Is Obama’s view on terrorism wishful thinking?

by Robert Maynard

In President Obama’s speech last Thursday to the National Defense University, he made the claim that “scale of the threat” from Jihadis has fallen to pre-9/11 2001 levels.  Some analysts take issue with this view, and at least one sees current events leading to an increased threat.  Here is what some leading national security analysts think of President Obama’s assertion:

“This is a total fabrication,” said Steven Emerson, whose Investigative Project on Terrorism tracks radical Islam. “The ‘scale of this threat in the 1990s never closely resembled the terrorist attacks post-9/11. This is an outright lie.”

The Heritage Foundation has been cataloging foiled terrorist attacks post-9/11 by Islamic groups. The number: 54.

James Carafano, a military analyst at Heritage, said the 1990s numbers “were a fraction of that.”

Mr. Obama on Thursday delivered a speech at the National Defense University that came close to declaring victory over al Qaeda, saying it is now operating franchise groups.

He also declared an end to the global campaign against terrorism, saying the U.S. would focus on individual cells.

“As we shape our response, we have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/ 11,” Mr. Obama said.

“Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless global war on terror but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America,” Mr. Obama said.

Economist and foreign affairs expert David P. Goldman even sees the possibility of thing getting worse.  The instability in the Arab world created by the failed “Arab Spring” could very well provide a training ground for a new generation of battle tested Jihadis:

Syria’s crack-up is at the top of the agenda, but the breakdown of putative nation-states extends across nearly all of the Muslim world. As Amos Harel reported in the Tablet symposium, the prime minister of Libya “has to cross checkpoints manned by five different militias, on his way home from office.” In place of regular armies controlled by dictators, Libya is crisscrossed by ethnic and sectarian militias (including the one that murdered our ambassador last September). Egypt is on the brink of economic collapse and state failure; Iraq is in the midst of a low-intensity sectarian war; Syria’s civil war already is being fought out in Lebanon; and Turkey’s border has become unstable.

A vast number of young men have been drawn into irregular combat. Syria has become the cockpit of a Sunni-Shi’ite war, with Turkey and the Gulf states funneling money and jihadists into Syria while Iran sends Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah irregulars to the aid of the Assad regime. The young men of Libya already are mobilized into militias; Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood cells and Salafists and football mobs are not yet armed, but are organized. Iraq’s sectarians are armed to the teeth, in part thanks to American funding of the “Sunni Awakening” during the 2007-2008 surge. Very large numbers of young men are ready to fight to the death, while the breakup of the fragile civilian society of these countries draws more and more of them into the maelstrom. Terrorism has become a way of life in Syria, where both sides instigate atrocities, in part to intimidate their opponents and in part to bind their own fighters to the cause by making them complicit in such crimes.

If Afghanistan fed the terrorist pool during the 1980s and the 1990s, the sectarian wars of the 2010s will increase the prospective pool of terrorists–young men with no skill except irregular warfare, nothing to return to, nothing to lose, and with no motivation except fanatical hatred.

Contrary to popular impressions, the most important means at the disposal of American intelligence services to control terrorism was the cooperation of Arab intelligence services. I do not mean to deprecate the diligence and sacrifice of the CIA team that hunted down Osama bin Laden, but the fact is that U.S. intelligence never had enough Arab speakers to infiltrate terrorist organizations, or enough translators to process the flood of SIGINT. It also did not have the mandate or the personnel to employ interrogation techniques which are routine in the Arab world. America leaned on Arab governments; after the overthrow and execution of Saddam Hussein, it had considerable credibility to do so. Nasty, dictatorial, oppressive regimes usually chose to help rather than thwart the U.S. out of fear that they would be next. That is why it was a good idea to make a horrible example out of one unfriendly regime (I would have preferred Iran), and why I supported the American invasion of Iraq (although not the nation-building commitment that followed).

Arab governments are less states than hotels, where the proprietor rents out rooms without asking too many questions about what happens inside the rooms. It is possible to twist the proprietor’s arm to kick down the doors when the behavior of the guests becomes to troublesome. Now many of the states are gone. There is no-one to lean on. There are no cooperative state intelligence services to control their own unruly elements and do our dirty work.

The result is an enormous increase in the number of prospective terrorists and a drastic reduction in our capacity to control them. The motivation for terrorism has increased correspondingly. Radicalized Muslims must now contemplate the ruin of their civilization from Tripoli to Kabul. Millions of Syrians are displaced and have no homes to go back to. Millions of Egyptians are hungry. Not only the suffering, but the humiliation of the national ruin of Egypt and Syria leave radical Muslims with little to hope for. The motivation to take as much of the world down with them has mushroomed in the context of state failure.

It is not simply a matter of non-state actors running out of control. The remaining states, prominently Iran, have seized the opportunity to increase their ability to use terror on a grand scale. Iran’s open attempt to turn Syria into a Persian satrapy–through Hezbollah as well as the infiltration of tens of thousands of Iranian fighters–is intended to gain control of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal and to turn Syria into a weapons platform from which to attack Israel. The scattering of Middle Eastern arsenals (starting with Qaddafi’s shoulder-fired surface-t0-air missiles), meanwhile, provides terrorists with a quality of weaponry they never before possessed.