9/11, 7/7 and 8/30
On the fourth-year anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks on the US, it is important that we take stock of where we stand. We do not stand in a good place. The US military is bogged down in an intractable guerrilla war in Iraq, which most Muslims view as an aggressive neo-imperialism. Afghanistan is still unstable. The major al-Qaeda leaders are still at large, and recently struck London. Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans on 8/30 have demonstrated that the US government is unprepared to deal with major disasters, and that Bush administration priorities have often been capricious.
There have been no further major acts of terrorism in the United States. There are many theories for why this should be. It is certainly the case that there are al-Qaeda members who would like to hit the US again. But al-Qaeda is only interested in what might be called theatrical terrorism, an attack that takes a big toll of dead and wounded and makes an impact on the enemy’s economy. Such attacks are not easy for a tiny organization like al-Qaeda, which lacks the backing of a state, to carry out. Al-Qaeda used up its really capable people on 9/11 and is now left mostly with incompetents and marginal personalities. The US is a long way from the Middle East or Europe, and security measures have made it difficult for al-Qaeda operatives to get here or to do damage without being discovered first. The American Muslim community is on the whole fairly well integrated into American society, and clearly all but a handful are loyal Americans who wish to see the country they live in flourish. It was the American Muslims who turned in the Lackawanee five, Yemeni-American young men who had been in an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. One group of Muslim American associations pledged $10 million for Katrina relief efforts. Still, an al-Qaeda attack on a dam or on a nuclear plant is still plausible, and there is no room for complacency.
Al-Qaeda simply hasn’t been a priority for Bush. His first priority, all along, has been cutting taxes on his rich friends. The American public is so innumerate that they cannot seem to figure out that if you exclude from taxes another 5 percent of a man’s income who pulls down $10 billion, you are talking about $500 million on which he doesn’t have to pay taxes every year. But if you exclude the same percentage from taxes for someone making $20,000 a year (and there are a lot of those), then you are only saving her from paying taxes on $1000 a year. That the government could cut taxes on the low-income earners, and not cut them on the super-rich, doesn’t seem to occur to the middle class that is so eager for a few crumbs from Bush that they are willing to sell their birthright to government services. Because Bush cut taxes so deeply, and therefore reduced government income and produced a big chronic deficit, he had to steal money for Iraq from various places. The government he appointed to run Iraq for a year (which never had any legal charter) essentially stole Iraq’s petroleum income to use on its projects. Billions of dollars are unaccounted for. It is well documented that Bush stole money from Louisiana ear-marked for improving the levees at New Orleans, and also that he sent Louisiana national guardsmen to Iraq.
The Bush administration has put enormously more resources into its problematic Iraq War than it ever did into the fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. That they have not succeeded in capturing Usamah Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri is a sign of extreme negligence or lack of seriousness. Likewise, the US government appears to have had no inkling that the March, 2004, bombings in Madrid or the July, 2005 bombings in London were in the offing. Given that a very large number of CIA personnel are in Iraq, it is no wonder that they hadn’t been able to penetrate or monitor the radical Muslim terrorists in Western Europe.
The danger of leaving Zawahiri out there to plot against the West was made crystal clear by the July 7 bombings in London and the July 21 attempted bombings. As I noted at the time, the statement released at the time of the July 7 bombings in London seemed to come from an Egyptian. Little did I realize at the time that it was probably written by Ayman al-Zawahiri himself. In the videotape released in early September and shown on al-Jazeera, Zawahiri uses phraseology similar to what was in the announcement posted on 7/7 to an internet site. The surprise for me was that Zawahiri had managed to use a Pakistani jihadi group, the Jaish-i Muhammad, to recruit 3 British young men of Pakistani heritage plus a Carribean to blow up the London underground. Zawahiri clearly had the copy of Muhammad Sadique Khan’s last statement, which he bundled with his own screed. I don’t personally believe there is any question whatsoever that 7/7 was an al-Qaeda operation of the old sort, with Zawahiri actually involved in comand-and-control (unlike in Spain, where an independent Moroccan group with no direct al-Qaeda ties was responsible). It is still unclear if the second bombing attempt, on July 21, was an inept copycat operation or if it was also run behind the scenes by Zawahiri. Its perpetrators included 3 East Africans and a Carribean and used the same explosive (which luckily had gone stale).
In the UK critics of the Blair government concentrated on the question of whether the bombers were inspired to their hatred for their own country by Western atrocities in Iraq. Of course they were. They talked incessantly of what they saw as massacres at Fallujah, and the torture at Abu Ghraib. Blair had been warned by his own intelligence people in 2004 that the Iraq War could well provoke terrorism against the UK. But that debate missed the key question of why Zawahiri is still at large and able to blow up London, four years after he helped blow up New York and Washington.
The Bush administration has dropped the ball on al-Qaeda, big time. The Iraq War has created a new recruiting ground for al-Qaeda and its soul mates among the Sunni Arabs of Iraq. In Haifa Street in Baghdad and in Samarra, there have actually been crowds wearing al-Qaeda insignia. Contrary to what the Bush administration would have you believe, Iraqis had had virtually nothing to do with al-Qaeda before the American invasion. Iraqi Sunnis had once mostly been secular Arab nationalists. But the American destruction of the Baath Party has made religious fundamentalism attractive to them as an alternative political identity. The US has succeeded in pushing 5 million Middle Easterners away from secular nationalism and toward the arms of al-Qaeda. Operations such as Fallujah and Tal Afar, involving the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, the damaging of a majority of buildings in the city, and the deaths of thousands, will not soon be forgotten by the country’s Sunni Arabs. Some have spoken of taking revenge by finding a way to hit the American homeland. Things are not going well.
On top of the failures in the fight against al-Qaeda and the quagmire in Iraq, the US suffered a major blow with Hurricane Katrina and the Great Flood of 2005 in New Orleans (or what used to be New Orleans). The blow was not primarily to the US economy, which is resilient and enormous ($13 trillion?), and which will recoup– though the economic recovery may slow. The blow was psychological and political. The abysmal job that Bush and Co. did in responding to the disaster, which cost so many lives, will not soon be forgotten. What, many security experts are asking, if this had been a terrorist strike? Unpreparedness of this epochal sort could sink the government.
Bush has given us the worst of all possible worlds– a half-finished job against al-Qaeda, an Iraqi imbroglio that could still explode into civil or even regional war– and which serves as an al-Qaeda recruiting tool–, a government starved for funds, an enormous windfall for the rich at the expense of the middle class (which saw average wages actually fall recently), and an inability to respond effectively to a major urban catastrophe.
Four years after September 11, al-Qaeda’s leadership should have been behind bars or dead. Four years after September 11, Afghanistan should have been stabilized. Four years after September 11, the government should have been ready to save lives in an urban disaster.
Bush recently started likening his poorly conceived and misnamed “war on terror” to World War II.
What his handlers have forgotten is how long World War II lasted for the United States.
In four years, Roosevelt and allies defeated Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. In four years, Bush hasn’t managed even to corner Bin Laden and a few hundred scruffy terrorists; or to extract himself from the deserts of Iraq; or to put the government’s finances in good order so that it can deal with crises like Katrina.
Four years. I think about the victims of 9/11, and now 7/7. We have let you down.