Battles against terrorists are mostly fought in the shadows and far away. But they don't always remain there. And when the bad guys attack—or try to attack—closer to home, the public is shocked, then angered: What's happening? Why? One day there might be a minor news item: a vague report from Yemen that missile attacks have killed dozens of men loyal to a local affiliate of Al Qaeda. American forces, or at least American weapons, seem to have been involved. Some of the extremist leaders may be dead, or maybe not. It's all truly distant and deliberately obscure. Then a Nigerian kid who's been spending time in Yemen takes a Christmas Day flight to Detroit and tries to blow himself up along with everyone else aboard.
All he manages to do is ignite his chemical-packed underpants. But the attempt unleashes a firestorm in the American media. The story is not that the would-be bomber failed, it's that he almost succeeded and, regardless, should never have been allowed on the plane. Under heavy political pressure to address public anger, President Obama admits there's been a "systemic failure" in America's screening process.
Yet the surge in efforts to attack the United States over the last few months, including on Detroit-bound Northwest Flight 253, is in many ways a measure of our success on faraway battlefields no one is ever supposed to have heard of. America's ability to gather intelligence, to exploit the power of global law enforcement, and to launch special-operations missions around the world has never been greater. We can carry out remote-controlled attacks that hit Al Qaeda's core leadership and its followers like the wrath of a vengeful god. And that's exactly what we've been doing more aggressively than ever in the last year, blasting away at Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A helicopter-borne commando raid took out a notorious Qaeda organizer in Somalia in September, and U.S. counterterrorist officials have acknowledged embarking on an extensive and extended covert program in Yemen, including two major airstrikes in December.
The onslaught has put extremist groups under mounting pressure. Some could be obliterated. All have found themselves increasingly isolated in a Muslim world where the mainstream is weary of their destructive rhetoric and where even former sympathizers doubt the terrorists' ability to mount another 9/11-style spectacular.
All that, however, means we are entering an especially dangerous phase in which individual, amateurish, would-be terrorists like the 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab are going to crop up more and more. At the widely respected Intelligence Division of the New York City Police Department, analyst Mitchell Silber divides the Qaeda threat into three categories: the core organization of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri that carried out the 9/11 attacks; the affiliates in Iraq, North Africa, Yemen, and elsewhere that want the prestige of the Qaeda connection but have less sophisticated capabilities; and "homegrown" terrorists who are inspired by Al Qaeda's ideology but don't have much access to training or support networks. The United States has made great progress in disrupting the first group: U.S. officials claim that Predator strikes along the Afghan-Pakistani border have killed roughly a dozen out of the top 20 Qaeda leaders in the past two years. But that's driving bad guys in the other two groups—who are more likely to pursue small-scale attacks—to assume a higher profile.
The Qaeda affiliates used to focus entirely on local agendas. But as those in Somalia and Yemen have become the target of mounting attacks by America's regional allies and sometimes directly by U.S. weapons and forces, they've started attracting and cultivating would-be jihadis from the United States itself. Young Somali-Americans who left a world of poverty and gangs in Minnesota to take up jihad in the land of their fathers have fallen in with groups like the Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab that turned some of them into suicide bombers. None have brought the shadow war in Mogadishu back to Minneapolis, but the potential is there.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, tried to take that next step in the skies over Michigan. "When you have an affiliate projecting itself into the U.S. environment, that's a big deal," says an American veteran of the intelligence wars against Islamic extremists who prefers that his identity and that of his agency remain anonymous. The group previously focused most of its energies on attacking the Saudi royal family and Saudi interests. "It had a very clear local agenda, but it also decided to move globally," says the intelligence officer. "To the extent that this idea takes root among other affiliates, the U.S. homeland will become more of a target."
At the NYPD, 2009 is now viewed as the most dangerous period since 2001–02, when Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was plotting his "second wave" of attacks against the United States. (Then, too, the terrorists established a long record of failures, bad judgment, and bad luck, as when "shoe bomber" Richard Reid couldn't manage to light the fuse on his explosive sneakers aboard a transatlantic flight in December 2001.) Several destabilizing factors are coming to a head all at once. As the Iranian regime is battered by internal dissent and external pressure, its Revolutionary Guards have increasing reason to look for ways to hurt the United States. The surge of 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan has given extremists propaganda material to argue that America is bent on the unending occupation of that country. And the continued stalemate in the Middle East is blamed on heedless U.S. support for Israel.
Those last two factors in particular greatly increase the chances of radicalization among Muslims in, or with access to, the West. "Lone wolves" like U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood, Texas, who killed 13 people in November, or Muslim convert Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, who allegedly killed a soldier at a recruiting office in Arkansas in June, claim to have been driven to violence by the actions of the U.S. military abroad. Similar anger encouraged five young Muslim men from northern Virginia to move to Pakistan a month ago and seek training from extremist groups along the border with Afghanistan.
Part of the reason there have been no other Qaeda attacks within the U.S. homeland since 9/11, U.S. officials believe, is that Zawahiri may have rejected more than one plot for being insufficiently spectacular. Qaeda affiliates and individuals like Hasan are not so choosy: Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of the Qaeda faction in Yemen, has called on his followers to bring terror to "residential complexes and subways" in America. And some U.S. intelligence analysts are now concerned that even the core Al Qaeda may lower its standards. When and if Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his cronies come up for trial in New York City, any bomb or shooting spree in a public place—a shopping mall, say, or a subway car—would draw enormous attention. The New York police worry that David Headley, who was arrested in Chicago and accused of conducting surveillance in advance of 2008's terrorist attacks in Mumbai, may also have cased potential targets in Manhattan.
It's telling that the organizers of the Detroit plot decided to take credit even for a failed operation. They wanted to be seen doing something—anything—to retaliate against the United States. So the media arm of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed that "the martyrdom-seeking mujahid brother Umar Farouk" tried to blow up Flight 253 in retaliation for U.S.-backed strikes on terrorist targets in Yemen: "As you kill, you shall be killed."
Of course, that's not what happened. Their fighters were decimated on the ground in Yemen, while their aspiring death angel in the skies over Michigan merely succeeded in burning his crotch. But under the circumstances, a failed operation that garners this much media attention is as good as a victory for an aspiring extremist group. The publicity is a boon to recruitment. "Small events are important to them right now," says the veteran intelligence officer. "If you are sitting in a cave in Afghanistan or Yemen you can say, 'Not half bad—we scared the s--t out of them in America. We were able to get into the homeland. We knocked them back some.' "
Amid this fraught environment the challenge for President Obama is—and I use this phrase advisedly—to stay the course. Clearly, some of America's defenses are faulty. Once again, more efforts will have to be made to coordinate among agencies and to find more effective ways of making sure potential terrorists never get on American-bound airplanes to begin with. Counterterror officials will need to do a better job of engaging and deflecting young Muslims online, where most are now radicalized. But the best defense remains a smart, discreet, devastating offense, and that effort has to be relentless.
At the same time, it's essential to discredit Al Qaeda's ideology, which inspires the Abdulmutallabs and the Major Hasans of this world. Obama must not succumb to the old rhetoric of global confrontation and clashing civilizations. He needs to keep the focus on those small groups and individuals who present a real threat while engaging in the battle of ideas from the high ground of traditional American values. That is why, even though some Guantánamo graduates have wound up leading terrorist cells, as in Yemen, the closing of that not-quite-constitutional prison on the Cuban shore is imperative. The contagion of Al Qaeda's ideas feeds on the notion that Muslims everywhere are oppressed and under constant attack; that their lands are occupied; that their values are disrespected and their faith defiled. And whenever the United States can be lured into a situation that seems to prove those views true, any tactical victory will be outweighed by the strategic setback in the war for Muslim hearts and minds.
So, while the United States continues aggressive operations in the shadows, Obama has to keep the American profile as low as possible. And that will be difficult when his administration is under partisan attack for being soft on national security. He must resist the temptation to claim a covert victory overtly, as the Bush administration did before the midterm elections in 2002 when it scored a Predator hit against an earlier generation of Qaeda leaders in Yemen. No allies in the Muslim world want to be seen working with the United States to kill other Muslims. Obama must not let the United States get dragged into another overt war, and must continue extricating American troops from the occupations he inherited. And, toughest of all, he needs to find a way to calm American nerves at a time when hysterical rhetoric is the stuff of daily discourse.
We all have to understand that this is a very dangerous game—and more than ever when it gets close to being won. In the meantime, says the veteran intelligence officer, "don't flinch, and keep buying Predators."