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Summer of Terror?

New attack or not, our actions now will reverberate well into the future

By Michael Tanji | July 11, 2007

The White House is reportedly summoning its top national security experts to assess the situation relative to al-Qaeda and its ability to strike at the US homeland this summer. A variety of signals – some serious, some less so - are suggesting that the time is ripe for such a strike.

The recent attempted attacks in London and Glasgow indicate that the potential for serious, relatively large, and certainly deadly attacks is a reality. A failed syringe is all that spared hundreds of lives, which indicates that the learning curve for Jihadists is flattening. That the alleged perpetrators were medical doctors indicates that al-Qaeda’s message is resonating with a broader and more sophisticated audience, which in turn makes the pool of potential attackers larger and more destructive.

That al-Qaeda attacks have often occurred during summers past – July seems like a favorite month – is at best a superficial way to judge the timeline for an attack. It is not that dates are not important, but generally speaking people assign too much importance to anniversaries

If there is a factor that would cause al-Qaeda to strike it is more likely the current political climate here at home. Ayman al Zawahri made it clear after the US elections in 2006 that he is paying close attention to our domestic political situation. News that support for the war is waning even in the minority party only serves to reinforce the idea that his terror campaign is working and that a strike now could shift the political tides dramatically in his favor.

A successful attack or series of attacks – even if more London Tiger-Tiger than New York World Trade Center – drives home the point that even after five years of war our primary enemy is still a viable and potent force. The post-mortem of any such attack will undoubtedly reveal a well-designed, low-cost, high-impact plan that leveraged some gap that our earnest but feeble attempts at defending ourselves left open: something that will be leveraged by politicians looking to find fault with counterterrorism efforts undertaken to date.

A successful attack will also knock the various political fence-sitters off into one of two camps: those who are unwilling to fight this battle to the fullest extent and those who are. In the aftermath victims and survivors will be asking “why?” but political leadership in both parties will be asking “how?” How do we bring this madness to a halt? Two different answers will come to the fore but only one will be implemented in the next two years.

If those who advocate reinvigoration and reinforcement win out, we will need to redouble our efforts in all aspects of national power. Our full military might must come to bear where it is needed, but a full-spectrum effort that includes diplomatic, economic and social efforts – the weakest part of our alleged national mobilization – is also needed if we are to succeed. Evil-doers have to die, but we need to simultaneously reduce the need for people to feel compelled to do evil in the first place.

If those who advocate retraction and retrenchment win out, we will watch in horror as our pull out from Iraq and Afghanistan (make no mistake – “redeployment” does not mean we surge on Kabul) turns the violence of the past four years look like it was amateur hour. Iran will have a sandbox in which to maintain and nurture its proxy soldiers; Syria will have another Lebanon in which it can play its deadly games; and everyone wearing an Iraqi uniform will eventually be found face down in a ditch.

Our actions during a summer of terror will send a loud and unambiguous message to the freedom-loving peoples around the world who wonder if the United States is still the nation to turn to in order to help defeat hatred, oppression and totalitarianism. Do we understand the nature of that message, or will we continue to think that our rhetoric will be taken more seriously than our actions?