Today, the anniversary of 9/11 (here’s my 9/14/2001 take), the media and the Net are full of look-backs, appropriately. I’d like to invest a moment in thinking about the bad guys and how we’re doing at preventing a re-run.
It seems to me that for terrorists to attack us successfully, they need three things: First, money for the mechanics. Second, street cred, so they don’t get turned over to law enforcement. Third, a place to hide. So if you want to fight them, what you want to do is cut off their money, water down their street cred, and turn their hiding places inside out. Direct military action? Sure, but applied against insurgents, it just hasn’t worked very often.
The 9/11 Guys · They were Wahhabis; a specifically Saudi-Arabian branch of Sunni Islam so extreme as to seem insane to non-adherents. It is now a wealthy and powerful branch because the al-Saud family cut it a bargain: we’ll make you the state religion and pump you full of money and influence, and all you have to do is promise never to criticize our corrupt absolute monarchy.
The organization behind the 9/11 guys earned its street cred resisting the corrupt, brutal, and incompetent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
After the Soviets left, Afghanistan became their safe haven.
How Are We Doing? · If we were going to cut off this specific group’s money, the best thing to do would be to disrupt the Saudi-Wahhabi devil’s bargain. Nope; last time I checked, the Saudi monarchy was still “good friends” with the West. The good news is that the al-Sauds can’t possibly last much longer. The bad news is that what replaces them might be worse; hey, it happened in Iraq.
If we were going to dilute the street cred, the thing would be to put an end to the practice of brutal invasions of Muslim countries by Western powers. Nope; while the idea of knocking out Saddam’s tyranny looked smart at the time (to me, anyhow), we screwed it up so badly that a recent BBC poll (PDF) shows (see Question 23) that 57% of the population generally approves of attacks on coalition forces. Can you say “breeding terrorists?”
We know that our side’s guys in Iraq are genuinely trying to accomplish something good, unlike the Soviets in Afghanistan; but the people in the middle of the maelstrom may be too close to get perspective.
Finally, as to a place to hide. Afghanistan pretty well shut down; check. Pakistan? Well, Gen. Musharraf is another one of those friendly tyrants. Actually, I suspect the hiding place is the hardest of terrorism’s three legs to attack. But the lameness of our approach on the money and motivation fronts makes me want to scream.
Six Years Later · Now Usama’s speechwriters have him talking about Noam bloody Chomsky and the Caliphate-to-be’s enlightened tax regime. We can’t shake our addiction to Saudi oil or our habit of propping up dictators, and although no Western power has ever achieved a good result by sending soldiers to the Middle East, we don’t seem capable of either learning how to do it right, or giving up the practice.
We’re just not doing a very good job on the preventing-a-rerun front.