Politics & Policy

What Might Have Been

As Washington postures in anticipation of next week’s report from Gen. David Petraeus, we are again reminded — this time by events in Germany — of the enemy’s nature and the wages of defeat.

#ad#German authorities have arrested three Islamic terrorists, and are looking for at least ten others, in connection with a plot to strike multiple targets — most prominently, Ramstein Air Base and Frankfurt International Airport, critical hubs for American military operations and civilian travel, respectively. 

Investigators believe the terrorists planned to execute their attacks soon. They would have been a high-profile way of commemorating the sixth anniversary of 9/11. Just as significant, the German parliament, like the American Congress, is about to consider questions bearing on whether and how to fight the West’s Islamist foes. On the table is whether Germany will extend the deployment of its NATO forces in Afghanistan, or pull out, as its antiwar Left urges.

Why wouldn’t the jihadists strike now? After all, it has worked before. On March 11, 2004, they murdered 191 people and wounded nearly 2,000 in a series of train bombings in Madrid. This led enough Spanish voters to turn against the pro-U.S., conservative government that it was ousted in an election only days later. The incoming leftists promptly made good on their promise to withdraw Spanish forces from Iraq.

Germany’s commitment to the War on Terror has never been robust. There are no German forces in Iraq, and in Afghanistan there are only 3,000. These are focused on reconstruction and generally decline combat missions. While Chancellor Angela Merkel has been an ally in the war, and a welcome change from Gerhard Schroeder, her governing coalition’s margin is razor thin. In the wake of a resurgent Taliban’s recent murders of several German troops and policemen as well as an aid worker, polls show more than 60 percent of Germans supporting an immediate pullout. Conditions are ripe for a Madrid replay, if the jihadists can pull it off.

They failed this time thanks to aggressive intelligence collection, including electronic surveillance. U.S. intelligence reportedly assisted German officials by eavesdropping on the cellphones of two suspects as they left training camps in Pakistan. Sound familiar? It’s exactly the kind of monitoring that, according to national intelligence director Mike McConnell, was undermined by the Democratic Congress’s failure to act on FISA reform until the White House and Republicans forced the issue prior to Congress’s summer recess. The result was a temporary fix that will lapse in February.

Two of the captured suspects are native German converts to Islam, and their cell may be inspired by al Qaeda more than connected to it. An alarming forecast in July’s National Intelligence Estimate is thus coming to pass: The Islamist ideology is so broadly accessible that homegrown cells are springing up (especially in Europe) without the need of a formal network as an intermediary. The untamed border regions of Pakistan provide abundant training opportunities for these enterprising jihadists. They then bring their expertise back home, where they blend in easily with the population.

If the government cannot gather intelligence from travel and business records, communications, and the monitoring of radical mosques, these terrorists will go undetected until it is too late. How alarming, then, that on Thursday a federal judge in New York invalidated — for the second time — a Patriot Act provision allowing the FBI to collect business records in national-security investigations.

This war, like any, is a battle of wills. The thwarted German plot proves once again how committed the enemy is. Our fighting forces and investigators are fully capable of winning: but will we let them?

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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