The recent embassy closings and the associated threat by al-Qaida have stirred very different reactions. Many have responded with suspicion, if not cynicism. After reports about Benghazi and NSA spying, news about terror threats seems too perfectly timed to be a coincidence.
At best, talk of terror and the invocation of “an abundance of caution” seem like providing cover in case something bad happens. “We warned you,” the government can say.
At its worst, it looks to some like an attempt to justify NSA spying, which media reports reveal to be larger and more intrusive every day. These concerns appear all but justified when lawmakers and former intelligence officials take to the press to enthusiastically make that linkage and argue that the one (intercepted al-Qaida communications) justifies the other (monitoring the communications of law abiding Americans).
At the other end of the spectrum are those who worry that al-Qaida is back, that President Obama exaggerated the successes against Bin Laden’s organization, and that the specter of transnational terrorism has returned.
Many of us in Greater Boston who lived through the shock and sadness of the Marathon Bombing find ourselves once more reminded of terror. But while the Marathon Bombing and the latest alerts both involve the same kind of political violence, at an emotional level, they feel different, at least to me. The news of al-Qaida takes me back, not to April, but to that morning on September 11th. As I experienced it, the Marathon Bombing was at least partly about vulnerability (and resilience), but for whatever reason, the “return” of al-Qaida has a different emotional timbre. Though far away, it feels more ominous.
But reminders are good. Even scary ones. Political violence is a fact of life that is not likely to disappear any time soon, a reality that many countries confront on a regular, if not daily, basis. We can reduce it and make it more difficult for the attackers, but we should not expect perfect safety; nor should we be willing to cede all power to the government in an attempt to achieve it.
The embassy closings remind us that al-Qaida is still out there, which in turn raises the question: Where does al-Qaida stand today? To hear the Senators on the Sunday talk shows, one would think that al-Qaida is as dangerous as it has ever been. That is an erroneous assessment. There is little doubt both that 1) al-Qaida is weaker today than prior to 9/11, and 2) that the United States is more vigilant and aggressive in its posture than before 9/11. Al-Qaida has morphed from a centralized organization with a protected territorial base in Afghanistan to a decentralized group of affiliates. The fact that al-Zawahiri appointed the leader of one of those affiliates, al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as second in command and all but begged him to carry out an attack, points as much to central al-Qaida’s weakness as its strength. Zawahiri had to go outside the central organization for his leadership team and rely on others to carry out attacks.
In addition, the planned attacks appear to have been aimed abroad (not at the U.S. homeland) and involve a broader target set that includes “Western” assets rather than U.S.-only targets. Both these characteristics point to less robust capabilities compared with past al-Qaida operations.
That is not to suggest that the decentralized al-Qaida is not dangerous or does not pose new challenges. Al-Qaida members in Yemen are largely Yemeni or Saudi — people who blend in far easier than Arabs riding on horseback in Afghanistan. And it should be noted that AQAP has attempted operations that target the U.S. homeland and has a dangerously innovative bomb maker.
But the fact that the little al-Qaidas pose a different kind of challenge does not mean they constitute a greater threat. “Different” is not the same as “more.” From a counter-terrorism standpoint, I would prefer to face multiple, smaller and locally based al-Qaidas than one large, centrally organized, better resourced and coordinated al-Qaida. And so while it is useful to be reminded that al-Qaida and the challenge of terrorism remains, it would be a mistake to make the threat greater than it is.
It would also be a mistake to confuse the intercepted communications involved here with the troubling NSA programs that have come to light. They are not apples and oranges. They are apples and furniture. Zawahiri is a known terrorist with blood on his hands. His communications took place in a foreign country with other known terrorists, also residing in foreign countries. The NSA programs that have come to light involve spying on law abiding Americans communicating with other law abiding Americans on U.S. soil. To invoke the Zawahiri intel to justify secret domestic spying provides only more reason to doubt those who try to justify these programs.
We, especially those of us in Greater Boston, need a middle ground — both emotionally and in terms of policy. We should be reminded that there are those who would commit violence against civilians, but we should not make them taller than they are. And we should use the instruments of policy, including intelligence gathering, to counter those threats, but we should not confuse legitimate, targeted spying with a domestic surveillance program that is out of control. We need to demonstrate the same strength, resilience, and prudence in our policymaking that we demonstrated in the weeks following the Marathon Bombing. If we do that, we’ll be fine.