Blowback

By Hosenball, Mark; Thomas, Evan | Newsweek, June 21, 2010 | Go to article overview

Blowback


Hosenball, Mark, Thomas, Evan, Newsweek


Byline: Mark Hosenball and Evan Thomas

The Obama administration faces a dilemma: how to battle Muslim extremists without creating more here at home.

The car bomb was a dud. But if Faisal Shahzad had taken just a few more hours of lessons in the art of bomb making, available on the Internet, there might still be a crater in Times Square. Law-enforcement officials are worried that the next homegrown terrorist will be a little smarter and luckier. "Somebody's going to get through," says a former undercover cop who has worked closely with counterterror operations in New York (and, like other police and intelligence officials quoted in this article, refused to speak for the record). Since the beginning of 2009, at least 25 American citizens have been arrested on federal charges related to Islamist extremism. "These cases clearly suggest that an increasing number of U.S. citizens, both native-born and naturalized citizens, appear to be getting involved in the terrorist cause," says Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman. "It's not an encouraging trend."

In New York City, there is a palpable sense of impending danger, if not inevitability, among senior law-enforcement officials. In Washington, national security officials already are worrying about the overreaction that could follow a terrorist attack. Politicians will demand severe new laws--and revenge--and accuse the Obama administration of going soft on terrorism. The cycle of repression and violence will beget more violence, and the "long war" against terrorism will enter a new and darker phase, which is just what terror organizations want.

All of which raises a dilemma for Obama and his advisers: how do you aggressively fight terror at home and abroad without exacerbating the very conditions that fuel the jihadist cause? This problem is particularly acute at a time when many new jihadists are "self-recruiting." Some alienated Muslims decide to join a terrorist outfit after reading or listening to English-speaking Qaeda ideologues on the Internet, or after downloading videos showing the effects of American military actions. Yet most Muslim Americans have no interest in extremist ideology and don't want to be stereotyped. The very act of spying on them, or treating them as potential enemies, could make matters worse.

Overseas, the Obama administration clearly has no inclination to stop trying to kill Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan, or even in Yemen or Somalia.

During Obama's 17 months in office, the CIA and the military have launched nearly 100 drone attacks against targets in the wilds of Waziristan and other Taliban and Qaeda hideouts. The total is more than twice as many as President Bush ordered during his entire second term. Attacks on remote sites have also killed civilians: a cruise-missile strike in Yemen in December eliminated 14 terrorists but also killed 41 other people, including 14 women and 21 children, according to Amnesty International. But along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, "targeted killing" by drones has become increasingly effective. Anyone serving as the No. 3 in Al Qaeda, working under Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, has particular cause for concern. American drones have killed several of these Qaeda operations chiefs, most recently (in late May) Sheik Saeed Al-Masri, one of the founders of Al Qaeda and the terror organization's top financial officer.

Nonetheless, there is some evidence that these remote-control attacks risk what the intelligence community calls "blowback." Both Shahzad and Najibullah Zazi, an earlier American-resident terrorist who was arrested last year for plotting to bomb the New York subways, told investigators they were at least partly motivated by a desire to seek revenge for drone strikes. Any military action in a foreign country produces new incentives for the enemy. Jihadi sources in Afghanistan told NEWSWEEK's Sami Yousafzai that the Taliban had no interest in attacking America directly--until the U. …

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