A Thousand Points of Hate

By Dickey, Christopher | Newsweek, January 11, 2010 | Go to article overview
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A Thousand Points of Hate

Dickey, Christopher, Newsweek

Byline: Christopher Dickey

We've got terrorists around the world on the run. It's where they're running to that's the problem.

Battles against terrorists are mostly fought in the shadows and far away. But they don't always remain there. And when the bad guys attack--or try to attack--closer to home, the public is shocked, then angered: What's happening? Why? One day there might be a minor news item: a vague report from Yemen that missile attacks have killed dozens of men loyal to a local affiliate of Al Qaeda. American forces, or at least American weapons, seem to have been involved. Some of the extremist leaders may be dead, or maybe not. It's all truly distant and deliberately obscure. Then a Nigerian kid who's been spending time in Yemen takes a Christmas Day flight to Detroit and tries to blow himself up along with everyone else aboard.

All he manages to do is ignite his chemical-packed underpants. But the attempt unleashes a firestorm in the American media. The story is not that the would-be bomber failed, it's that he almost succeeded and, regardless, should never have been allowed on the plane. Under heavy political pressure to address public anger, President Obama admits there's been a "systemic failure" in America's screening process.

Yet the surge in efforts to attack the United States over the last few months, including on Detroit-bound Northwest Flight 253, is in many ways a measure of our success on faraway battlefields no one is ever supposed to have heard of. America's ability to gather intelligence, to exploit the power of global law enforcement, and to launch special-operations missions around the world has never been greater. We can carry out remote-controlled attacks that hit Al Qaeda's core leadership and its followers like the wrath of a vengeful god. And that's exactly what we've been doing more aggressively than ever in the last year, blasting away at Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A helicopter-borne commando raid took out a notorious Qaeda organizer in Somalia in September, and U.S. counterterrorist officials have acknowledged embarking on an extensive and extended covert program in Yemen, including two major airstrikes in December.

The onslaught has put extremist groups under mounting pressure. Some could be obliterated. All have found themselves increasingly isolated in a Muslim world where the mainstream is weary of their destructive rhetoric and where even former sympathizers doubt the terrorists' ability to mount another 9/11-style spectacular.

All that, however, means we are entering an especially dangerous phase in which individual, amateurish, would-be terrorists like the 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab are going to crop up more and more. At the widely respected Intelligence Division of the New York City Police Department, analyst Mitchell Silber divides the Qaeda threat into three categories: the core organization of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri that carried out the 9/11 attacks; the affiliates in Iraq, North Africa, Yemen, and elsewhere that want the prestige of the Qaeda connection but have less sophisticated capabilities; and "homegrown" terrorists who are inspired by Al Qaeda's ideology but don't have much access to training or support networks. The United States has made great progress in disrupting the first group: U.S. officials claim that Predator strikes along the Afghan-Pakistani border have killed roughly a dozen out of the top 20 Qaeda leaders in the past two years. But that's driving bad guys in the other two groups--who are more likely to pursue small-scale attacks--to assume a higher profile.

The Qaeda affiliates used to focus entirely on local agendas. But as those in Somalia and Yemen have become the target of mounting attacks by America's regional allies and sometimes directly by U.S. weapons and forces, they've started attracting and cultivating would-be jihadis from the United States itself.

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A Thousand Points of Hate


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