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November 13, 2007

United States of America

Don't Discount the Mall

Live Your Life; Maintain Your Vigilance

By Michael Tanji | November 13, 2007

The FBI recently reported an “unsubstantiated” terrorist threat to shopping malls in the US. The report was quickly challenged by terrorism experts of various stripes as very un-al-Qaeda and unlikely to occur. As the conventional wisdom holds: al-Qaeda doesn’t do malls, it does monuments.

We might challenge the wisdom of the conventional.

Consider that just a few weeks ago suspected similarly inspired terrorists detonated a bomb at the Glorietta mall in the Philippines, killing eight and wounding almost 100. This was the second time in as many years terrorists have targeted this particular mall for attack. [Editors Note: This blast is now suspected to have been caused by a gas buildup rather than a bomb.]

There are not all that many shopping malls operating in Iraq, but terrorist in Iraq are more than willing to target the many open air markets in the country, with a bombing in Amerli this year killing 117, and a bombing in a Basra market last year killing 33. In fact, when terrorists in Iraq can’t find a sufficiently large, vulnerable and innocent assembly to attack, they’ll manufacture the appropriate conditions.

It is true that al-Qaeda – at least “core” al-Qaeda – was noted for its focus on large, spectacular attacks and the willingness to plot and plan for long periods of time before striking, but as is often pointed out, counterterrorism measures implemented since September 11th have made it more difficult to conduct such attacks or, perhaps more accurately, the time required to conduct an attack on par with 9/11 will take much longer than six years given our heightened attention to terrorism.

Unfortunately, we are not just facing al-Qaeda of old, but various al-Qaeda franchisees (of varying levels of authenticity) as well as self-radicalized groups and individuals who in varying fashions “affiliate” themselves with al-Qaeda. For such groups, which lack the resources, skills and space needed to plan massive attacks, there is almost no chance of conducting a spectacular large-scale, world-watching event, but malls, schools, churches and other “soft” targets are not only accessible, but acceptable as economic, social and religious targets.

When your weapons have to be improvised, when the components of destruction are innocuous, when your operating environment is fairly permissive, and your targets shifting their attention away from contentious world events and towards the holidays, you are operating in a target-rich environment.

To many experts malls, churches and schools are not sufficiently large, spectacular or symbolic to merit serious terrorist attention. We would argue that that sort of thinking discounts what is truly important to us as a people. We are fairly well adept at dealing with attacks and tragedies that bring down buildings or highways and impact random swaths of humanity; what we have not prepared ourselves for is a concerted attack on our weakest, our most vulnerable and our most precious. Such attacks are not rare elsewhere, but to date we have been spared such horror.

This particular innocence of ours, we must know, will not last.

The buildings we can replace, the security gaps we can close, and while every life is sacred, there is a profound difference between those who lose their lives by willingly standing in harm’s way – as this recent Veteran’s Day past reminds us - and those who have life snatched from them for no other reason than they happened to be buying a present, going to school or worshiping their God. We as a people are not prepared mentally, emotionally, socially, or governmentally for the day when iconic photos like this are taken on a Main St. USA and not a back street in Mosul, Iraq.

This is neither a call to arms or a rally to the barricades, merely an opportunity to point out that when it comes to warning about terrorism and in particular surprise attacks, experts do not have a distinguished track record. This is particularly true if they are focused on what has been done, what has been considered acceptable, and what is expected to happen.

Live your lives by all means, but maintain your vigilance as well.

November 1, 2007

United States of America

Fair Weather Foreign Service

Where have you gone Vernon Walters?

By Michael Tanji | November 1, 2007

In the days immediately after September 11th, 2001, the point was made by one of my intelligence agency colleagues that in a war against terrorists, just showing up to work in a government building meant you were on the front lines. If anyone needed a more pointed reminder, they could walk down to the lobby and note that several of non-intelligence personnel were memorialized on a wall that documented the sacrifice of those who lost their lives in the line of duty. Their loss was no less significant because they were not engaged in some intrepid pursuit of enemy secrets; merely a reminder that no job conducted in service to the nation was just a desk job.

Contrast this with the attitude held by some Foreign Service personnel, who equate service in Iraq to a “death sentence” and argue for the closure of arguably one of the top five most important US embassies in the world. Where else can diplomacy prove its worth than in an area of the world where the political dynamics extend from the state through the tribal and down to familial level? In this former soldier’s lexicon that’s an “opportunity to excel” not an excuse to retreat.

To be sure, there is legitimate concern amongst the ranks of those more used to embassy receptions than armed convoys. No doubt pre-deployment training of personnel is not what it could be. That would be consistent with the experience of both members of the military and civilian intelligence officers who have expressed similar concerns in the past. That five years into the conflict this is still an issue should give people pause, and light a fire under the backsides of officials who are big on issuing policy statements and unlikely to face the hazards of Iraq themselves.

That post-deployment health and welfare are not adequately address is also a familiar refrain from soldiers – most notably documented earlier this year in the Walter Reed scandal – and in the ranks of the intelligence community, as pointed out in a little known Stars and Stripes story. Having sat is my share of war-related agency “town halls” I can recall clearly the heart-felt pleas of veterans of military and civilian deployments that the agency prepare its young and inexperienced for the trials and horrors of what was to come. The cold, pat response recounted in recent reports from Foggy Bottom sound eerily familiar.

Still, this is service to the nation and with the perks and benefits comes sacrifice. As with most things in life there is some fine print that everyone acknowledges their willingness to comply with during peace time, but few actually consider the implications of what happens when the shooting starts. Postings to Bermuda, while desirable, are for large campaign donors not professionals. The honest, honorable thing to do, if you cannot set aside your political differences or muster sufficient nerve in order to fulfill your obligations, is to resign. In this sense Foreign Service officers and civilian intelligence officers are extremely lucky because the largest group of Americans in Iraq do not have that option.

As to “who will raise our children?” a question posed to State Department officials by Foreign Service officers who disagree with the policy of compelling service in Iraq, it is worth noting that with very rare exceptions every State Department employee that goes to Iraq comes back in one piece. Still, if your children are your primary concern and you feel you are less likely to die in a car accident than in a convoy in Iraq, then you have a moral obligation to find gainful employment that does not include service in a war zone.

It would be nice to spend a career in government service during a period of extended peace; when no deployments were necessary, when every job was easy and every tour overseas was to a garden spot, but this is the real world. In addition to terrorism we still have a serious nuclear proliferation problem, a ballistic missile problem, a resurgent and adversarial Russia and a military buildup in China. This country could use more and more aggressive diplomacy, not the timid disposition of those complacent with accomplish-nothing cocktail parties.

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