Zazi over a period of several days while the Feds collected enough evidence to make the charges stick. Latest word is that a number of accomplices are now being hunted. Also warned by the imam? Nobody seems to know. The post-9/11 promise of a coordinated national antiterror effort appears to be stillborn.

Further questions surround Zazi's trip to Pakistan on a flimsy excuse ("visiting relatives") to receive explosives training. While this may well have been the factor that triggered official interest in the first place, it does make you wonder how many such trips are being made. As for Smadi, he immigrated to the US from Jordan in 2007 after being picked up on a panhandling charge a short time previously. How did he get the money to settle in the U.S.? And how precisely does a talentless, unskilled layabout qualify for residence?

The questions don't stop there. We have the release of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi as part of a business deal between the Brown and Qaddafi governments, for which the words squalid and obscene aren't inflammatory enough. (Recall Megrahi's offense: direct responsibility for the Pan Am 103 bombing that killed nearly 270 people.) At first this seemed like yet another of the nearly infinite series of stupid Labour tricks until it was revealed that the Obama administration gave the go-ahead.

In August a U.S. court directed the release of Mohammed Jawad, captured after throwing a grenade at American soldiers in Kabul in 2002. The reason? His confession had been "coerced". (Evidently being caught throwing a grenade isn't enough anymore.) Jawad then took off for parts unknown. This is something I suppose we'll have to get used to. (It's worth mentioning that out of thirty habeas corpus proceedings involving Gitmo inmates, the government has prevailed only in eight.)

Late September saw a "new policy" in place in Afghanistan in which prisoners held at Bagram will be allowed to "challenge" their detentions before a Detainee Review Board. (They're covered by the Bill of Rights, you know. No, really.) It seems that Jawad would have been home free either way.

In Pakistan, Jude Kenan Mohammed,  yet another one of those weird Islamo-American outcasts, neglected to show up for a court appearance involving his arrest for weapons possession and lack of documentation. Mohammed was the only member of the North Carolina Jihadi squad still at large, a fact well-known to Pakistani law enforcement, who let him loose on bail anyway.

It seems that Richard Reid, the Pythonesque "shoe-bomber" who provided a much-needed moment of comic relief during the dark days of late 2001, is no longer doing hard time in the strictest sense. This summer the Justice Department, after consultations with nobody, decided to "ease restrictions" on Reid, allowing him to spend time with other imprisoned terrorists, to establish contact with people outside prison, and to talk with the media. No word on whether he's asked to have his sneakers back.

That very same Justice Department has now turned its attention to more worthy targets with Eric Holder's appointment of Connecticut prosecutor John Durham to "investigate" Bush administration's anti-terror policies, with emphasis on interrogation techniques. We all know how this goes -- an increasingly frenzied hunt for a suitable victim, trial and verdict provided ahead of time by the media, the courtroom persecution of a harmless bureaucratic figure guilty of no more than a procedural or paperwork error, the final proclamation of success as the victim is destroyed. There's little doubt that relentless pressure will be put on the defendant in hopes of  taking down some universal hate figure such as Rumsfeld or Cheney, if not the Master of Evil himself. If they hear of the proceedings, no doubt Megrahi, Jawad, and Kenan Mohammed will be seen to smile broadly.

And to wrap it up, the administration has turned over all further interrogations to an FBI-administered High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which will be limited to "non-coercive" methods, all of which, we know from Al-Queda documents, are well known to the Jihadis and vigorously trained for. In return, all international terrorist organizations have sworn to limit their attacks to Starbucks and Whole Foods outlets. Or not.

It would be bad enough if these were unrelated errors. But they are no such thing. They are the results of policy. A sea change has occurred in the conduct of the War on Terror (or the Stern Hand of the Obamiate or whatever they're calling it these days). It's no longer a matter of combat, no longer a life and death issue, no longer even a war. It is now a Hope and Change shadow play, arranged to display the Messiah's magnanimity and saintliness.

All Appeasement, All the Time

There has been a conscious decision, by Obama and his advisors, to abandon the firm and decisive strategy that kept this country safe for eight years. It has been replaced by... anybody's guess would work here. No one has the vaguest idea of what the administration's terrorism policy might be. Despite all the wailing over excessive secrecy, this was not an issue with Bush. No president since Lincoln was more straightforward about what he was up to. We might not have known the route, the means of transport, or the schedule, but during the Bush years we damn well knew exactly where we were headed. With Obama, we can't even be certain we're moving.

One thing is clear: Obama's policy toward terror is an extension of his foreign policy in general. And that can be expressed in a single word: appeasement. Is there anyone Obama hasn't appeased? Less than a year into his term, he's appeased the Russians, the EU, the Palestinians, the Saudis, and the Muslim world in general, taking his Cairo speech into account. (I had a line here wondering who he appeased in Denmark, but now we know. In Copenhagen Obama snuggled up to the slimiest members of the committee by stomping all over the reputation of his own country. I doubt that anyone today has any clear notion of how deeply this individual will be despised by the time his term is over.) This is more than a political stance; it's something close to a behavioral default. Now reinforced with a Nobel Peace Prize. It's the way Obama does things, and he's doing it with terror.

The terrorist releases, the easing up on Reid, the promised closure of Gitmo, the new procedures in Afghanistan, the nod and wink on the Megrahi deal, and certainly the interrogation restrictions and the Holder investigation, stand as acts of appeasement and nothing else. (The last pair act as twofers, intended to mollify both terrorists and Obama's leftist base.) The rationale behind appeasement during the 1930s that motivated Chamberlain and his legion of soft Conservatives was the belief that appeasement comprised a transaction between two rational parties. If enough concessions were made to Hitler, he'd be satisfied and would give up on aggressive behavior. With benefit of hindsight, we know today that Hitler was in no sense rational, rendering any such calculations utterly beside the point. Do we need hindsight to tell us the same about the Jihadis?

The current rationale is both more convoluted and more simpleminded, and derives directly from Obama's leftist roots. There is no transaction implied or necessary. The left views the world as a dialectical construct divided into oppressed and oppressor. The party that holds power is the oppressor, no argument accepted. Actions, intentions, and circumstances mean nothing and change nothing. The strong power, in this case the United States, is ultimately responsible for everything that occurs, without exception. The weak suffer in silence while awaiting liberation.

In this view, appeasement is simply a method of restoring the balance between oppressor and oppressed, a method of ensuring justice on behalf of the victim.  Appeasement is of benefit to both parties, empowering the victims while rendering the strong party less capable of oppression. This explains why the left, personified by Obama, is desperate to shed national power so as to shed responsibility, and with it the "oppressor" label. So we have the cancellation of the F-22, the abandonment of the European missile defenses, talk of universal nuclear disarmament, and appeasement of terror.

What happens afterward? That's not something we're supposed to ask. But we can assume that the benign aura of Obamahood will attain international dimensions, with all of humanity basking in the glow of the rising donut. At least that's what we can gather from Obama's September 21 UN speech, with all its references to global governance, cooperation, and interdependence. This may well be all the solution that we are ever going to hear.

Of course, it's no solution at all. The entire strategy -- if that's the proper word -- is going to end badly. The administration has opened a door, a door into a very dark place. Something is going to come through that door. It's only a question of when.

The Threat

Our security forces claim to have a firm handle on Al Queda as far as their plans for the U.S. are concerned. The network is well penetrated, with continuous information making its way to where it will do the most good. (Enough said about this - the Washington Post piece containing that information goes into far too much detail for my liking, which is only to be expected from the names on the byline.)

This may in fact be true at the moment -- though the existence and activities of a certain Zazi might arouse some doubts. But it's not likely to remain the case. Administration actions are undermining the security effort while encouraging the Jihadis. Eventually the two curves will intersect.

What should we expect? The most recent attempts were amateur hour, of a piece with Reid attempting to light up his sneakers. Zazi had settled on TATP (Triacetone Triperoxide), a hydrogen peroxide/acetone mix used in the 2007 London bombings. This required purchasing large quantities of nail-polish remover, quite out of character for someone of his particular demeanor. Smadi had no such worries, his "explosives" being supplied by cooperative Jihadis who turned out to be FBI agents. The possibility exists that these were pickup operations, attempts to give Obama a jolt, to present him with a kind of greeting card: welcome to town, look forward to doing business with you. If that's the case, they may have had to settle for what resources were available at relatively short notice.

The long run is another story. The Jihadi world is vast and complex, with many levels that are opaque to us. Those levels will eventually produce a generation of well-trained, professional terrorists, a different breed than what we've dealt with up until now.  They will make their way here (and perhaps are already doing so). The latest attempts show us that this is not difficult, that even the amateurs can set up working networks inside this country. That alone should give us pause. (Others networks exist as well. It was recently revealed that the Somali community in Seattle has joined that of Minneapolis in providing active Mujahedin to the Somali warlords, including suicide bombers. Despite efforts to ignore the problem, these count -- eventually they are going to be made use of within our borders.)

Rumors of an upcoming strike are abundant in the Muslim community, pointing toward something even bigger than 9/11. (This is unlikely, no matter what it might be. What gave 9/11 its impact was shock. The same level of shock cannot be attained twice in a row. People to this day shake their heads over Hiroshima. Little is ever heard of Nagasaki.) This shouldn't alarm us; rumors of that type are always raging through those circles. All the same, retired security agent Daniel J. Hill -- one of the few individuals to predict the WTC attack -- believes that a strike referred to as the "American Hiroshima", using a small plane and a suitcase nuke to attack an American city, is in the planning stages.

The problem here is that suitcase nukes as such don't actually exist. What goes under the name is the size of steamer trunk and correspondingly heavy. They are also of low yield, well under a kiloton, on the order of 2 or 3% the yield of the Little Boy, the Hiroshima bomb. (For comparison, the total equivalent yield of the WTC strike has been calculated at 2 to 3 kilotons.) There are serious questions as to how such a weapon would be procured, armed, and smuggled into the country. So the "suitcase bomb" can for the moment be left out of our calculations. (Twenty years from now, when Iran has mastered the technology, will be a different matter.)

Similar objections can be made to EMP pulse attack, which has attracted considerable attention in recent months. In this form of attack a nuclear weapon is detonated in the upper ionosphere over the center of the country, whereupon a cascade of high-energy electrons bathes the U.S. from coast to coast, destroying all types of electrical equipment. Some years ago I wrote a piece for this site calling attention to this possibility, which resulted in responses from a working scientist and several engineers, who explained (in one case with the aid of equations, to which I gave the classic answer drawn from Conan, "One... two... three... hmm, you're right.") that while a high-altitude EMP pulse would be damaging, it would by no means be an apocalyptic event. The doomsday scenario assumes perfect behavior by all elements, something that can't happen in the natural world. Electronics would be damaged directly beneath the explosion, maybe even several hundred miles in each direction, but not across the entire country, leaving us helpless and reduced to the "level of the 19th century". An EMP strike would be useful as part of a coordinated attack, but it is not a method open to terrorists.        

Neither is biological warfare. Whatever was actually behind the anthrax attacks of 2001 (The matter is ripe for independent investigation. I believe they were carried out by Jihadis for the same purpose as the WTC strikes. Coincidence can be stretched only so far.), they clearly demonstrated that biowar techniques have their limitations. They are neither as effective nor as all-encompassing as was previously predicted and war-gamed by military powers across the planet. Microbes are living things and as such have their own rules, not all of which we yet understand.

Something similar can be said of nerve gas. Such weapons have distinct problems of preparation and transportation. Some of these can be overcome through use of "binary" gases, which come in two separate elements which are mixed only when the gas is deployed. But this is a level of complexity probably not open to the Jihadis at the moment. It's true that very few methods of killing are as horrifying. The 1995 Tokyo attacks by the Aum Shinrikyo cult gives us a good picture of nerve gas capabilities -- destructive but not overwhelming. A sophisticated delivery system could change things.

Napalm as a weapon is nearly as disturbing in its effects as nerve gas. (Recall the photo of the badly-burned Vietnamese child fleeing down the roadway, one of the most compelling pictures of the war.) A point often overlooked is that the formula for napalm is quite simple -- even more straightforward than that of Zazi's TATP. Take a large sack of polystyrene cups and start feeding them into a gallon of gas. When the cups stop melting, you have a plasticized gasoline that is a close match for the formula of Napalm B (AKA "super-napalm"), both hotter and more destructive than the older "organic" napalm. Consider a gas tanker full of the stuff, then consider the interest that the Jihadis have shown in shopping malls. 

But dirty bombs -- normal explosives laced with radioactive waste -- are probably the best method of creating not only point destruction, but long-term economic destruction and psychic debilitation through mass fear -- in a word, terror. No greater impact with less effort can be gained using the class of weapons available to the Jihadis. Keep in mind that one attempt, by Jose Padilla, has already been made. Sometime, somewhere, a dirty bomb is going to go off. After all, we're talking about x-ray machines. A few years ago, somebody dumped the guts of a machine in a favela, a Brazilian slum. The inhabitants pried it open looking for something worth selling. The children were attracted by the pretty blue glow of the radioactive cesium within, rubbing it on their faces and running it through their hair. Some of them survived for several weeks.   

The Road Up

Those are the possibilities that face us. (There are others -- airliners from Canada and points overseas are still a threat, and the Internet may turn out to be everybody's wild card.) They are listed not merely to create unease, but to focus the mind. These possibilities have been set aside by the media, the intelligentsia, and the Obama administration. We're told, in dismissive tones, that the Bush era was an epoch of fear. We have flipped the page and abide in a new and unparalleled epoch, in which there is nothing to fear at all. We'll see. Sometimes fear can be a very healthy emotion.

But only if it serves as a goad to action. A major mistake by the Bush administration was to renounce the use of the country's most significant resource -- the American people -- instead choosing to rely almost solely on professionals. Now the professionals are being made to stand down, and the time may come when the last line of defense is the stone that was thrown aside. Nor is this any sort of fringe opinion. Recently the Major Cities Chiefs Association recently called for the establishment of iWatch, a kind of super-neighborhood surveillance network to keep a close watch for terrorist activity. Among the figures involved in this effort is Chief William Bratton, one of the shrewdest and most capable police officers of our time. (Zazi himself was questioned by a store clerk after buying out the store's supply of nail polish remover. The clerk then reported the incident to police.)

What we require is a nationwide network energized by the impulse behind the tea parties and the spirit of Flight 093. Something that will depend in no way on direct government support but leverage the power of the Internet, modern communications, and networking technologies to support frontline security forces -- the police, fire departments, EMS, and other first responders -- with information and assistance. What this requires in training, liaison, and financing remains to be seen. Serious efforts in this direction should begin as soon as possible. It is not something we can do without.

The FBI and other security agencies have done yeoman work, and they will continue to do so for as long as they are allowed. But it has been said a thousand times: the Jihadis need to be lucky only once. Stupidity and luck have kept us safe thus far. The Jihadis have been stupid. That will cease. As for luck... the saying goes that we manufacture our own luck. Our security forces have effectively been ordered out of the luck business. We will have to take over.     

And what happens when our luck flees at last, and we are left with a collapsed building, a ruined American city, casualties in the five figures or more? What will Obama's response be?

What has his response ever been? Narcissists, remember, are never at fault. He will blame it on Bush, and give a fine speech. He will look for someone to appease. His people will poke around to see what advantage can be made of the crisis. His followers will nod and smile and say that it's all right if Obama says it's all right. We'll begin to hear whispers in the media and academy and the think-tanks concerning the "limits of power", that we must "come to terms" with a new world, that it's "time to talk". There is a price to be paid for electing an undergrad Marxist as chief executive, and it will be paid.

It will not be this country's proudest moment. But it will not mark the low point either, but instead the signpost showing us the road up. We will see the doctrine of appeasement being discredited for the moment (not forever -- appeasement is an expression of human weakness, and as such, eternal). We will see Obama as humiliated as any president has been in our lifetimes. We will see national attention turned to where it must be turned ---the defense and survival of our country.

We are at the low point now, walking though a dream world, convinced that we can make friends with monsters, that a man who is rapidly revealing himself as the most inept national leader since Franklin Pierce can act as our protector. We have, in a real sense, failed to learn the lessons of this war, the way we learned the lessons of WW II, lessons that were later applied to the Cold War. But the Jihadis are patient teachers, and we will be given plenty of opportunities to get it right.
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