Last Thursday, my son and I returned home after two weeks in Africa, having been blessedly isolated from television, newspapers, and Internet. No one could reach us on magical Eagle Island, in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, or in the burnt winter bush of Timbavati, on the western border of Kruger Park in South Africa, and we never turned on the TV in our hotel in Maputo, Mozambique. We flew from Hoodspruit to Johannesburg and then to London Heathrow, arriving at half past seven in the morning, took a shower, changed our clothes, and went into the lounge to await our British Airways flight to Washington’s Dulles Airport. And there we learned of the attack. “Welcome back to civilization,” I quipped. It was safer in the wilderness, where the main concerns are hippos and mosquitoes, both of whom kill lots of people, but don’t wage war against us.
There was no excitement at the airport–although our flight was slightly delayed because a couple of crew members got blocked in the city–and for eight hours we had time to ponder. I found myself wondering if other European capitals–especially Rome–would be hit that day, and was relieved to find that it was “only” London on 7/7. No doubt others will follow; the terrorists want us dead or dominated.
Ever since Thursday evening we’ve been subjected to the usual flow of instant analysis and data, and as usual most of it has been wrong. Wrong, as always, in the details, from the number of bombs to the number of victims, and then wrong–or, at a minimum, unconvincing–about the “meaning” of it all. First came speculation that the terrorists were locals, buttressed by a leak from the British government asserting that al Qaeda was recruiting among university students in the United Kingdom. Or maybe not. Shortly thereafter, it seemed that the terrorists were foreigners who sneaked into the country in order to carry out the operation. This was similarly reinforced by stories claiming that the Brits were looking for the same terrorist who had planned the Madrid train bombings.
Inevitably, writers on a short deadline felt obliged to look for the greater significance of the killings in London. The usual suspects, led by the New York Times, blamed it all on Bush and Blair and their perverse willingness to fight back against our murderers. On the other hand, a small cottage industry has grown up around the theory that, bad as it was, the operation is actually good news because, just as the terrorists killed fewer people in Madrid than in New York and Washington, they killed fewer still in London. This was said to “mean” that al Qaeda’s capacity for violence was ebbing. The argument is simple: If al Qaeda could have done worse, they’d have done it. Since they didn’t, they probably couldn’t.
That may be right. But we really don’t know, and I don’t see the value in guessing about something so important. Suppose, as I fear, there is a more violent attack in Rome in the near future. What, if anything, would that prove? That there are more explosives in Italy than in England? It pays to be a bit more humble when analyzing fragments of information, and none of the analysts has spoken of the enormously important “luck” factor. There were reportedly at least two unexploded bombs in London, just as there were unexploded bombs in Madrid. Bad luck for the terrorists. There was a failed suicide mission in the skies over Pennsylvania on 9/11. Unlucky–the infidels fought back. There is also considerable reason to believe that al Qaeda did not anticipate that the assault against the Twin Towers would bring them down. That time they got lucky. Maybe they were unlucky in London. Or maybe, as Sunday reports suggest, there are further bombers waiting to act. Thursday’s event is too small a “sample” to permit us to generalize on the terror universe. And I’m afraid that those who are doing it are looking too hard at a single event, and not hard enough at the overall situation. Policemen are being beheaded in Thailand, Christian missionaries are kidnapped in the Philippines, some of our finest fighting men are being killed in Afghanistan, and bombs are going off again in Turkey.
Indeed, it would be most surprising if the terror masters were cutting back on their jihad, at a time when rising oil prices are pumping vast sums of money into their war chests. The mullahs and the Assads are rotten with cash, and a lot of it is going into the war against us. The theory that our splendid military performance in Iraq has shrunken the pool of terrorists available for operations in the West doesn’t convince me, in large part because we know from their past performances that the terrorists set up these actions years in advance. I am quite certain that they have sleeper cells in every major Western country, and these cells wouldn’t be crippled by events in Iraq in the past several months. The timing doesn’t add up to me. For extras, I think most of the terrorists in Iraq came from the outside, and there’s still a very large pool of potential volunteers throughout the Persian Gulf and North Africa, not to mention the non-trivial number of Western citizens who find fulfillment through acts of terrorism.
Unfortunately, the overall situation remains very dicey, precisely because our focus is too narrow. By concentrating compulsively on Iraq, we are failing to take the battle to the enemy, who finds haven, money, weapons, training and intelligence in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran. Over and over again, you read articles about “the Sunni insurgency,” with a passing reference to “foreign jihadis,” even though Zarqawi himself is a Jordanian who is known to operate with Iranian support.
Meanwhile, Iranian leverage inside Iraq seems to be growing. The recent visit of the Iraqi defense minister to Tehran, which produced a truly frightening agreement by which Iran will be training Iraqi forces, went virtually unnoticed. And there are some scary signs that suggest the mullahs are ginning up a mini civil war in the south, where they are financing both Shiites and Sunnis (the so-called Army of Omar).
I do not know if, as some commentators have suggested, the Iranians were involved in the London bombings, but it really does not matter, for Iran is the most potent force in the terror network, from which the killers in London undoubtedly drew succor. As of 9/11, the terror masters were five: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Today they are three, which is certainly good work on our part. But it isn’t nearly good enough. We cannot possibly have decent security in Iraq unless we end the murderous tyrannies in Tehran and Damascus, and convince or compel the Saudi royal family to shut down the global network of terrorist brainwashing centers they spend billions of dollars to operate.
All this should convince us that it is a mistake to microanalyze the London operation. It is just another event in the terror war, one of many, with many more to come. Its real significance should be seen as a further wake-up call to us and our allies. Our enemies know they are at war, and they are attacking us everywhere they can, in every way they can. Do we really know we are at war, and that we cannot win it within the parameters we have set for ourselves?
All in all, I felt safer in the African wilderness.
–Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. He is resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.