John Mueller, Author of Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda, writes a guest op-ed for IC:
“Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,” notes the New York Times with considerable understatement, “senior government officials have announced dozens of terrorism cases that on close examination seemed to diminish as legitimate threats.”
Terrorism analysts and officials triumphantly claimed that the case of Najibullah Zazi, arrested last September, is different. They call it the “most serious” terrorism plot uncovered in the United States since 2001 and one that elevates the domestic terrorism threat to a “new magnitude.” Bruce Riedel, an Obama terrorism adviser, proclaimed on the Lehrer NewsHour on October 16 that the plot was evidence that “al-Qaeda was trying to carry out another mass-casualty attack in the United States” like 9/11 and that the group continues to pose a threat to the country that is “existential.”
This, then, was the big one.
However, assuming all the information put out by the government about the Zazi plot is accurate, our existence is unlikely to be expunged anytime soon.
Recalls his step-uncle affectionately, Zazi is “a dumb kid, believe me.” A high school dropout, Zazi mostly worked as doughnut peddler in Lower Manhattan, barely making a living. Somewhere along the line, it is alleged, he took it into his head to set off a bomb and traveled to Pakistan where he received explosives training from al-Qaeda and copied nine pages of chemical bombmaking instructions onto his laptop. FBI Director Robert Mueller asserted in testimony on September 30 that this training gave Zazi the “capability” to set off a bomb.
That, however, seems to be a substantial overstatement–not unlike the Director’s 2003 testimony assuring us that, although his agency had yet to identify an al-Qaeda cell in the U.S., such unidentified entities nonetheless presented “the greatest threat,” had “developed a support infrastructure” in the country, and were able and intended to inflict “significant casualties in the US with little warning.”
An overstatement because, upon returning to the United States, Zazi allegedly spent the better part of a year trying to concoct the bomb he had supposedly learned how to make. In the process, he, or some confederates, purchased bomb materials using stolen credit cards, a bone-headed maneuver guaranteeing that red flags would go up about the sale and that surveillance videos in the stores would be maintained rather than routinely erased.
However, even with the material at hand, Zazi still apparently couldn’t figure it out, and he frantically contacted an unidentified person for help several times. Each of these communications was “more urgent in tone than the last,” according to court documents.
Clearly, if Zazi was able eventually to bring his alleged aspirations to fruition, he could have done some damage, though, given his capacities, the person most in existential danger was surely the lapsed doughnut peddler himself.
But if this is as “serious” as terrorism is likely to get in the United States, one might be led to wondering if our anxieties about terrorism–the key, or even sole, reason for extending the war in Afghanistan according to President Obama and his special envoy to the area, Richard Holbrooke–are not a bit overwrought.
In testimony in 2007, Director Mueller, who, despite his earlier bravado, has yet to uncover a true al-Qaeda sleeper cell, suggested that “We believe al-Qaeda is still seeking to infiltrate operatives into the U.S. from overseas.” But even that may not be true. Since 9/11, well over a billion foreigners have been admitted to the United States legally even as many others have entered illegally. Even if border security was so good that 90 percent of al-Qaeda’s operatives were turned away or deterred from trying to enter, some should have made it in–and some of those, it seems reasonable to suggest, would have been picked up by law enforcement by now.
It follows that any terrorism problem within the United States principally derives from homegrown people like Zazi, often isolated from each other, who fantasize about performing dire deeds. Penn State’s Michael Kenney has interviewed dozens of officials and intelligence agents and analyzed court documents, and finds homegrown Islamic militants to be operationally unsophisticated, short on know-how, prone to make mistakes, poor at planning, and severely hampered by a limited capacity to learn. Another study documents the difficulties of network coordination that continually threaten operational unity, trust, cohesion, and the ability to act collectively. And the popular notion these characters have the capacity to steal or put together an atomic bomb seems, to put it mildly, as fanciful as some of the terrorists’ schemes.
By contrast, the image projected by the Department of Homeland Security continues to be of an enemy that is “relentless, patient, opportunistic, and flexible,” shows “an understanding of the potential consequence of carefully planned attacks on economic transportation, and symbolic targets,” seriously threatens “national security,” and could inflict “mass casualties, weaken the economy, and damage public morale and confidence.” That description may fit some terrorists–the 9/11 hijackers among them. But not the vast majority, including the hapless Zazi.
John Mueller, author of Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda, which has just been published by Oxford University Press, is professor of political science at Ohio State University. His previous books include Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them, The Remnants of War, Retreat from Doomsday, Astaire Dancing, and War, Presidents and Public Opinion.