Defense policies are not created in a vacuum. They are designed to meet threats. Over time, threats change in ways that are difficult to predict. In the past, America’s enemies generally wore uniforms and confronted American soldiers on a foreign field of battle. Today, America’s enemies may wear backwards-facing baseball caps and attack marathon runners along with the men, women, and children cheering for them on a sunny April afternoon in New England.
What happened in Boston last week was terrible and terrifying — precisely the outcome terrorists seek to achieve. But it could have been worse. It was worse on September 11, 2001, and it will be worse again if we let down our guard, if we stop taking the fight to those sworn to destroy us, and if we refuse to understand who they are, what they believe, and what they want.
They have told us — over and over — that they are waging what they call a jihad. The policy of the current administration, and to a great extent the previous administration as well, has been to avoid such terminology. One notable exception: Just before she stepped down as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton spoke with rare candor. “We now face a spreading jihadist threat,” she said, adding, “we have to recognize this is a global movement.”
Yet so many people — in government, the media, academia — refuse to believe this, or at least refuse to acknowledge it. I was on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal this week debating Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project. She declared, “There is no global war. . . . There is no global jihadist movement.”
About the massacre in Boston there is much we still do not know. But the evidence available so far can only lead to the conclusion that two young men from Chechnya committed an act of terrorism on American soil in support of what they believe is a global jihad.
How do we know the bombs were not a protest — a secular one, with no Islamist roots — against Russia’s occupation of Chechnya and in favor of Chechen independence? Because then the target would have been Moscow, not Boston.
Also, last August, the older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, reportedly linked on his YouTube page a video titled “The Emergence of Prophecy: The Black Flags from Khorasan.” As my colleagues Tom Joscelyn and Bill Roggio have pointed out, the video is based on the jihadist belief that in the Khorasan, an area of central Asia, jihadists “will inflict the first defeat against their enemies in the Muslim version of Armageddon. The final battle is to take place in the Levant — Israel, Syria, and Lebanon.”
The video features stirring music, fearless warriors, and quotes from Islamic scripture. It highlights an ancient prophecy: One day, Allah will raise an army of “non-Arabs who will be greater riders and have better weapons than the Arabs.” Chechens, of course, are non-Arabs — they are from the Caucasus, meaning that they are, literally, Caucasians.
The weapons used in Boston were improvised explosive devices, not very different from those used by self-proclaimed jihadists to kill American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is possible — but not very probable — that the Tsarnaev brothers learned to make these weapons from the Internet with no one instructing them.
Terrible as the 9/11/01 and 4/15/13 attacks were, imagine a world in which jihadists have nuclear weapons. Soon they may: Jihadists rule Iran and they are likely to achieve “critical capacity” in about a year unless serious actions are taken — presumably by the U.S. or Israel — to prevent it. Would the Iranians ever give nuclear devices to such terrorist groups as Hezbollah and Hamas? Of course. Why not?
It is no simple matter to construct defense strategies and structures capable of discouraging and, eventually, defeating those who believe their mission — mass murder — is divinely ordained and endorsed. But that is what must be done. We are incurring enormous risks by not getting serious about it. As Hillary Clinton also said: “What we have to do is to recognize we are in for a long-term struggle here. . . . We’ve got to have a better strategy.”
Such a strategy would have more components than I have space to outline here. But a few points deserve emphasis.
Spending: By all means, the U.S. military should pursue efficiencies and prioritize. But now is no time to slash the defense budget.
Iran: No threat is more serious than that represented by Iran’s theocrats. They believe they are waging a global revolution, and they regard nuclear weapons as essential to the outcome. The world’s leading sponsors of terrorism, they also brutally oppress their own citizens — which should indicate what they will do to you and me, given a chance. If economic pressure and diplomacy continue to fail, more draconian measures must follow.
North Korea: Kim Jong Un is a roaring mouse, but he is demonstrating American impotence — no doubt that’s high on his to-do list. His bellicose rhetoric has prompted President Obama to boost missile defenses on the West Coast, but it will require a much more comprehensive missile-defense system to create the “nuclear umbrella” that Reagan dreamed of and Clinton — yes, again, Hillary Clinton — promised. A complete halt to Western aid and trade with North Korea might force China’s leaders to accept responsibility for the enfant terrible.
Unconventional warfare: Jihadists at home and abroad should be made to continually look over their shoulders — in that posture, it is more difficult to organize complicated, mass-casualty attacks. Drones have proven an effective tactic — not a strategy — against terrorists and their masters in such remote and dangerous places as Waziristan and Yemen. The president should continue to use them — under defined rules and with congressional oversight.
Intelligence: To stay a step ahead of our enemies requires a steady flow of actionable intelligence. That, in turn, requires apprehending — not killing — terrorists whenever possible and interrogating them effectively. That has not been happening lately. Had Dzhokhar Tsarnaev been designated an “enemy combatant,” as advocated by senators Kelly Ayotte and Lindsey Graham, among others, it would have been possible to interrogate him extensively and perhaps obtain life-saving information about other terrorists and other plots. After that, he could have been transferred to the criminal-justice system for trial. The Obama administration decided instead to tell Tsarnaev that he has “the right to remain silent.”
Toward the end of the Khorasan video, the narrator extols the glorious jihad that is to lead to the final triumph of Muslims over infidels. He declares, “No one can stop that jihad!” Actually, I believe America can — with the right defense strategies and structures. Seeing the threat through unclouded eyes would be the first step.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.