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Scorecard on the War on Terrorism By: William Bacon
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, July 03, 2003


As the campaign season heats up, both the president’s detractors and his hopeful successors have turned the War on Terror into a partisan issue. Those who were most opposed to engaging in a war on terrorism in the first place now feign concern that we are “losing” it. “Where is Saddam Hussein? Where is Osama bin Laden?” they ask, as though their freedom means our nation has been defeated.  In fact, the United States has made crippling strikes upon the operations of terrorists worldwide and made the American homeland a far safer place to live. This can be proven on many levels. 

The first seems fairly obvious. Since 9/11, the United States has not seen its territory again attacked by her enemies. Whatever else we may have done in this war, let us not lose sight of that fact: not a single American civilian has been lost on American soil since the initial attacks.

The second and third major successes are just as obvious, unless one has been hiding in a cave with Osama bin Laden for the past year-and-a-half: The U.S. military, along with our allies, have taken the battles in this war to the nations that have supported terrorism – and won significant victories.

The history of that first victory is clear: The al-Qaeda network was based in Afghanistan on 9/11. The theocratic Taliban government there provided not only a safe haven, but actually thrived off the presence and support of bin Laden’s troops. The United States government demanded that the Taliban eliminate its support of al-Qaeda and surrender bin Laden and other terrorist leaders to our justice. The Taliban refused, choosing instead to believe that U.S. was a paper tiger, unwilling to back its strong words with action.

That was their fatal mistake.

Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in Iraq supported terror throughout the Middle East, paying bounties to the families of suicide bombers in Palestinian territory. Under the terms of the cease-fire ending the First Gulf War, the Iraqi regime was to submit itself to international inspections in order to verify that it had dismantled and destroyed its capability to create weapons of mass destruction. For years, the regime flouted that requirement, among many others, hoping its economic linkages to European powers and Saddam’s delusion belief in the weakness of the United States would reduce its risk of being toppled.

Again, a terminal miscalculation.

These two victories have, themselves, gained another success to our war. These wins have shattered the image of the U.S. during the Clinton era: a weak nation, unwilling to defend itself or its interests. Since the Hussein regime has been removed, other governments supporting terrorism have tended to listen more carefully to our views.

Few other governments seem willing to repeat the Taliban and Ba’athist leaders’ mistakes.

The Hidden

Possibly far more important, though, are the quiet victories, the ones that don’t involve well-televised divisions of troops and massive “shock and awe” air strikes.  We’ve had more than our share of those, as well.

The American intelligence machinery has been released on our enemies, and it have done their job well to date. We used to believe that al-Qaeda was a massive, unknowable shadow government, somewhat along the lines of the Mafia. This turned out to be false.

We now know that bin Laden has only about 180 members of his inner circle.  Of that inner circle, more than half of al-Qaeda’s operational leadership is now out of action – dead or captured.

The military commander of al-Qaeda, Mohammed Atef, is one of those now deceased. He was killed by a U.S. air strike on a Kabul hotel. His body was recovered along with scores of documents and videotapes, which led to other arrests. One of those arrested was Ramzi Binalshibh, a would-be 9/11 hijacker. Other al-Qaeda plans were revealed, including assassination plots which were to take place at a Persian Gulf summit. A major series of plots by al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asian allies – Jamaat Islamiya – were halted thanks to the intelligence captured in the attack.

Atef’s replacement as military commander, Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi-born Palestinian who had served as al-Qaeda’s top recruiter, was arrested in Pakistan after being on the job for only a month. His arrest gave us even more intelligence to be used in this war, as has every other arrest of a major figure in the terrorist organization.

Zubaydah’s arrest gave us information leading to the capture of Jose Padilla, the U.S. citizen alleged to be involved in a “dirty” bomb plot, as well as Omar al Faroup, the chief of al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asia operations.

Each of these arrests, and the subsequent seizures of materials that came along with them, added libraries of information about al-Qaeda and its allies for our intelligence analysts. Each one, in turn, supported the next step, the next arrest, the next raid. Like other methodical investigations, each new revelation had a cumulative effect, directing forces to successfully pursuing the War on Terror.

The Unexpected

From the beginning of U.S. operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, prisoners were taken. Most were held in that country and released as soon as possible. Others were turned over to their native governments, as in Saudi Arabia. Some were taken to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where a makeshift prison was built for them.

These prisoners, properly interrogated, provided information that led to the arrest of an active al-Qaeda cell in Morocco which had planned to bomb U.S. and British warships in the Straits of Gibraltar. Information from the Moroccan group led to the arrest of the man who planned the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, Abd al-Rahim al Nashiri.

Nashiri, during questioning, soon gave investigators access to his cell phone conversations with his al-Qaeda associates. One phone call led to a CIA-led airstrike on the chief of al-Qaeda operations in Yemen and three other terrorist leaders there.

Soon Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the chief of al-Qaeda’s operations, was captured in Pakistan. Mohammed, or “KSM” as he has been known, a 38-year-old Pakistani, was called “the Brain” by al-Qaeda operatives and is believed to be the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. Not only was KSM arrested, so was Mustafa Ahmed al Hawsawi, an al-Qaeda financial leader who bankrolled the 9/11 attackers.

Al-Qaeda members have been arrested fast and furiously since spring; Pakistanis were arresting al-Qaeda members and supporters on a weekly basis. Even capturing bin Laden himself is not beyond the realm of possibility. He is thought to be hiding in the tribal lands along Pakistan’s northwest border. At some point, either he or someone close to him will make a mistake, and he will be found.

Have we won yet?

In discussing the War on Terror, doubters and defeatists will always say you can’t defeat a hazy and indeterminate enemy like a terror network. For every tentacle of the hydra you strike off, two more will grow back. Others will say that we are fighting this war, like so many others, on the cheap. We take the “low hanging fruit” of the Taliban and Iraq. We aren’t willing to go after the terror leaders and financiers because they are too close to us. However, our catches have proven to the rest of the world that we are deadly serious about this struggle.

No, we haven’t won … yet. But it’s a matter of time.




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