The Time to Act on WMD Terror is Now

Barack Obama has squandered his first year in office in the face of al-Qaeda’s growing threat

In his election campaign, President Barack Obama made several statements about terrorism. He dissociated himself from George W. Bush’s “holistic approach” (whatever this meant) and the rhetoric about the “global war on terrorism”. He promised a more substantial “security architecture”. Head of this new architecture was the unfortunate Janet Napolitano, a former governor of Arizona, who went on record saying that the system had worked well after the barely failed attempt to bomb a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day.

Obama also promised to work closely with America’s allies, to pay greater attention to civil rights and the constitution, to close Guantanamo and to deal with detainees attentive to due process. And he charged the Bush administration with failing adequately to confront nuclear terrorism.

(AFP/Getty Images)  

Two days after his Inauguration, two presidential orders were signed, banning harsh interrogation and ordering Guantanamo Bay to be closed within a year. The official rhetoric during Obama’s first year certainly changed: the inflammatory term “terrorism” was dropped and replaced by “man-caused disaster” (no credit was given to woman or child suicide bombers) and Islamism was no longer mentioned at all.

Looking back on Obama’s first year and his handling of “man-caused disasters”, I feel less surprised and shocked than some of those who have also followed these issues for a fairly long time. Obama’s experience in Chicago had not been in this field, nor had I been greatly impressed by the handling of former presidents (and their advisers — always with some exceptions). Under Clinton and Bush, the main role in combating terrorism had been allocated to the military, but it was not really prepared for this task either by training or by the specific knowledge needed for this assignment. I had doubts about the continuation of the Afghan war after 2002, not because it was immoral or illegal but because victory in Afghanistan seemed out of reach. It involved an investment in manpower, other resources and political will that did not exist in the US and was almost wholly absent in Europe. 

Public opinion in the US and also in Europe was largely oblivious of the dangers ahead. After all, there had been no terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 and relatively few smaller ones. The more successful counterterrorism was in preventing attacks, the greater the resistance against taking terrorism seriously — why devote enormous efforts to combating an enemy whose strength was probably greatly overestimated? The terrorist “danger” (it was argued) was overblown and overhyped. Why accept limitations on our civic liberties that in all probability were quite unnecessary? More and more such voices were heard-on university campuses from Ohio State to Aberystwyth (home of the journal Critical Studies on Terrorism), in the media and among those assuming that warnings issued by their governments were a priori suspect and wrong. 

Good advice was offered in books and articles, often by officials who, when in office, had not been notably successful at catching Osama bin Laden or weakening al-Qaeda in other ways. A Chicago professor named Robert Pape put forward an influential new theory explaining contemporary terrorism on the basis of elaborate and detailed statistics: it had nothing to do with Islamic fundamentalism but was the nationalist reaction to foreign invasion. This was accepted with enthusiasm not only by isolationists but also by some Washington policy-makers: leave the Middle East and there will be no terrorism. Sterling advice, but what had it to do with the real world? Of course, there has been nationalist terrorism in opposition to foreign invasion. But, at present, 95 per cent (or more) of suicide terrorism has nothing to do with foreign invasion. The victims were and are fellow Muslims, be it in Pakistan or the Philippines, in Somalia or Turkey, in Yemen or Iraq. Some went further and claimed that a solution to the terrorist problem was very easy indeed: impose a peace settlement on Israel and the Palestinians and the price of oil will dramatically fall, failed states will prosper, the popularity of America and the West in general will skyrocket, bin Laden will retire to his agricultural projects in the Sudan and terrorism will disappear from the face of the earth.

Judges in various Western countries regarded it as their main duty to limit the powers of the police and other agencies combating terrorism. Eagle-eyed lawyers were forever watching whether those trying to counteract terrorism were operating within the boundaries of international law and to take them to task if they did not. Not for them the philosophy underlying one of Karl Marx’s favorite sayings: à corsaire, corsaire et demi.

In brief, the threat had been grossly inflated, there was no transcendental, existential challenge. There were a few terrorists but they would fade away out of boredom or because they would realise that they could not achieve much. The real danger was not terrorism but counterterrorism, the idea of a “wartime president” with almost unlimited, undemocratic powers and a state of siege.

Obama’s ideas about “outreach” and “engagement”, negotiating and trying to reach compromises with even the worst enemies, seemed a little naive and unrealistic from the beginning and, seen in retrospect, have not been successful. But let us be fair: unless such approaches were made (and rebuffed) there would have been for decades to come a stream of complaints about “missed opportunities”, broadly similar to the opportunities allegedly missed during the Cold War on which some historians (and not only historians) continue to harp to this day.

Finally, the economic downturn of 2008/9 created an important change in the order of priorities: unemployment became the cardinal political issue and is likely to remain so for some time to come. It did not come as a surprise that in his State of the Union address in late January, Obama devoted only the last few minutes to foreign policy and to terrorism just a sentence or two. It is an understandable reaction for a politician with an eye on forthcoming elections. But ultimately, as a Washington commentator noted recently, Obama’s presidency will be judged not by health reform but by national security.

This brief outline of the political context in which the policy towards terrorism developed during Obama’s first year in office. There was and still is a great deal of confusion and I suspect that even a more clear-sighted president would not have been able to move too far ahead of public opinion. Why make sacrifices because of a danger which might or might not materialise at some future date? This, after all, is one of the well-known weaknesses of democratic societies — the Pearl Harbour syndrome. Only a major shock, a trauma, will act as a wake-up call, generate the awareness of threats and galvanise people into action. And sometimes more than one might be needed. It seems also to be true that in their private lives people will take out insurance policies and take precautions against all manner of unlikely events, whereas as a group they tend to ignore very real dangers.

After one year in office, Obama is a disillusioned man. Like all other presidents in recent memory, he came to power with the firm intention to deal first and foremost (and if possible exclusively) with domestic issues. Like all other presidents, he was largely prevented from doing so by an unquiet and meddlesome world. The issue at stake at present is how long his re-education will take and how far it will go, and this also refers of course to his advisers, admirers and many other like-minded people.

How much urgency is there? A great deal, according to those who have been studying the problem of WMD and who have had access to various sources of information. It could well be that in recent decades the danger of terrorism has been overstated. In the two World Wars, more people were killed and more material damage caused in certain weeks than in a decade of terrorist attacks. But even in the 1970s, experts noted that our societies were becoming more vulnerable as the result of the use of new weapons. The real issue at stake now is not the attacks of the past but the coming dangers. Mega-terrorism has not yet arrived — even 9/11 was a stage between traditional terrorism and the shape of things to come.

What is our state of preparedness? A number of bipartisan committees appointed by the US Congress have been dealing in recent years with these issues. So have books and scientific papers, such as the reports World at Risk (2008) and The Clock is Ticking (2009) and books by Graham Allison, Rolf Mowatt Larssen, Matthew Bunn and others. Their findings were summarised in one sentence in World at Risk:

Unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.

It seems more likely that Iran may pass on primitive (dirty) nuclear material to a client such as Hizbollah, on the assumption that it would emphatically deny its involvement, that such a transaction could not be easily traced and that it would therefore not have to suffer major consequences. Iran would have international law on its side, because a majority of UN member states would ask for a careful investigation, which, needless to say, would lead nowhere. However, such a course of action is also not without its dangers. Once such weapons have been transferred to another party, the sponsor loses control. While the US might be deflected from reacting immediately, Israel might have fewer inhibitions.

The arrival of an Iranian bomb now seems highly likely since there exists no determination to prevent it. But a nuclear Iran will almost certainly lead to the acquisition of WMD in other Middle Eastern countries. There is furthermore the worrisome issue of the Pakistani atomic bombs. There is an almost indefinite number of scenarios and while some countries are more likely targets than others, none can be certain that it will be exempt.

Graham Allison, a Harvard professor, asked in Foreign Policy in January: why the failure to imagine the worst? If Obama, in his very first speech to the Security Council, was so outspoken about the likely consequences of exploding a single nuclear bomb, why has this not been followed up by action? Partly, no doubt, because he addressed the wrong audience. But what if he had spoken to Nato or the American people?

It is part of human nature to suppress unpleasant and painful information, especially if there is no certainty that impending danger can be prevented. Not all the arguments of the sceptics can be dismissed out of hand. To obtain fissile material is not easy, nor is the construction of a nuclear device. It is quite likely that the first attempts to construct a bomb and detonate it will fail — and this would set global alarm bells ringing. It is not certain that within three years terrorists will have a nuclear bomb and set it off. It may take five, or even seven, years. As Dr Johnson said, nothing focuses the mind so much as the certain knowledge of a hanging. But if the period of grace is not a day, but five years, this does not necessarily focus the mind — perhaps something will turn up — especially not the awareness of politicians who are elected for only four years.

At this point the issue of leadership becomes of crucial importance. To gain time is important. Terrorism will not disappear in the foreseeable future but fanaticism does run in waves; it does not persist forever with equal intensity. A more conciliatory tone as suggested by Obama may be important but gaining respect is at least as decisive. Terrorists should not be led into temptation; they should not think that it is less risky to attack the US than China or Russia.

Soft power is important and has been neglected in the past. It is certainly laudable to counter the ideology behind WMD terrorism. But this also means making use of the weaknesses of an antagonist. One such weakness is the almost unlimited willingness of the Islamists (and of fanatics in general) to believe in conspiracy theories, however absurd. About 70 per cent of Islamists believe that 9/11 was carried out by elements within the American government and that the suicide attacks in Pakistan are committed by the CIA (or Mossad or Indian intelligence) rather than the Taliban. Use can and should be made of this proclivity.

It is important to stop the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programmes but it is also clear that Washington will not get much help from its allies or the UN. A “comprehensive policy towards Pakistan” would be exceedingly useful but no one has found a way to achieve this. In brief, it is far easier to recognise the dangers than to point to ways and means of averting them. Meanwhile, as the most recent progress report says, the clock is ticking.

Even the most radical sceptics do not claim that a terrorist attack with nuclear weapons is impossible and that it will never happen. Nor do those who think that such an attack is more likely than not maintain that the worst-case scenario is inevitable.

There is no certainty that it can be prevented. But it is certain that such an attempt could be made more difficult. The best way to this end is to make it as clear as possible what the reaction to such an attack would be.

An autumn note

“For many, the end of this uneasy year cannot come quickly enough”

An ordinary killing

Ian Cobain’s book uses the killing of Millar McAllister to paint a meticulous portrait of the Troubles

Greater—not wiser

John Mullan elucidates the genius of Charles Dickens