Chicago U.S. Attorney Pat Fitzgerald, one of my two partners on the blind Sheik case and later the lead prosecutor on the embassy bombing case, is, bar none, the best prosecutor in the U.S., and probably the best lawyer (and certainly one of the best people) I have ever met. He testified this morning before the 9/11 Commission, which makes sense because he knows more about al Qaeda than anyone who is not actually in al Qaeda.
Pat made three points about our enemy that are often missed, and that are why militant Islam is often underestimated: First, they are not a collection of uneducated thugs. As he pointed out, when you see a videotape of bin Laden seated with his second-in-command outside a cave, you tend to forget that that guy, Ayman Zawahiri, is a trained surgical doctor. This is not altogether unusual. Many members and supporters of al Qaeda are serious, educated professional people. Ali Mohammed (UBL bodyguard who pled guilty in the embassy bombing case) was a high-ranking officer in the Egyptian army for 17 years before coming to the U.S. and joining our army for three years (while training some of the 1993 WTC bombers in his spare time). They accomplish what they accomplish because they are smart, capable and extraordinarily patient (our evidence indicates that some operations are literally years in the making).
Second, this idea we seem to have that al Qaeda training consists of climbing monkey bars in a faraway playground. In fact, while physical exercise is certainly part of it, there is a sophisticated level of training in ciphers, codes and compartmented cells. While the U.S. has obvious superiority in force capabilities that the terrorists will never be able to match, al Qaeda understands that the gap narrows when they become expert in – and their individual operatives nearly match our individual operatives – in technical intelligence capabilities. Analogously, when they run a front – especially a front like a charity or a health care facility – it’s a professional operation that you’d have a very hard time identifying as a front. Pat compared it very favorably to a mafia front – if you went into an ostensible café and tried to order a cup of coffee, you would very quickly realize that this was not a coffee shop. To the contrary, when al Qaeda runs a charity or a hospital, there is real charitable activity and health care going on. It makes it very hard to pierce the façade – and as al Qaeda well knows it makes it politically and socially very difficult to investigate aggressively.
Third, al Qaeda probably spends more time studying us than it does planning operations. It understands our weaknesses very well and exploits them to a fare thee well. The two biggest ones he cited were our immigration system, which makes it extraordinarily easy for a competent terrorist with easy access to phony documentation to enter and stay in the country; and the media, which is exceptionally easy to manipulate.