National Security & Defense

Terrorists Are People, Too

U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division soldiers in Afghanistan, March 2002. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Pool/via Reuters)
Not all of them want to die, and they hope we’ll tire out before they do.

There will come a time when our nation can fairly evaluate George W. Bush’s strategy and record in fighting terrorism. Perhaps that time can start now. A new book by James Mitchell, a man who questioned 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed contains an extraordinary revelation.

It turns out that those who believe that al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. in order to draw us into an Afghan quagmire are wrong. Terrorists attacked America expecting that we’d respond as we traditionally had, by treating terrorism primarily as a law-enforcement problem, with the military response limited to cruise-missile attacks like Bill Clinton’s ineffective 1998 strikes in response to the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Instead, Bush chose a different course.

Writing in the Washington Post, Marc Thiessen quotes from Mitchell’s account:

“Then he [KSM] looked at me and said, ‘How was I supposed to know that cowboy George Bush would announce he wanted us ‘dead or alive’ and then invade Afghanistan to hunt us down?’” Mitchell writes. “KSM explained that if the United States had treated 9/11 like a law-enforcement matter, he would have had time to launch a second wave of attacks.” He was not able to do so because al-Qaeda was stunned “by the ferocity and swiftness of George W. Bush’s response.”

Americans often ascribe superhuman levels of endurance and perseverance to our terrorist enemies. We believe terrorists scoff at losses and feel no fear. We think they relish dying, and the more they die, the more they inspire new recruits. We are convinced that they want to fight us, and when we do, we’re playing into their hands.

But those of us who’ve deployed overseas know a different story. Terrorists are people, too. They panic, they feel fear, and most of them try to preserve their lives. They want to kill us, but they don’t necessarily want to fight. In my deployment, we captured five or six terrorists for every one we killed. Indeed, some of the terrorists who fought to the death only did so while high on drugs.

Yes, there are true fanatics, but even the fanatics have limits of human exhaustion.

Yes, there are true fanatics, but even the fanatics have limits of human exhaustion. They get tired, and when they get tired, they make mistakes. In our area of operations, as the Surge took its toll on al-Qaeda, we started to catch high-value targets simply because they got sloppy. One jihadist was shot by his own estranged wife when he took a nap. We caught another when he was probably too tired and demoralized to run out the back door during a raid.

It turns out that when you don’t just bomb terrorists but also hunt them down, seize their safe havens, and make them flee for their lives, then they’re less able to plan and execute terror attacks. Conversely, when you do what Obama did and pull back American military forces so that terrorists have ample time and space to rest, rearm, and recruit, then the danger metastasizes.

The Heritage Foundation’s excellent database of terror plots in the United States tracks 27 domestic terror plots between 9/11 and the end of Bush’s second term. During the Obama presidency, terrorists have plotted and/or executed more than 64 domestic terror attacks, with 38 plots in the last two years alone. And this database doesn’t include the horrific jihadist toll and challenge in Western Europe, where the terror threat in allied nations is far greater than when Obama took office.

#related#As President Trump takes office, regardless of his existing views of American “entanglements” overseas, he must understand that under no circumstances should America’s terrorist enemies be permitted to create safe havens. For more than two years, Obama and the West allowed ISIS to build and maintain its caliphate, and while it is under siege now, the jihadists have done enormous damage. It is up to the new commander in chief to help a war-weary public understand that our enemy hopes we tire before they do.

Indeed, as Thiessen notes, our enemy is counting on our exhaustion. “In the end, he told Mitchell, ‘We will win because Americans don’t realize . . . we do not need to defeat you militarily; we only need to fight long enough for you to defeat yourself by quitting.’”

Our enemy is human, but its leaders have the resolve to fight the long fight. In the United States, we don’t lack for young men and women who share that same determination. Jihadists can’t outlast the American warrior. Can they outlast the American public?

— David French is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a staff writer for National Review, and an attorney.



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