Philip Mudd: The Best Way to Contain Terror

The spike of alleged terrorist plots in this country over the past year seems confusing. Law-enforcement officers have nabbed independent plotters in places like Texas and Illinois; a Qaeda-trained individual in Denver; an American involved in the horrific attacks in Mumbai; and now, a young man who planned mass killings in Times Square.

These incidents may seem episodic and detached, particularly if we look at them as separate operations by individuals who may have had some vague connection to Al Qaeda. They make more sense, however, if we understand them as offshoots of a revolution that Al Qaeda aimed to inspire at its inception 20 years ago. Like communism during the Cold War, this is an ideology to be contained, not defeated.

The view of our adversaries is simple. To them, we are the pillar upholding "corrupt" regimes in the Muslim world, and they believe that if we're put under enough pressure, we'll cut and run. We left Lebanon. We left Somalia. In their minds, we'll retreat again and again—if they can put the pressure on.

The question Al Qaeda faced before 9/11 was how to increase that pressure. How could a relatively small, stateless organization really take on an adversary as powerful as the United States? It couldn't—and can't—at least not alone. The answer is ideology. Al Qaeda wants to spread its revolutionary ideology so the pressure increases everywhere. A thousand points of terror, in locations as far afield as the Philippines and Philadelphia—people who think and act like Al Qaeda even if they've never been a part of the organization. So what was once a fairly centralized, active terror organization is now more significant as an inspiration and a movement.

We can see at least three threads of the revolution now: people linked directly to Al Qaeda, like the plotters with backpack bombs in London's subways in 2005; people who join affiliated groups, like the outfit that attacked hotels in Mumbai; and self-recruited individuals. Many Americans thought we were somehow immune to this: Muslims in Europe might get radicalized, but not here in the American melting pot. Such rosy thinking is foolish. This is the age of globalization, in terror as in other things. Chinese economic decisions affect our businesses. But Qaeda ideology, distributed over the Internet by English-speaking clerics, won't reach us?

Still, there's cause for optimism. The leaders of this revolution have increasingly faced tough questions about the murders they commit, even from people who share their anger and frustration. (None other than Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's No. 2, felt compelled to defend himself in an Internet interview in 2008, when he got a question from Algeria about how Al Qaeda justifies killing so many innocents.) Our goal should be to magnify this growing disillusionment. If we overreact to plots and attacks, we risk playing into Al Qaeda's hands. But we also can't forget the lessons of 9/11 and drop our guard.

We will face setbacks. But we should see them as no more than that—individual events that we should counter with patience and precision, as we allow room for the jihadist ideology itself to die. In the most recent instance, we've seen a convulsed media focus on a criminal who failed to explode a car bomb on a street corner in America. Treat him as a criminal, learn how we can do better, and move on. Mean-while, enemies who are losing credibility will look for more ways to strike, and may occasionally succeed in staging spectacular attacks that grab our attention. To the extent possible, we should not give them that satisfaction.

Mudd served as a top terrorism analyst for both the FBI and the CIA; he left the government in March and is now a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation.