Every now and again, publicly or privately, people are nice enough to thank me for putting the “Blind Sheikh” behind bars. It is presumptuous to accept such accolades, since the effort to convict Omar Abdel Rahman and his underlings involved scores of other players. But that is not the main reason my pride quickly gives way to a gnawing regret.
In dancing on American graves after his 9/11 atrocities, Osama bin Laden was careful to credit Sheikh Abdel Rahman with issuance of the fatwa — the Islamic religious edict — that green-lighted them. The sheikh had announced the fatwa from the jail cell where he was serving his life sentence. “It is a duty upon all the Muslims around the world to come to free the sheikh, and to rescue him from his jail,” he declared. Regarding Americans, he demanded that “Muslims everywhere, dismember their nation, tear them apart, ruin their economy, provoke their corporations, destroy their embassies, attack their interests, sink their ships, and shoot down their planes, kill them on land, at sea, and in the air. Kill them wherever you find them.”
I haven’t been able to escape this memory in the ten days since U.S. special forces, acting at the direction of President Obama, stormed bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideaway and killed him with ruthless efficiency — the sort of efficiency that strongly suggests bin Laden’s death was the objective of the mission.
Nor was this a one-off. It is merely the most notorious instance of a curious Obama counterterrorism policy. As Rich Lowry memorably framed the matter, “Our policy isn’t ‘to shoot first and ask questions later’; it is to shoot precisely so we don’t have to ask questions.”
The Lawyer Left is the core of the president’s base. From its legions, Obama recruited his attorney general, the top lawyer in his State Department, and many of his administration’s most influential voices. Its signal achievement has been to make a legal and political hash of terrorists’ detention and interrogation. It has become far easier and cleaner to kill the enemy than to capture and squeeze him for intelligence purposes.
This is an extraordinarily problematic situation. As I’ve conceded before, my principal concern about candidate Barack Obama was that, in his maddening solicitude toward anti-American Islamists, he would abandon the fight against Islamist terrorists. I’ve been delighted to be proved wrong about that. Considering where I feared he’d come out, it seems downright ungracious to complain that we are killing when we ought to be grilling.
Nevertheless, given that our concern here is national security rather than good manners, we have to complain — at least about the policy, if not to its application in bin Laden’s case. As Rich points out — as have Michael Mukasey, John Yoo, Marc Thiessen, and other compelling national-security thinkers — intelligence is the most prized asset in any counterterrorism framework designed to prevent terrorist attacks.
There is no intelligence equal to human intelligence. Just as there is a severe limit to what the U.S. criminal-justice system can accomplish against a national-security threat that plots against us from outside the jurisdiction of our courts and investigative agencies, so, too, are there limits to what even the best surveillance technology can accomplish from thousands of feet in the sky. To penetrate the jihad’s inner sanctums, we need people with access. It would be extremely difficult to insert spies into al-Qaeda’s highly insulated upper ranks — just think of the time it would take and the things they would have to do to earn the trust of those wanton killers.
The only realistic option is to capture terrorists and interrogate them. Interrogation, moreover, will have to be tough in the hard cases — the Khalid Sheikh Mohammeds, who will not break easily. It is all well and good to say the most effective, most reliable interrogation is based on the relationship of trust a skilled questioner can build with his subject over a course of months. But it doesn’t do us much good to find out months from now that terrorists were planning to blow something up next week. There are no magic words to break a KSM in a manner of moments, when the clock is ticking.
President Obama is enjoying counterterrorism success by slipstreaming behind Bush-era policies and exploiting the afterclap of the CIA’s Bush-era interrogation program. But the well is running dry. Unless we replenish it with new interrogation intelligence, the days when we can identify previously unknown terrorists and thwart their plans are numbered. You can’t rely on killing every terrorist when you don’t know every terrorist.
There is, however, a brute fact that seems lost in the current capture-versus-kill debate. In a war against a stateless, transnational jihadist movement reliant on the terror and propaganda value of symbolic figures associated with spectacular attacks, there are some terrorists who need killing.
At the time of his 1993 arrest, we had no death penalty available to invoke against the Blind Sheikh. Even if capital punishment had not been in remission, the charges and evidence against him would have made it a very long longshot. Without being executed, though, Abdel Rahman could never really be neutralized. My getting him a life sentence did not stop him.
The Blind Sheikh was incapable of building a bomb, hijacking a plane, or carrying out an assassination. His influence over the jihad lay in his renowned mastery of Islamic jurisprudence. He was more a symbol of why terrorists fight than an operative in the fight. As long as he lives, the symbol endures. Not only did he authorize the 9/11 attacks; heinous attacks have been carried out in an ongoing effort to extort the United States into releasing him.
As a practical and legal matter, nothing can be done about Abdel Rahman at this point — other than keeping him deeply under wraps, minimizing (but never eliminating) his ability to stir jihadists to action. Bin Laden was another story.
Disclosures about the computer drives and other intel seized from his Pakistani compound indicate that al-Qaeda’s emir remained operational, even if his contact with subordinates was extremely limited. To jihadists the world over, though, he had become a legend — the symbolic “strong horse” that faced down the Soviets and brought mass slaughter to our shores. His continued evasion of capture and his occasional video taunts emboldened our enemies.
There is a dire need in this war for intelligence. There is even a place for due process — at least in some form. But war is about breaking the enemy’s will. On that score, there is a small group of iconic terrorists who are more useful to us sleeping with the fishes than singing like canaries. Osama bin Laden was one of them.
— Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.