The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

The Terrorism of Yesterday and the Terrorism of Tomorrow

Osama bin Laden is shown in this video frame grab released by the U.S. Pentagon May 7, 2011. (REUTERS/Pentagon/Handout )

Making the click-through worthwhile: an unsent letter from Osama bin Laden you’ve probably never heard about, and its lessons about terrorism and the American people; a Trump critic explains how Joe Biden’s shift on abortion helps Trump in 2020; and the Democratic candidates show a lack of interest in some big issues.

The Terrorism of Tomorrow

On June 1, 2016, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a letter written by Osama bin Laden to the American people that was found in his compound in Abbottabad. The letter is undated but appears to have been written early in Barack Obama’s presidency. Despite the letter’s surprising content, reporting about the letter never really broke through the endless news cycle.

The translated version makes it sound like bin Laden followed American political debates quite closely and had started to rewrite his arguments to make them more persuasive to Americans, or at least some groups of Americans.

To the American people, Peace be upon those who follow the righteous track. Hereafter, The subject of my talk to you is the overwhelming control of capital (Var.: money) and its effect on the ongoing war between us. I direct my talk specifically to those who support real change, especially the youth.

Your current president [Obama] warns you now about the enormity of capital control and it has a cycle whereby it devours humanity when it is devoid of the precepts of God’s law (Shari’a). The tyranny of the control of capital by large companies has harmed your economy, as it did ours, and that was my motivation for this talk.  Tens of millions of you are below the poverty line, millions have lost their homes, and millions have lost their jobs to mark the highest average unemployment in 60 years. Your financial system in its totality was about to collapse within 48 hours had not the administration reverted to using taxpayer’s money to rescue the vultures by using the assets of the victims…

Whoever enters the White House, even with good intentions to safeguard the peoples’ interest, is no more than a train operator. His only task is to keep the train on the tracks that are laid down by the lobbyists in New York and Washington to serve their interests first, even if it is counter to your security and economy. Any president who tries to move the train from the lobbyist’s tracks to a track for the American people’s interests will confront very strong opposition and pressures from the lobbyists.

That is not . . . all that far away from a bunch of recent speeches across the political spectrum, is it? Concentration of wealth, the evils of capitalism, the greed of Wall Street elites, and the power of lobbyists. God only knows that if bin Laden actually believed any of the stuff he was writing, or whether he was just tailoring his message for an American audience. But this letter suggests he had figured out how to echo the populist arguments emerging from anger, fear, and frustration of the Great Recession. One wonders if bin Laden hadn’t had a nighttime visit from the Navy SEALS in 2011, whether at some point he would have reemerged with videotape messages that were familiar — and perhaps even persuasive — to many Americans.

Since 9/11, the United States of America has had good days and bad days, but on the whole, we’ve been lucky. For the most part, our enemies don’t really understand us. Al-Qaeda believed that destroying the Twin Towers would destroy the American economy. Khalid Sheik Mohammad once told his interrogator that he and his allies expected a completely different American response to the attack: “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?’” ISIS thought their videos of cruelty and barbarity would intimidate and terrify Americans, instead of outraging them.

A lot of topics and ideas shaped the story I wrote in Between Two Scorpions, but a big one was the question, “If you were a terrorist who really understood American culture and how we think and what frightens us, what would you do?”

Islamism may have some surprising converts, but it’s never going to have widespread appeal to those of other faiths or no faith. The strict lifestyle and brutal consequences for disobedience aren’t even that appealing among Muslims. The primary appeal of Islamism may not even really be theological; it may simply be the way it offers a religious justification for some of humanity’s cruelest and most destructive impulses.

Remember Abu Musab al-Zarqawi? He was not always religious“He was a thug. He was in and out of prison. He was a petty criminal. It was rumored that he had worked as a pimp. He led a very different life initially growing up, as a teenager, as a young 20-something, than he ended up in at his death.” He was a violent, brutal, cruel guy who found an institution that valued and rewarded those traits.

A lot of Americans who have malevolence in their hearts have no particular interest in becoming jihadists. But the United States has no shortage of angry young men with a wide variety of grievances, and we see their twisted manifestos and litanies after every mass shooting or other act of violence. “Columbiners” are angry about the indignities of teenage life and their high schools; “Incels” are angry about women; serial killers feed their twisted obsessions; and sometimes, like in the case of the Las Vegas shooter, a homicidal madman takes his motives to the grave.

The ideologies may differ, but the result is always the same: dead or wounded innocent people. The Orlando nightclub shooter who pledged loyalty to ISIS was filled with rage at America. But so was the guy who shot up the Pittsburgh synagogue, the guy who shot up the congressional softball game, and the guy who mailed non-functioning bombs to critics of President Trump. We have no shortage of Americans who yearn to find meaning and validation through killing their fellow citizens.

I won’t give away spoilers for the novel, but you don’t have to be a mastermind to see that if you hate America, you’ve got a huge resource in our steady supply of angry people full of grievances and hungering for the chance to lash out. I thought about how a group with malevolent intent could find angry, violence-minded people, groom and train them, communicate with them, keep them far from any law-enforcement or intelligence radar, help them select targets for maximum effect on the public, and then, once everything is in place, hit us in ways that would undermine our trust in our fellow citizens the most. I suspect this is the part of the story that made Mark Greaney, author of the Gray Man Series, call the novel “powerful, real, and relevant,” and John A. Daly, author of the Sean Coleman Thriller Series, to tout the novel’s “recognizable backdrop of societal division and cultural ruthlessness.”

Lest you think this is a horror story, the other side of the coin is that this is a country that is full of good, brave, noble people — in our armed forces, our law-enforcement agencies from the federal level to the local level, our intelligence community, the forensic accountants chasing down terrorist financing, and in every community where concerned citizens and first responders run towards the threat instead of from it. I try to remain optimistic about the future of the United States while being clear-eyed about the threats facing us. Terrorism discussions often mention the term “soft targets,” but in the United States, as many would-be killers have learned to their regret, even the softest-looking targets can have tough people inside.

Separately, the capabilities of the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency are jaw-dropping, and I’m just basing my writings on what has already been declassified and publicly disclosed. For example, if you’ve ever wondered whether the NSA could spy on your laptop if you visited particular web sites . . . yeah, they can:

Her next move used an NSA program called Quantum, a name that Dee always thought must have come from some overeager James Bond fan. When a computer like Fein’s laptop connected to a website like CNN.com or the New York Times, it received data from several different sources—the Times server, as well as some banner ads and images that the site’s advertisers kept on different servers, as well as some additional code within the page that directed the browser what fonts to use and how to lay out the page. The NSA exploited a vulnerability in that additional code, slipping their own program into the user’s computer.

Anyway, in the end, it’s a thriller novel and meant to be enjoyed. I hope you will give it a try — at $3.99, the ebook is probably worth the gamble. (If you’ve got Kindle Unlimited, it’s free!) In addition to next week’s event in South Carolina, I’m attempting to line up some events and signings in other areas. (If your local bookstore would be interested in hosting an event, drop me a line!)

And now the rest of the day’s news . . .

How Abortion Supporters Just Made Trump’s Reelection Effort a Little Easier

Michael Gerson, right-of-center Trump critic, with a message that Trump foes will not want to hear:

By forcing Joe Biden to abandon his support for the Hyde Amendment — which currently prevents the funding of abortions through Medicaid — the abortion lobby and activist liberals have taken the first, major step toward reelecting Trump.

The problem here is not only that Biden appears weak and vacillating on an issue of conscience — which he does. Or that he will now be pressured to repudiate every hint of moderation in his 36-year legislative career — though he will be… Supporting the amendment has let them claim neutrality on abortion even while being effectively pro-choice. For Biden, this fig leaf is now removed.

It is difficult for any leader to defy his party on any issue of great importance, and our current era of polarization is only making it harder. Think of Tony Blair or Joe Lieberman backing the Iraq War, Dick Cheney supporting gay marriage, John McCain touting campaign-finance reform, David Cameron on Brexit, or perhaps now Nancy Pelosi on impeachment. If the leader doesn’t want what the movement he leads wants, that leader probably won’t be leading for much longer. Thus, every major Democratic leader will eventually end up supporting abortion funding, gun control, vast expansions of government power, etcetera. There are 24 Democratic candidates — with, what, five or six having a real shot at the nomination? — but the differences in policy will turn out be pretty negligible. Whether it’s Biden or Bernie Sanders, they’re leading the same party with the same outlook.

The Presidency Requires Some Thought, Guys

I strongly suspect that a large portion of the thundering herd of Democratic candidates have not really thought through what they would do as president. Peter Beinart notices that most of the Democratic candidates have little or nothing to say about China.

How do the major Democratic presidential candidates feel about this potentially epic shift? We don’t really know. They rarely bring it up on their own. Bernie Sanders says nothing about China on his website. Neither do Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, or Kirsten Gillibrand. All Joe Biden says about China on his website is that it’s “rising.” On hers, Amy Klobuchar pledges to “invest in diplomacy and rebuild the State Department and modernize our military to stay one step ahead of China.” Kamala Harris’s website says the United States should “work in lockstep with our partners” to confront “China’s unfair trade practices.” That’s about as substantive as it gets.

For that matter, have we heard more from these candidates on challenges with Russia or Iran or North Korea beyond “work closer with our allies”?

ADDENDUM: At an event for Democratic candidates Sunday, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio chose to enter and approach the stage to the music of . . . The Clash’s “Rudy Can’t Fail.”

Giuliani fans would agree.

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