This may not be a news flash for anyone other than those who vacationed on a remote Caribbean island over the holidays, but the terrorists are out to get us.
Now, The Washington Post reports, “Federal prosecutors charged more suspects with terrorism in 2009 than in any year since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001… A review of major national security cases by The Associated Press found 54 defendants had federal terrorism-related charges filed or unsealed against them in the past 12 months.”
The AP data comes as no surprise to me. Since 2007, I’ve been tracking attempted terrorists attacks on the United States after 9/11. I started counting them because it seemed no one else was. When I asked some one from the staff at Heritage Foundation to contact the FBI and check my stats, they were told, “Hey, we don’t have a list like. Can you send us yours?”
As of this writing, by The Heritage count (which does not include plots foiled by covert operations that will never make it to a court or a headline), there have now been 28 failed attempts, including the most recent failed Christmas Day crotch bombing. That averages out to about three foiled attempts per year. In 2009, there were six failed attempts—the most in one year. So I am not surprised to here that last year was a banner year for terrorists storming the barricades.
The real question is what to make of the statistics. Are we less safe or are we just doing a better job catching terrorists? Well, it is hard to argue we are in greater danger just looking at the statistics. These numbers are still pretty small. America is hardly under siege from either homegrown threats or assault from overseas.
On the other hand, putting more terrorists behind bars is not an effective measure of where we are either.
In the past year, we have had three catastrophic failures in our fight to keep us safe. Fort Hood, the Detroit-bound underwear bomber, and the suicide attack that killed seven CIA agents in Afghanistan. What is troubling about these failures is not that evil got (or almost got) lucky. What is really worrying is how we failed.
Even the Pentagon now finds it screwed up and hasn’t paid enough attention to the threat of “workplace” violence and self-radicalization. An administration official even admitted that the killings were an act of terrorism.
There is not enough room to list all the screw-ups in not stopping the Richard Reid redux attack.
The suicide strike in Afghanistan might be the most troubling of all. Despite, CIA Director Leon Panetta’s claims to the contrary, it seems pretty clear that there was a colossal failure in tradecraft on the part of the CIA that let a double-agent carrying a bomb to enter the U.S. base without being searched. It is not even clear why CIA experts were at such a forward location. Putting high-level assets out there would be like the president having Gen. Petraeus pull guard duty in a foxhole on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The lapses are worrying.
Are we less safe? I don’t think so right now. The U.S. has built a formidable anti-terror machine since 9/11. In part, these last attacks reflect that. Maj. Hasan went postal because the U.S. was waging a successful war on extremists. The Christmas Day attack was attempted retaliation for whacking al-Qaida leadership in Yemen. Likewise, the strike on the CIA operatives was a revenge attack for successful Predator strikes in Pakistan…and, think about it, al-Qaida had to give up a valuable triple agent to pull it off.
No, bin Laden is on the defensive.
Unfortunately, a wounded wild animal can kill you. So, too, can al-Qaida.
Meanwhile, I am less confident about the future. The White House is going to have to reverse course on sweeping the war on terror under the rug and use all the weapons the Bush administration put in the arsenal. Likewise, the president is going to have to stick it out in Afghanistan—no matter how hard things get.
Otherwise, like the Terminator, al-Qaida will “be back.”
James Carafanos is Deputy Director of The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.