Are We Safer?

George W. Bush
George W. Bush; drawing by David Levine

President Bush is fond of repeating, “We are fighting them over there so that we won’t have to fight them here at home.” As a slogan, this may be good politics. But as a counterterrorism strategy, it appears to be a disaster. Fighting them “over there” has since 2003 meant committing over one hundred thousand troops, hundreds of billions of dollars, and thousands of lives to a conflict in Iraq whose only clear connection to the “war on terror” has been its encouragement of terrorism. The US attack on Iraq has created the world’s principal breeding and training ground for anti-American terrorists. Many highly informed commentators have argued that the war in Iraq, based at best on faulty intelligence and at worst on outright lies, was a major diversion from the real enemy—al-Qaeda and the terrorists loosely linked with it, or inspired by it—and that the war with Iraq has therefore made us less secure.1

Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, counterterrorism experts at the National Security Council under President Clinton, argue in their new book, The Next Attack, that the problem is more deep-rooted than the administration’s erroneous venture in Iraq. In their view, the Iraq war is a symptom of the Bush administration’s obsession with fighting an offensive “war on terror,” an obsession that has caused the administration to disregard the less glamorous but more crucial task of shoring up America’s defenses against future attacks. Committed to an outmoded strategy directed at states rather than the loose-knit non-state terrorist movements that actually threaten us, the administration sought out a state to attack, and after an initial and justifiable campaign in Afghanistan, invaded Iraq. But when it comes to fighting the decentralized threat of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, Benjamin and Simon maintain, the best defense is not a good offense, but a good defense.

Especially after the US and its local allies forced al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan, the threat of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism is not centralized, but globalized and dispersed. The subway bombings in Madrid and London in 2003 and 2005 were the work not of disciplined al-Qaeda agents acting on orders from above but of small bands of young men with little or no connection to al-Qaeda, and little or no previous record as terrorists. Benjamin and Simon see these attacks as signs of a “new breed of self-starting terrorist cells,” and argue that the development of such cells has been vastly facilitated by the Internet. In 1998, they report, there were only twelve Web sites for terrorist groups; in 2005, there were 4,400. The Web sites spread both religious doctrine calling for violence and practical instructions for carrying it out. The consequences have been dire: according to the RAND Corporation, three quarters of all suicide bombings since 1968 took place in the four years after September 11.

Because the terrorist threat is decentralized and globalized, it cannot be…

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