One of the strong points of the current administration from the point of view of those who follow national-security strategy is that this group actually has a strategy. The previous crowd was reactive tacticians; there were no specific long-term goals, just some vague statements, and in practice they responded (or chose not to respond) to whatever global events came along. However, the Bush team is guided by bona-fide strategic thinkers. The Bush war-fighting strategy has been active, has shaped global conditions rather than been shaped by them, and has been refreshingly consistent. It has been a pleasure to watch the strategy unfold, and especially to track the befuddlement of its nearsighted critics, whose objections are based on nothing more than expediency, and whose internal contradictions mount daily.
A few days ago my boss sent me an e-mail critiquing a line in a New York Times article about the manhunt for top al Qaeda leaders: “The fruitless manhunt serves as a reminder of the Bush administration’s inability to achieve one of the main goals of its antiterror effort, the capture of Al Qaeda’s leaders.” Or, as my boss reworded it, “Failure to capture bin Laden is ‘a reminder’ of failure to capture Bin Laden. Hard to argue with that.” The Times’s tautology has been disrupted by news of the apprehension of al Qaeda military chief Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM, alias “The Brain“), which is a reminder that the ongoing manhunt has not been fruitless, at least in apprehending al Qaeda leaders other than the top two. KSM’s takedown is important for several reasons:
Capturing the archives. KSM was apprehended with multiple laptop computers and numerous paper documents relating to al Qaeda. This information may prove to be even more important than any KSM or his henchmen may supply. Terror networks are not physical entities; they are systems of links, primarily personal affiliations, funding streams, and means of communication. They do not have large armies, buildings, weapons systems, an industrial base, or the other accouterments of traditional adversaries. Thus in taking apart terror networks, finding the people, their money, and their means of communication is critical. Paper documents are useful in this regard — in the past, they were the best one could hope for. Cell phones are beneficial for their phonebooks and records of called and incoming numbers. However, laptops are exceedingly valuable prizes because they are not only means to store documents but are critical communications tools. Names, locations, bank-account numbers, passwords, e-mails, web-browser caches, temp files, cookies, bookmarks, tools for reading encrypted messages, ftp-site records, attack plans, downloaded documents that might give insights to future targets, travel records — there’s no telling what investigators will find and what details of the network will be revealed. Of course, KSM may have been highly disciplined and set his system up with password-protected security features and automatic browser history deletion and so forth. On the other hand, “the Brain” may have been lazy enough to keep his Hotmail account on auto-login.
Steady Progress. KSM is the latest of several important al Qaeda take-downs, including Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri (mastermind of the U.S.S. Cole bombing), Ramzi Binalshibh (a key 9/11 planner), Ali Qaed Senyan al-Harthi (also involved in the Cole bombing, killed in Yemen) and Abu Zubaydah (an important al Qaeda operational commander). It is hard to come up with solid metrics for measuring success in the war on terrorism, but bringing in the bad guys is definitely one of them. It makes good on the president’s promise relentlessly to hunt down the enemies of the civilized world, and makes critics who say the Coalition has made no such progress look uninformed and opportunistic.
Demoralizing the Enemy. The flipside to this point is that KSM’s capture is another reminder to terrorists on the run that they cannot hide forever. In fact, they cannot know how his apprehension and the intelligence gained from it will affect their own security. They may be tempted to move to more secure locations, but of course moving is risky in itself, so at the very least the stress level in al Qaeda must be very high. The circumstances of the KSM capture are also usefully illustrative. It shows those who might be attracted to terrorism for the lifestyle that it isn’t all just world travel to exotic places, impersonating wealthy businessmen and picking up strippers, with the occasional mass murder plots to provide excitement. Sometimes it is being held at gunpoint in your underwear at four in the morning in a flat in Rawalpindi. If you are lucky.
The reward system works. Fugitives may be found through meticulous collection and analysis of evidence, and other times the break comes from tipsters. The Unabomber, for example, was tracked unsuccessfully for years until his brother gave the FBI the information they needed to bring him in. KSM was apprehended reportedly with the assistance of tips to Pakistani authorities from neighbors. He is worth around five million dollars, and the reward should be paid in full with a great deal of publicity. This is hardly a time for bean counters to get stingy. Any way you cut it, rewards are a bargain. They save thousands of man-hours and probably an equal number of lives. This event could be an inspiration to others who might not risk their lives just to help fight the war on terror, but who will do the right thing for instant riches. Consider it an investment.
Preempting future attacks. The initial interrogations of KSM are probably focusing on information related to ongoing attack plans and imminent threats. Despite the lowering of the national threat condition, there are signals that the enemy is up to something. There have been two somewhat specific and dramatic terror attack warnings, one of which promised action within 10 days from February 24, the other of which indicated an attack somewhere in Asia, which may be tied to the plan reported in the Washington Times for an attack on Pearl Harbor. There is a new bin Laden audiotape floating about yet to be aired, and allegedly a videotape, both of which will probably be played when action begins against Iraq. There was also the alleged threat from bin Laden to seek martyrdom in a major attack sometime soon. It would make sense for al Qaeda to try to link its actions to the Iraq conflict, for a variety of operational and propaganda reasons, and especially if the two have had a working alliance for the last seven years. At least one report has the attack on Iraq starting around Thursday. If a terrorist mission was planned for this week, KSM’s capture could have disrupted it, but attack cells are usually highly autonomous. KSM would have no tactical role (i.e., in carrying out the attack), and limited operational direction after planning was completed. He might be the person to give the “go” signal, but the terror cells would know he is in custody and figure out a way to improvise.
The upshot is, despite the good news, for a variety of reasons this week looks like a very good time for vigilance. Be careful out there.
— James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor.