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Terrorism: The Need to Stay a Step Ahead

I read three articles related to this terrorism business yesterday that, pieced together, offer the following perspective: This is a typically asymmetric conflict; the bad guys are nimble and adaptive; we are slow, plodding and tend to fight yesterday’s wars. Both sides have had their share of victories and failures but it is has become quite obvious that any sense this “war” was in a lull was pure illusion.

Probably the most ominous of these articles is an excellent piece by William Saletan at Slate that points out that the recent incident in which an Al Qaeda double-agent detonated a bomb, killing seven CIA officers during a meeting at a military base near the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, was insidiously clever. It was an attack on the folks who had been running the highly successful predator missions. These drone attacks have been so effective that it’s reported Al Qaeda operatives have been fleeing from the countryside and into Pakistani cities on the theory the U.S. would never send predators over highly populated urban centers.

The attack took advantage of the weakness of the predator program- its necessary dependence on fresh, actionable intelligence that is used to ascertain the location of high-ranking enemy targets. It’s reported the assailant was claiming to have sensitive and immediate information on the whereabouts of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s #2 leader. He got in to the military base without even being searched because he was a trusted spy. As Saletan points out, the predator technology may have revolutionized modern warfare and given us a powerful tool in the fight against terrorism, but it’s still run by humans and that’s where they hit us- at the people who piece together the intelligence that provides the strategic map for where these drones attack.

In the New York Post, Ralph Peters writes that terrorists are outthinking us, and he too points to the clever and effective ruthlessness of the attack on the C.I.A. agents. He argues it’s part of three major tactics that are being used that have been tragically successful; the employment of suicide bombers, the deployment of improvised explosive devices (IED’s) and perhaps most importantly, the campaign to destroy the trust between U.S. forces and “locals,”- the lynch pin to our ultimate exit strategies in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Peters concludes the bad guys are totally ruthless- we are not.

Finally, there is this piece from the WCBS-TV website on the ridiculous incident at Newark’s Liberty airport Sunday night in which absolute mayhem ensued when a single individual walked into the terminal through an exit and couldn’t be located. That created a breech of the secured area of the airport, forced a massive re-screening of all passengers and ended up creating huge delays and frustrated crowds that were reported to have numbered as high as 10,000. A similar incident with the same results occurred a few years ago at Atlanta’s Hartsfield airport when a passenger who left a camera on a plane, returned through an exit to try and retrieve it. It boggles the mind that there are no simple physical barriers at these exit points. Just one more item in the growing to-do list for improving the systems we thought we had put in place to protect us.

The picture that emerges is not pretty. Terrorists are adapting to the changing landscape of warfare, continue to revisit their previous failed attempts while we forget the lessons learned (as in failed shoe-bomber, Richard Reid), and meantime, bungling government agencies like TSA do things like accidentally publishing details of their security measures on the web and being inattentive in protecting security perimeters at airports.

And let’s hope somebody in government is working on items that aren’t the current rage for discussion on Cable TV- the equivalent of fighting yesterday’s war. While we labor to fix airport security, put the right people on terror watch lists, and redouble our efforts to recruit spies we can trust, let’s keep our fingers crossed that somebody is also working on things like securing our ports and docks and sensitive targets like nuclear power plants.

It would be unspeakably tragic if, while we are running around putting our fingers into the latest leak in the dike, the bad guys decide to hit us with something totally unexpected that would dwarf anything we’ve ever seen before.

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