You have heard the words. You know the narrative. Let’s not rush to judgment. These were lone wolves. They were self-radicalized. The system worked. The dots were connected. Osama Bin Laden is dead; GM is alive. Al Qaeda is a shadow of its former self. It is time for nation building at home.
Add up all of those lone wolves, however, and pretty soon you have a pack. Which may be one reason the reaction of some liberals to last week’s terror attack has been so bizarre: The bombing of the Boston Marathon by two radical Muslim immigrants to the United States, in which three innocent bystanders were killed, including an eight-year-old boy, and more than 260 other innocents were wounded, many of them maimed grievously, interrupted certain narratives that have dominated national security discourse since the election of President Barack Obama.
The underlying assumption of those narratives is that the counterterrorism strategy pursued by President George W. Bush in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, was self-destructive. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan mobilized the Islamic world against America. The existence of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the scandal at Abu Ghraib, and the reports of harsh interrogation of detainees eroded our moral high ground. Bush betrayed our values. He exploited fear for political gain.
The appropriate response, it was said, was to do the opposite of Bush. Withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan. Narrow the war to drones and Special Forces targeted against al Qaeda leadership. Close Gitmo. Ban "torture." Extend a hand to the Muslim Middle East. Diminish the threat by suggesting its commonality not with ideologies such as fascism or communism or anarchism, but with unlawful activities such as organized crime, narcotics trafficking, and psychopathic rampage killing.
This narrative could hold sway as long as terrorist plots were disrupted or failed or could be dismissed as something other than terrorism. Such was the case for four years. In May 2009 the New York Police Department disrupted a plot to bomb Jewish landmarks in the Bronx and attack a local airport. The next month Carlos Bledsoe, aka Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, fired on an Army recruiting station in Little Rock, Ark., killing one and wounding another.
That September, the NYPD disrupted a plot to bomb the subway on the anniversary of 9/11. That November, Maj. Nidal Hasan, an acolyte of al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki, shouted "Allahu Akbar" and opened fire inside Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 and wounding 29. His attack was labeled "workplace violence." That Christmas, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to detonate the explosives he had smuggled in his underpants onto Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit. There were 289 people on the plane.
In May 2010 a man named Faisal Shahzad attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. He, too, was under the sway of al-Awlaki, an American citizen later killed by a drone attack. In November 2010 the FBI arrested Mohamed Osman Mohamud for plotting to detonate a car bomb at a Portland, Ore., Christmas tree lighting ceremony.
NYPD disrupted two plots during 2011. One targeted a synagogue; the other sought to plant small bombs throughout the city. This second attacker, NYPD relates, learned how to make the bombs from al Qaeda’s English-language magazine Inspire.
On Sept. 11, 2012, the eleventh anniversary of the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, Islamic militants launched a coordinated assault on U.S. embassies throughout the Greater Middle East. One of those assaults, against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killed four Americans including the U.S. ambassador to that country.
The initial explanation from our government was that the attack was "blowback" from an "anti-Islam" video produced in the United States. That was not the case. To the extent the video mattered, it was part of an al Qaeda information operation to stoke Muslim discord and riot. And to that extent, it succeeded.
In October 2012 the NYPD apprehended a Bangladeshi national residing in the United States on a student visa. He was attempting to blow up the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
One month later, federal agents arrested two Pakistani immigrants who were plotting to bomb locations throughout New York City. And in January 2013, a cell of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb invaded the Tigantourine natural gas facility in In Amenas, Algeria, taking more than 800 hostages and killing 39, including three Americans.
This is by no means an inclusive list of the Islamic terrorist plots against the United States, her citizens, and her interests at home and abroad that have been organized or perpetrated since 2009. Nor does it include plots that were hatched or occurred during the same time against those nations once defined as "Christendom," or the plots against the state of Israel, or the innumerable violent acts of al Qaeda affiliates against American and coalition forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world.
What is most striking as one reads over the list is the ease with which we compartmentalized and discarded each plot as it was revealed, how simple it was to return to "normal" life in the midst of an ongoing and global terrorist campaign, how lazy to reason that these "isolated incidents" were nothing more than the false echoes of an organization "decimated" by presidential action.
But Boston was impossible to ignore. Two brothers, granted asylum and residency and citizenship and welfare benefits by the United States, who attended American schools and one of whom married an American girl, viciously turned against the country that had sheltered them. Before they were stopped, they killed four and shut down a major city. But these were not the only consequences of their actions. The insouciance with which Islamic radicalism was downplayed or dismissed or ascribed to "Islamophobia" in the halls of the executive branch and on air on MSNBC became another casualty of the attack.
The prejudiced individuals who said or wrote of their suspicions and hopes that the Boston bombers would turn out to be Tea Party activists or gun nuts or pro-lifers were exposed as fools. The writers who ostentatiously dismissed early reporting that instructions for pressure cooker bombs could be learned from the pages of the al Qaeda webzine looked willfully blind. The spokesmen for liberalism who said on television that the brothers Tsarnaev were more like Timothy McVeigh or the Columbine killers than like al-Awlaki or Bin Laden seemed naïve if not dishonest. I say dishonest because to downplay the obvious religious dimension to the Boston bombing is to obfuscate the known facts of the case. The surviving brother himself says he and his accomplice were motivated by religious belief.
The commentators who argued over whether Chechens are "white" were engaging in academic babble that put medieval scholastics to shame. The civil libertarians who falsely said terrorists have continued to talk to authorities after being read Miranda rights were shown to be dupes when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev shut up as soon he was charged. The self-congratulatory bureaucrats who insisted everything was under control found it difficult to explain why the name Tamerlan Tsarnaev was present in two government databases prior to the attack, or what made the Russians so worried enough to alert the FBI and CIA, or how Tamerlan could be interviewed once by the FBI and then disappear into a cloud of militant religious fervor. The media that so fastidiously examined every aspect of Dzhokhar’s life and personality, interviewing acquaintances who pronounced his goodness and in a preposterous search for what American society might have done to provoke his jihad, insulted the men and women whose lives have been irrevocably altered by this Millennial barbarian. And those who, before all the facts are known, so desperately denied that the Tsarnaevs may have had additional accomplices or overseas connections were openly evading the global aspect of brothers’ origin and ideology.
The response to Boston on the part of so many intellectuals, inside and outside government, was a sign of perplexity. They had been concussed when mugged by reality. Doing the opposite of what Bush had done did not, in the end, improve the global situation or make America safer. On the contrary, it may have made the situation worse. The plots against America continue. The ideology that motivates them has not died. Indeed, the space in which that ideology’s adherents operate is expanding: From Mali, to Libya, to Sinai, to Somalia, to Yemen, to Syria, to Iraq, to Afghanistan, to Pakistan, those who act in the name of al Qaeda have more room to maneuver. Presidential outreach has not mattered. It has been dismissed. The Muslim world is growing more violent, and it is exporting that violence and conflict overseas.
What Boston showed was that some problems defy the easy answers proffered by American politicians, and that some problems cannot be hid from for long. Such problems include what to do about the Greater Middle East and the global jihad. In other news this week Iran, which continues its nuclear program, stands accused of complicity in the recently revealed plot against the Canadian rail system. The U.S. government said it has evidence Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his people. The Muslim Brotherhood strengthened its grip on Egypt. Ethno-sectarian conflict reemerged in Iraq.
The tide of war is receding, Obama says. But that is the old narrative, the narrative of the last four years, the narrative of peace and comity, the narrative being pulled apart by events. We know now that you cannot control the tide.