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U.S. Must Work to Degrade Strength of al-Qaida

It’s summertime, the terrorist threat board is blinking red and the CIA director’s hair is on fire. The intelligence community delivers to President Bush a brief titled “Bin Laden determined to attack the U.S.” Al-Qaida is chattering and on the move, operatives are finalizing their plans and deputy secretaries are arguing about what to do. But August is around the corner and both the president and Congress are eager for vacation.

Thirty-seven days after the president receives the warning, al-Qaida strikes New York and Washington, D.C.

The summer preceding the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was a period of missed warnings and confused priorities. Six years later, we are facing the same pattern of heightened warnings and government inertia.

Last week, key U.S. counterterrorism officials released an assessment titled “The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland.” The analysis concluded that al-Qaida “has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability, including: a safehaven in [Pakistan], operational lieutenants, and its top leadership.”

The parallels to summer 2001 are plentiful. Al-Qaida had a safe haven in Afghanistan pre-Sept. 11; now they have a safe haven in Pakistan. Then they had cells in London; now they have a base in Britain. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are still on the loose and are frequent contributors to Al Jazeera and CNN.

The difference is that al-Qaida has weathered nearly six years of a one-dimensional U.S. strategy and come out stronger and more resilient. In addition to relocating their headquarters, al-Qaida shifted from training recruits on crude jungle gyms in training camps to instant upgrades of the latest suicide bombing techniques over the Internet. Instead of a single media office in London, MI-5 and Scotland Yard are following 30 plots and 4,000 individuals associated with global terrorism. The Iraq War is training and equipping a new generation of jihadis, even now practicing their wicked tradecraft on our forces in Afghanistan.

Al-Qaida, unlike the United States, has a multi-pronged strategy. It is patient in planning spectacular attacks while maintaining a robust tempo of lower-level plots. Thus, while the homeland has enjoyed six years of relative calm after al-Qaida murdered 3,000 people in the U.S., al-Qaida has killed hundreds of citizens in London, Madrid, Bali, Algiers and Istanbul. And they have slaughtered thousands of Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East.

As the threat evolves, our vulnerabilities multiply. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said last week that he has a “gut feeling” al-Qaida will strike and we might be vulnerable to a new attack. With good reason. We still do not fully know who and what is sailing into our ports and crossing our borders. We still have a funding formula for homeland security based more on pork-barrel spending than on threat and risk.

It is fair to conclude that by almost every objective benchmark the Bush counterterrorism policies are failing. Al-Qaida is anticipating the challenges of the global environment and harnessing them to an ideology. The U.S. simply is not keeping pace.

The U.S. must aggressively degrade al-Qaida, protect the homeland and prevent the spread of this radical ideology and the rise of new terrorists. Three years ago this month, the 9/11 commission proposed an alternative global strategy and comprehensive government reorganization to do this. Yet the components of that strategy are stuck in Congress today, logjammed in Washington politics. There is much blame to go around.

The House and Senate, to their credit, passed this legislation in March, but they have only recently entered the final phase of reconciling differences between the respective House- and Senate-passed bills. The reason for the delay is classic gridlock: competing committees, turf battles and partisan positioning. Congress needs to pass these bipartisan reforms before they leave for August vacations. We all know al-Qaida will not go to the beach.

The president also must do the right thing. After initially opposing the creation of the 9/11 commission, he reluctantly enacted only half of the recommendations and has been threatening to veto the current legislation. He needs to support it and sign it. So far his Cabinet, which was active and engaged with legislators on immigration reform, remains distant from the homeland security gridlock on Capitol Hill.

We all remember when Bush put his arm around a firefighter standing at Ground Zero in New York City. He said the terrorists who did this would soon be hearing from us.

The current policies are indeed being heard and seen, but they are resulting in more jihadis better positioned to attack America. We must change the status quo. It’s time Congress, the president and all of America enact the current legislation and work together to build a bipartisan new counterterrorism policy to replace what has failed. We are running out of time.

Former Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) is president of the Center for National Policy and served on the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

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