Monday, August 9, 2010

Ring the alarm.


You can almost taste the frustration oozing out of this book. (If you're wondering what it tastes like, it's kinda metallic.)

The Age of Sacred Terror was published in 2002, about a year after the September 11th terrorist attacks. This book should have been a bombshell - wait, sorry - lit a fire under - dammit, sorry again - the collective conscience of policymakers and readers alike in America, but that apparently didn't happen (see, Washington Post article on Top Secret America, Abdulmutallab, etc.).

Why not? Well, I don't know - bureaucratic ineptitude, turf battles, an emphasis on strategies that haven't worked, ignoring evidence presented by experts in the field - which is exactly, the authors argue, what caused the intelligence failure that allowed the conditions in which 9/11 was planned to happen. (As an aside - I'm not claiming, and neither do the authors, that 9/11 could have been prevented. But they do point out that, even if it had happened exactly the way it did, we shouldn't have been so blindsided.)

Sacred Terror is co-authored by Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin. Simon served as the Director for Global Issues at the National Security Council (NSC) from '94 to '98, and Benjamin served as the Director for Counterterrorism at NSC from '98 - '99. Both men have impressive backgrounds in international relations and counterterrorism, nonproliferation, and regional studies (Simon is currently the associate director and senior fellow for U.S. Security Studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies).

Sacred Terror's data was gathered from reams and reams of testimony of terror trials, beginning in the mid-90s, including trials of members of al-Qaeda. Interestingly enough, this book wasn't written in response to 9/11. As a concept, the book originated in the late 90s, as Benjamin was preparing to step down from his position at the NSC. Originally, Sacred Terror was meant to educate the reader about various terror groups, their motivations, and their methods. Obviously, 9/11 changed the course of the book, but while Benjamin and Simon were researching Sacred Terror before 9/11, they were still publishing articles warning policymakers about the dangers posed by al-Qaeda, and Simon and Benjamin had a large pool of research and analysis that pointed towards just such an event occurring.

The authors take us back - way back, to the 1990 assassination of Meir Kahane, a rabbi and the founder of the Jewish Defense League and the Kach party, by El-Sayyid Nosair in New York City. Benjamin and Simon date this assassination as the first killing of the terror - their term for jihad as we now think of it. Kahane's assassination was dismissed as the work of a depressed, mentally unbalanced loner and quickly faded from the headlines. But Nosair had trained for this assassination with a bigger goal in mind: the "breaking and exploding...of the structure of their civilized pillars...and their high buildings."

Benjaming and Simon continue to connect the links between other 'lone wolf' terrorists, revealing a complex, highly organized, and extremely effective web of support stretching from American to Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. As bits and pieces of intelligence emerged, much of it given by those arrested, it becomes clear that these jihadis are operating as part of a much larger, quickly responsive, and infinitely adaptive organism. But this didn't square with the accepted concept of a terrorist (much of that ideology borrowed from the terrorist groups of the 60s and early 70s, without the understanding that their motivations and modus operandi had changed), and it was ignored.

As terrorist attacks increased, new agencies and organizations were established to counter them, but their lack of understanding and unwillingness to accept the idea of a large, sophisticated terrorist network, coupled with bureaucratic inertia and an obstinate refusal to share information (often the result of clashes between the upper echelons of leadership) led to organizations that were ill or misinformed, slow to react, unable to develop a cohesive picture of the threat as a whole, and ultimately, failures in protecting America from terrorist threats.

Ironically enough, it was the Clinton administration, not the tough-on-terror Bushies that were the most serious about focusing on terrorism pre 9/11, even if the Clinton administration lacked the focus to make it a serious enough issue to warrant a more targeted and effective strategy. Warnings from officials in the outgoing Clinton administration were brushed aside by the incoming personnel, who were too busy lobbying for the creation of a national missile defense.

Daniel and Benjamin are really telling multiple stories here: first, the development of the philosophy that supports violent jihad against Western targets, beginning with the writings of Islamic scholars from the thirteenth century on. Secondly, the building of momentum behind the jihadist movement and the development of a global network capable of conducting successful terrorist attacks against even fortified targets. Third, the continuing failure of the previous and current American intelligence and analysis community to successfully share and analyze intelligence and make accurate recommendations.

Part of this failure seems to be systemic, a result of the structure of the intelligence community, and part of it seems to be the lack of understanding of the threat, which persists even after the allocation of roughly, by my estimate, eleventy bajillion dollars and the creation of entirely new agencies dedicated solely to countering terrorism. Unfortunately, it still seems to be a creation defined more by its failures than its successes.

So, where does that leave us? Moving to an off-the-grid commune in Wisconsin and learning to make our own charcoal filters? The authors provide several strategies (foremost - remember what you did that didn't work? Try not doing that again.), but many of them require the patience and long-term dedication that our electoral system tends to work against. Why plan for the next 50, 100, or 150 years when you're worried about November's election cycle?

Sacred Terror is well written, well researched, and a very important book, despite being disheartening as hell. Perhaps the most telling paragraph comes not in the text of the book but in the introduction - the authors attempted to arrange interviews with many government officials, including then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Deputy Advisor Stephen Hadley, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet and other CIA and defense officials. The authors were able to secure one (one!) interview after a year of trying.

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