Amy Zegart, a guest blogger at The Volokh Conspiracy, tries to take apart two arguments for why al-Qaeda hasn’t managed to attack us since 9/11 (and not for a lack of trying). She first dismisses a key argument out of hand:
Argument #1: “we’re fighting them over there so they don’t attack us over here.” Yes, and the Tooth Fairy is real. This argument takes the prize for being both misleading and stupid, suggesting that Iraq’s civil war and regional instability are offset by that invisible fence in Anbar province that magically corrals the world’s terrorists and keeps them right where we want them.
That’s not a very good counter at all. Al-Qaeda has a fixed amount of resources. They can’t magically create terrorists — in order to pull of an attack like 9/11, you need to train people. Al-Qaeda can devote resources to fighting in Iraq, or resources to fighting in the US. To do both requires dividing their resources. As bin Laden himself has made clear, al-Qaeda has decided to put its chips in Iraq — and that means that resources that would normally be used for attacks against America have to be spent there.
It’s like arguing that the US military is stronger because of the war in Iraq. We have fixed resources too, and we’re stretching them to the limit to keep going in Iraq. Al-Qaeda’s resources are more limited, and they are taking a lot more casualties than we are too.
As to the argument that the war in Iraq is recruiting new terrorists, for one it seems doubtful that there’s enough recruiting to make up for the ones they’re losing in Iraq. Secondly, new recruits aren’t particularly useful unless they’ve been trained. When you’re sending a good portion of your new recruits to blow themselves up, it’s harder to fill the ranks. Given that being a mid-level boss in al-Qaeda is not a good position for those seeking to live to retirement, the same pressure is being felt higher up the food chain.
In the end, the idea that “we’re fighting them over there so that we don’t have to fight them over here” is actually correct. Al-Qaeda cannot abandon Iraq any more than we can. They can’t afford to lose to the Americans, and so they (like us) have to keep devoting resources to that conflict rather than use them elsewhere. The problem they’re facing is that in the last year, Iraq has become markedly less hospitable to them and that’s adding to their pressures. Fighting a war of attrition with the US has worked for al-Qaeda so far. Fighting a war of attrition in which the Iraqi people are actively working against al-Qaeda is much less tenable for them. Yet they cannot retreat now that they have made Iraq their theater of battle. In many ways, al-Qaeda and the US are in the same boat. Neither can walk away from the conflict without catastrophic losses, and so it has been a war of attrition. The difference is that al-Qaeda doesn’t have to worry about political fratricide or bloviating Senators. We have the better military, but also the disadvantages of our democratic political system.
Zegart also is critical of the argument that we’re better at homeland security since 9/11:
Argument #2: “We’ve hardened the target by making dramatic improvements in homeland security, intelligence, and counterterrorism here at home.” This one sounds more reasonable on the face of it. We’ve seen a number of changes since 9/11. Among them: The FBI has doubled its analyst corps, the intelligence budget has increased an estimated 25%, and counterterrorism “fusion” centers are popping up like mushrooms–with more than 40 of them across the U.S.
Two problems here. The first is your view of progress. Government officials love to report about the half full glass. It’s the half empty part that worries me more.
The problem with this response, and it’s a strong one, is that even if it is true that doesn’t mean that the overall argument is wrong. We have gotten better at counter-terrorism in the last 6 years. We still have a very long way to go to get as good as we can be. However, we’re a much harder target now than we were on September 11, 2001. We’re taking security more seriously, and most importantly the public is much more attuned to the threat of terrorism. As much as we decry profiling in this country, if an Arab male puts on a headscarf and starts threatening a plane, that Arab male is going to get the living crap beaten out of him or worse. The 9/11 plot preyed on the traditional notions of an aircraft hijacking. After 9/11, the passengers will not be so complacent — as the heroes of Flight 93 demonstrates when they learned of what fate the monsters on their plane had intended.
We do need to do more. There needs to be less division between intelligence and law enforcement. However, that doesn’t mean we haven’t taken steps in the right direction.
Those two arguments aren’t the only reasons why we haven’t endured another attack since that terrible day more than six years ago — however, they are important reasons, and we cannot forget that the only real strategy combines both a strong national defense at home, but also ensuring that terrorist groups never get the chance to attack the United States.