Does Killing Terrorists Actually Prevent Terrorism?

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Mustafa Abu al-Yazid in 2008 - / AFP / Getty Images

Reports surfaced Monday night that a missile strike in Pakistan had successfully killed Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, also known as Sheik Saeed al-Masri, who was serving as Al Qaeda’s third in charge. This is just the most recent operation to have targeted terrorist leaders in the Middle East and Central Asia. As Mark Hosenball reports on DECLASSIFIED, “Al-Yazid is the latest in a string of alleged Al Qaeda No. 3s either to have been captured or killed.” In addition to the strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the U.S. has recently sent cruise missiles after Al Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

And that’s in addition to the more conventional military operations carried out by the tens of thousands of troops each in Afghanistan and Iraq fighting counterinsurgency against Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and various affiliates and other violent organizations. But, as NEWSWEEK recently reported, U.S. law-enforcement officials have seen a recent surge in terrorism plots inside the U.S. In September 2009 three men were arrested for an alleged plot to bomb the New York City subway system. Army Psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan is accused of killing 13 fellow soldiers in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, last November. On Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to ignite a bomb in his underpants on an airplane bound for the U.S. And in May, a car bomb was discovered smoking on the street in Times Square. All of these actors claimed affiliation or inspiration with Al Qaeda or an affiliate such as AQAP or the Taliban.

These terrorist plots suggest that our recent efforts, and even successes, in pursuing the military or ideological leaders of these groups has not stopped, or even reduced, their followers desire to attack American civilians. But perhaps the fact that the overwhelming majority of these plots have been foiled, or failed on their own, should give us comfort, and not just in the sense that we’ve been lucky. Chasing terrorists in Waziristan with missiles clearly is not going to end, or definitively win, the “War on Terrorism,” and whether we should think about a diplomatic rapprochement with these groups instead of fighting an endless war with them is a legitimate question. If the U.S. could avoid war with the Soviet Union, a.k.a. the “Evil Empire,” why not Al Qaeda or the Taliban? But that does not mean we have nothing to show for our efforts in the Middle East since September 11.

gal-tease-al-qaeda-america-tease Click the image to view a gallery of Americans joining Jihadist groups

More than eight years after the U.S. successfully invaded Afghanistan, and six months to the day after President Obama announced a troop surge to pacify the country, it doesn’t appear that selectively killing militants eliminates, or even necessarily reduces, the number of people seeking to do us harm. And that should come as no surprise. The logical fallacy underlying the Global War on Terror bears a striking resemblance to the misbegotten logic of the Iraq invasion: neither nuclear proliferation nor terrorism can be eradicated militarily. Sure, invading Iraq stopped Saddam Hussein from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, but it did not stop Iran and North Korea from pursuing them. The premise that, in former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton’s words, other rogue states would “draw the appropriate lesson” from Iraq’s fate and duly withdraw from pursuing weapons of mass destruction and threatening their neighbors has been disproved. If anything, the opposite has come to pass, as demonstrated by North Korea’s recent sinking of a South Korean vessel and Monday’s announcement that international nuclear inspectors found Iran has a stockpile of nuclear fuel sufficient to make two nuclear weapons. No matter how strong our military is, we cannot invade every hostile country that might seek nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, and suggesting that we pick off some just encourages the others to protect themselves by acquiring them.

Likewise, terrorists can be lurking in any country, including our own, and striking them with missiles is not a feasible approach to eliminating them entirely. Destroying terrorist compounds with heavy artillery tends not to frighten younger generations from joining terrorist movements, but rather inspires them to. Just ask Israel.

So, should the U.S. radically rethink its approach to pursuing terrorists in the AfPak region? Not necessarily. As Hosenball writes, the pursuit of terrorist leaders in Pakistan, initiated by President Bush two years ago and ramped up by President Obama, “has significantly degraded the ability of the Qaeda central command to organize operations like 9/11 or elaborate European plots.” That might explain why so many of the recent terrorist attempts have been so inept. Intelligence gathering has helped break up plots, but some plots have been so poorly executed that even when the government failed to catch them no lives have been lost. Indeed, the Times Square car bomb was so unimpressive that some experts and government officials were initially skeptical of the Pakistani Taliban’s claim that it sent Faisal Shahzad, who has been charged with planting it. But when you are constantly on the run and being hunted, it is considerably more difficult to train and direct an efficient terrorist operation halfway around the world.

So successful strikes like the one on al-Yazid are indeed victories, but unlike, say, the D-Day invasion you cannot draw a line from them to any realistic point of total victory.