Politics & Policy

Missing the Point on Hamdan

It's what we didn't do, not what he didn't do.

The Wall Street Journal’s news story this morning covering the military-commission trial of Salim Hamdan at Guantanamo Bay completely misses the point, as the media and commentators are wont to do.

Jess Bravin’s account is breathlessly headlined, “US Witness Doesn’t Link Bin Laden Driver to Attacks.” In a silly set-up, it then posits that the central question presented in the case is “whether working as a personal driver for Osama bin Laden is itself an offense that can be punished by life imprisonment.”

Not surprisingly, the story doesn’t bear out this preposterous premise. Inadvertently or not, Bravin ends up showing Hamdan did a lot more than mindlessly drive bin Laden from place to place.

We learn, for example, that he functioned as a trusted member of al-Qaeda’s inner circle. He provided security when bin Laden would rendezvous with his top deputies, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to discuss terror plots. Thus, the mere “driver” was on hand when bin Laden explained to Mohammed “that he had expected to kill 1,000 to 1,500 people in the [9/11] attacks, rather than the nearly 3,000 who died.”

Moreover, Hamdan helped prepare evacuations so that bin Laden could escape in the event — as it usually happened, the non-event — of any U.S. retaliatory operations. He was also one of the very few al-Qaeda members permitted to carry arms in close proximity to the world’s most wanted man (y’know, so he could, like, stay alive).

Let’s see if we can’t help our friends in the media: The whole point of creating a terrorist organization like al-Qaeda, as opposed to just having terrorists, is to produce an infrastructure that enables groups of stateless operatives to project power on the scale of a nation-state.

It is the corporate nature of the venture, everyone doing his part, that makes it possible to secure financing, forge relationships with rogue nations, obtain arms and explosives, conduct training of various sophistication levels, collect intelligence, plot elaborate attacks, carry out these operations, and be mobile enough that the command structure survives any counterattacks. A terrorist does not have to execute a specific attack to contribute mightily to that effort.

There is nothing new about this theory. Since 1971, it has been a crime in the United States to participate in a “racketeering enterprise,” such as a mafia family or a drug ring. To convict a member of the gang, prosecutors don’t need to prove that he carried out, say, a specific murder or cocaine deal. They need to show he joined the organization, agreed with its essential goals, and helped it in some way while aware that other operatives were also doing their parts, like murdering, money-laundering, loan-sharking, narcotics trafficking, etc.

Many of the lowest-ranking members of such “RICO enterprises” go to jail for a very, very long time. The idea is that if you work to achieve heinous goals, that makes you a pretty heinous person. This, no doubt, is too straightforward and without nuance for our learned commentariat. But the normal, commonsense people who sit on juries and whose lives are plagued by criminal gangs seem to get it just fine.

Meanwhile, it is worth remembering that Democrats — who failed to capture bin Laden or do much about him in they years when they were in power — have carped for seven years about President Bush’s failure to capture bin Laden (notwithstanding that Bush, by comparison, has decimated al-Qaeda’s leadership and degraded its capabilities).

Well guess what? Bin Laden has not been captured precisely because of operatives like Salim Hamdan who were committed to him and his anti-American cause. Sure al-Qaeda needs its Mohamed Attas. But suicide terrorists tend to have rather short careers. It’s the Hamdans that sustain the organization. And it’s the organization that makes Mohamed Atta and 9/11 possible.

You have to tread deep into Bravin’s story to discover its most significant detail, rendered by the witness Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who interviewed Hamdan at length:

In advance of attacks, Mr. Soufan said, Mr. Hamdan would often be alerted to prepare vehicles for a rapid move, in case of an American retaliation. He added that Mr. Hamdan came to believe that Washington’s failure to launch massive retaliations after the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa and the 2000 Cole bombing emboldened Mr. bin Laden. The al Qaeda leader believed the U.S. would never send ground troops to pursue him in Afghanistan, Mr. Soufan said.

Barack Obama and the rest of the Left can continue telling themselves the civilian courtroom prosecutions of the 1990s, rather than the ongoing military approach, is the right model for dealing with international terrorists. But the blunt truth is that the failure to respond responsibly to the embassy bombings and the Cole bombing (as well as the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing) directly caused 9/11.

Sen. Obama might take note that bin Laden was under federal indictment when nearly 250 people (including 17 American sailors) were killed in the attacks on the embassies and the Cole. In fact, after the embassies were bombed, we even had a prosecution in which exactly five terrorists were “brought to justice.” It doesn’t seem to have helped much.

— National Review’s Andrew C. McCarthy chairs FDD’s Center for Law & Counterterrorism and is the author of Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad.

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