Libertad Digital, September 11

9/11: Jihadism and Us 15 Years Later

Are we safer 15 years after 9/11?

2016-09-11 by Rafael Bardají

For a great majority, the Islamic jihad against the West began on September 11, 2011 with al-Qaeda’s shocking and dramatic attacks in New York and Washington D.C. Until that day, few knew of Osama bin Laden’s existence or about his plans to put an end to the American presence in the Arab world, to impose on the Muslim world an authentic Islamic system of life, and finally to subdue all infidels. Those who had paid some attention to his fatwas and declaration of war against America in 1996 did not take them seriously enough. Policymakers ignored the warning signs that something was afoot, e.g. his attacks in Kenya and Tanzania against the American embassies in those countries (1998), the bomb plot against the Los Angeles Airport (1999), or the USS Cole bombing while in port in Aden, Yemen (2000).

The Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, that researched 9/11, ended up blaming U.S. intelligence, police, and counterterrorism forces on "failure of imagination" in preventing those attacks since they may have been unable to connect the dots to have a clear picture about the level and extent of the threat operationally posed by bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. Today, however, we are all convinced to be al-Qaeda and jihad experts. But, is this true?

Right now I am on the 101st floor of the so-called Freedom Tower, officially the One World Trade Center, which has poorly replaced the symbolic and spectacular Twin Towers in the New York skyline. The only difference to access the observation deck, compared to the Top of the World of the destroyed South Tower, is security screening and a handful of agents. However, while I admire unbeatable, unobstructed 360-degree views, I cannot help myself pondering the same question: Are we safer 15 years after 9/11?

Unfortunately it is not an easy question to answer. On the one hand, Western nations have spent billions of dollars and euros to improve antiterrorist defense systems. Nothing exemplifies it better than the memory of how easy it was to fly in the 80s and 90s compared to today’s nightmare of security screenings, searches, restrictions, and long lines. Although some believe that many of those millions have been spent on systems and bureaucracies that have done nothing to improve security, as Steven Brill argues in his article Is America Any Safer?, published on this month’s issue of The Atlantic, the fact is that, since the counterterrorism forces have been able to prevent a significant number of attempted attacks in recent years, it makes me think that we have somewhat improved in the field of detection and prevention. Intelligence services have increased their staff knowledgeable on Islamism, created information fusion centers in all police corps, created specialized units, and introduced new security procedures on public transportation; while the military has been able to directly learn the tactics to use in order to combat Islamist insurgency and terrorist groups.

Yet, as in chess, in strategy it is as important to know what we do and what the opponents do. Who has improved more in these 15 years, we or the jihadists? Bruce Riedel, a former White House official for the Bush and Obama administrations, is blunt about it: "We have successfully built up our defenses so that here, at home in the United States, we’re probably safer than we were a decade ago but abroad our terrorist enemy is more numerous, more barbaric, more dangerous than ever before.” That is Riedel’s conclusion at the Brookings Institution, a prestigious American think-tank where he currently works.

"Geronimo E-KIA!", a brief description in real time, as they say now, was delivered from Abbottabad via a microphone in the helmet of a member of the Navy SEALs Special Forces so that the news about the killing of Osama bin Laden could be relayed to those in an underground room at the White House. The mastermind of 9/11 was dead. It took the Americans ten years to track him down. After the operation, a satisfied president Obama claimed that, "the world is safer today" and that it advanced the end of al-Qaeda. Fred Lucas, a CNS journalist, would point out in one of his November 2002 dispatches the 32 occasions in which the American president touted the defeat of al-Qaeda during those months.

Obama’s counterterrorism policy of eliminating al-Qaeda leaders directly or via drones seemed to be paying off and bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, would then spend more time and effort in remaining hidden than in leading his acolytes. The abrupt appearance of the Islamic State (IS) on the jihadist scene, its repudiation of al-Zawahiri’s authority, its confrontational strategy of immediately creating the caliphate, and, not least, its string of victories that gave IS the territorial control of half of Syria and a fourth of Iraq, generated the view that al-Qaeda’s fate was definitely sealed – if not entirely defeated at our hands, at least widely derided and defeated by the most radical jihadists.

However, and against the mantra repeated by all the typical experts, al-Qaeda is still alive and is still posing a real threat to our interests and people. Far from surrendering in the face of its many devotees’ dismay, al-Qaeda has developed a completely different strategy, more compassionate and less brutal towards Muslims and has managed to thrive in areas of chaos such as Libya and Yemen, where it represents the main jihadist force today. Al-Qaeda has also kept IS at bay in the Sahel. In Syria, the previously-called al-Nusra Front, now called Front for the Conquest of the Levant (Jabhat Fatah al-Sham), remains the most capable group to present resistance to the regime in Damascus.

As two good experts on Islamist groups, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, of the Hudson Institute, explain; “The majority of analysts believed that IS would eclipse al-Qaeda, if it had not done so already, and that IS’s rise threatened to make al-Qaeda irrelevant or even defunct. The conventional wisdom held that al-Qaeda could only remain relevant by either carrying out terrorist attacks abroad or else trying to replicate IS’s brutality and ostentatious growth model. But al-Qaeda defied conventional wisdom. It not only survived the challenge posed by IS, but emerged stronger by pursuing a strategy of deliberate yet low-key growth.” In other words, invisibility, not disappearance. The al-Qaeda networks still operate, their franchises show obedience, they have not created enemies among their donors and supporters, and it hopes to capitalize on the fall of IS, when it happens. Al-Qaeda has never relied on a strategy of consecutive successes, but on patience, leadership and focus on its far enemy. Despite what has been said and done by the Obama Administration, al-Qaeda is still there.

In spite that Barack Hussein Obama defined the Islamic State as a "J.V. team" in an interview with The New Yorker in January 2014, just as the group had just taken over the Iraqi city of Fallujah, the Islamic State is now seen by all American security officials as a serious threat. At least that is what James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence (DNI), assured in the annual report to Congress last February 9: "The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has become the preeminent terrorist threat because of its self-described caliphate in Syria and Iraq, its branches and emerging branches in other countries, and its increasing ability to direct and inspire attacks against a wide range of targets around the world."

However, just as the Islamic State seemed to be an unstoppable force from mid-2014 to late 2015, the perception has now changed again as a result of the successive defeats the group has endured, particularly on Iraqi soil. Nonetheless, Mosul, its capital in Iraq, which should have been liberated months ago by the Iraqi army, is still under IS control. Raqqa, Syria, is far from being jeopardized. The paradox of our security policies is that, at the time, we refused to accept the fact of the caliphate in order to defend to the very end that IS was pure and simple a terrorist group. However, the bulk of the military offensive against the Islamic State is actually against the caliphate’s territorial structures. That is, when the caliphate collapses, and at some point it will collapse either due to military pressure, or by its internal contradictions, the terrorist group will still be very much alive.

As previously with al-Qaeda, we were wrong about the metrics of our victory and the defeat of the Islamic State. For a year, the Obama Administration bragged about inflicting 5,000 Islamist casualties a month. Yet Islamists replenished their forces with 5,000 new arrivals coming from more than 100 countries. Thus, the estimate of IS forces went from 10,000 members to around 60,000, as the weeks went by. Today, while it is true that the flow of jihadists arriving in IS territory has decreased in part due to higher controls on the Turkish-Syrian border, it is so now because its own leaders have made successive calls to stop recruits traveling to Syria and to go to Libya instead – or to stay in Europe. One should also remember that about 7,000 Europeans joined the group’s ranks in a year’s time.

Intelligence officials fear that, as military pressure increases on the caliphate’s territory, IS will increasingly resort to terrorist tactics of indiscriminate attacks. As I write this article, three car bombs have rocked the streets of Baghdad. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for all of them. In his last testimony before the U.S. Congress, Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL [as members of the Obama administration refer to IS], presented an optimistic view of the military campaign against IS, but also admitted that, “Our strategy is making progress. However, ISIL as a threat, its existence as a cellular terrorist organization, or an appealing banner for disturbed individuals searching for meaning in their lives, will be with us for many years.”

I do not see necessary to delve deeper into this issue here in Europe, where affiliated or inspired-Islamic State jihadists have not ceased conducting attacks – with particular viciousness against France. In fact, if we do not exclude the current officially presented as "crazy people" and we factor in all the violent attacks of a religious nature carried out in Europe by jihadists, from the Charlie Hebdo attack on January 7, 2015 until today, there have been 60 attacks in 13 countries by Muslim-affiliated groups such as IS or just spontaneous actors. All these attacks have certainly not been car bombings, suicide attacks or with Kalashnikovs, but one should remember that the 9/11 weapons of choice were civilian airplanes and that a transport truck was used for the Nice attack. Why would you disregard a machete as an Islamic terrorist’s instrument of choice?

According to the most comprehensive information on Islamist attacks, compiled by the organization “The Religion of Peace”, there were 176 Islamist attacks in 12 countries during the second half of 2001 with 3,508 people killed (532 if we do not take into consideration the 2,976 victims of 9/11) and 1,561 injured. In 2015 (that is, last year), there were 2,862 attacks in 53 countries, with a deadly balance of 25,594 casualties and 26,141 injured. So far this year, there have been 1,608 Islamist attacks in 54 countries with a balance of 14,244 casualties and 17,272 injured. If they keep this pace, the 2015 figures will be surpassed.

While most of the attacks and victims can certainly be found within the Muslim world in that peculiar religious war that jihadists wage against those who are not their followers or those whom they consider infidels, Western casualties have been on the rise.

What does all this mean? That, on the one hand, our societies have been much more strong or tough than expected – we could say “resilient” to be more in tune with the argot of the trade. At least in Europe, it would seem that we have become accustomed to the atrocity of the month as if jihadist barbarism were a brute force of nature, harmful but inevitable. Thus, we stoically endure, for example, that Brussels airport, the theoretical capital of Europe, remains closed for weeks after a terrorist attack. In that fashion, state existential security is not compromised. However, by contrast, the security of people, of individuals, not of the collective, has suffered obvious deterioration. Today there is a higher likelihood of being in the wrong place at the wrong time than 15 years ago. Barring that terrorist organizations may acquire weapons of mass destruction, biological, radiological, or nuclear, the gap between institutional security and individual security will only increase over time. There is one simple reason: It is easier to stab someone than to blow up a nuclear power plant. Launched this week, the Islamic State’s most recent publication, the first issue of its magazine Rumiyah (its translation would be Rome, a more than significant name), calls to drench the streets of the West in blood, from America to Australia.

The joy of having eliminated al-Adnani—al-Baghdadi’s deputy leader, ideologist, propaganda boss, and head of the Islamic State’s cells on our soil—was very short-lived. There is something we should tattoo in our brains: The jihad did not start with bin Laden in 2001; it started much earlier. Some people talk about 1979, when Russia invaded Afghanistan, Khomeini brought to fruition his Islamic revolution in Iran, and jihadists assaulted Mecca. We should surely look even earlier. The jihad will not end with the elimination of the caliphate or the defeat of the Islamic State. At least not while we refuse to see the entire global picture, that the wave of "crazy" armed Muslims with knives and axes has less to do with brain dysfunction and more with an entire system of beliefs and doctrines emanating from Islam and that constitute Islamism. We are no longer experiencing failure of imagination, but failure of a sense of reality and the value of common sense to call things by their true names – including our enemies.