I keep looking for tweets from Osama bin Laden (the real thing, not the jokes). He and his entourage, for the couple of decades I’ve been tracking them, have made a dark art out of exploiting mass media to promote mass murder. But they’ve been losing their touch of late. To capitalize on spectacular attacks of the past, jihadists the world over have to battle for attention with everybody else in the 21st century slipstream of nonstop infotainment. And for more than five years, they haven’t been able to use their most favored means of communication: the slaughter of innocents in the West. Yet their propaganda is looking ever more tendentious and tedious. Over the weekend, weirdly, Osama went on for 13 minutes in an audio message calling for people to help flood victims in Pakistan.
So why isn’t Osama tweeting?
And then it hit me. The Osamists can rely on others—like the U.S. State Department—to sow 140-character fear for them. Was there ever a “travel alert” less useful than the one tweeted on Sunday? “U.S. citizens should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling” in, of all places, Europe. That’s a pretty wide net in a pretty big place. Trying to focus this blurry caution, Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy only made matters worse. Unlike a travel “warning” for, say, the failed state of Sudan, where varying degrees of civil war have been raging for decades, an “alert” is issued to caution travelers against all kinds of threats, including, as Kennedy told reporters, “the current hurricane season in the Atlantic and the typhoon season in the Pacific.”
Well, as Jimmy Buffett used to say, it’s hard to reason with the hurricane season. So, too, with terrorists. What you want to know—what you want your government to tell you—is whether the storm is really coming or not. And there’s been precious little clarification on that point. We can board up our houses or stock up on bottled water before a typhoon, but what are we supposed to do if the fears of Western intelligence services are realized and some lunatics with assault rifles start rocking and rolling, Mumbai-style, up and down the Paris Métro?
In fact, by the time any terror storm gets to that stage, it’s too late. Ostensibly, the aim of a Europe-wide travel alert is a broad message to stay vigilant, like those signs in the N.Y. subway that tell you “if you see something, say something.” Watch out for backpacks. But there are two far more critical principles the public needs to understand much better than it does if terrorism’s going to be kept in perspective and kept in check.
First, there are very few such bad guys in this world, and even fewer smart ones. Any of us can fantasize a vast range of plots. So why don’t they happen? Because nightmares are a whole lot easier to dream up than to see made reality. In 2001, after years of subsidizing and organizing various conspiracies, Osama bin Laden had connected with a handful of evil geniuses capable of planning enormous attacks. One of them, Mohamed Atta, was killed on September 11. The others, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, were hunted down and captured over the following 18 months and are now at Guantánamo. A major reason that there have been no more attacks on the scale of 9/11 is that Al Qaeda’s bench was not, and is not, very deep. Only now are we beginning to see new “masterminds” emerge, but they are being hunted, and bombed, relentlessly.
Second, announce travel advisories to entire continents all you want, but the primary goal should be to slash the ranks of potential recruits. The point has been lost on increasingly strident xenophobes in Europe and the United States, who for their own reasons like to pretend that all Muslims are closet murderers. (You get a sampling of such spittle-flecked rage and unreason in some of the comments on several of my recent columns). The reaction of some, more radical Muslims is predictable, of course: they start to think that if they’re going to be treated like violent jihadists no matter who they are or what they do, then maybe they should think about fulfilling that prophecy.
The actual terrorist plot behind all of this reportedly was disrupted by American drone strikes in the remote mountains of Pakistan’s tribal areas, including a hit that Pakistani sources say took out several German citizens allegedly training to carry out terrorist attacks in Europe. Nor were the Germans alone. French, British, and other European nationals, some of them of Arab or South Asian descent, some not, have been tracked going to train in Pakistan’s tribal areas in recent years.
If Osama did get on Twitter, and of course some of his acolytes and sympathizers are there already, he’d very likely be tweeting every hour, co-opting the latest insults perpetrated by Europeans and Americans who’ve decided they hate and fear all Muslims. (The most recent example: a video posted by some jerk in a suburb of Strasbourg, France, in which he tears up a Quran, folds a page into the shape of an airplane, and sails it at little “twin towers.” He then burns the holy book and urinates on the ashes.) When politicians, commentators, and provocateurs conflate the hopes and desires and opinions and faith of more than a billion people with the bestial violence of a few hundred, they’re playing the game of the beast himself. And then there’s no need for the terrorists to tweet.
NEWSWEEK’s Christopher Dickey is the author, most recently, of Securing the City: Inside America’s Best Counterterror Force—The NYPD.