It is a 9/11 anniversary ritual. With the date approaching, Bush administration officials are everywhere pointing out it’s now been six years and the US has yet to experience a sequel to Al Qaeda’s first spectacular terrorist attack.
Vice-President Dick Cheney attributes it to administration policy: "There has not been another attack on the US. And that is not an accident.” But experts say the source of US immunity is more complex.
What is termed “Al Qaeda” has two distinct overseas elements. One is a core group centred around Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. The other is Al Qaeda affiliates operating in regions like Iraq and North Africa.
There is broad agreement that Bin Laden was rendered impotent for nearly five years by the US overthrow of the Taliban. “He didn’t expect the success of the initial US response in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda and the Taliban were in disarray. They lost their base of operations, they were fleeing,” says Cato Institute analyst Stanley Kober.
Another inhibitor: Al Qaeda’s own psychology. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a vice-president of the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, says, “Al Qaeda set a very high bar for itself: Zawahiri cancelled a chemical attack on the New York subway because it wasn’t on the level of 9/11.”
There is a sense Al Qaeda's capabilities were exaggerated just after 9/11. When the Terrorism Index recently asked 100 US foreign policy experts what they thought was "the principal reason" the US had not experienced a second terror strike, a plurality of 35% said it was because Al Qaeda's "reach and capabilities" were "not as great as portrayed".
Regional Al Qaeda groups, on the other hand, seem uninterested in attacking the US homeland. Their focus is strictly local. The Iraqi and Afghan affiliates have no shortage of US soldiers to kill. Al Qaeda North Africa sees Spain and France as its main enemies. P.J. Crowley, homeland security expert at the Center for American Progress, says, "In Iraq we provided Al Qaeda an opportunity to inflict considerable damage on the US without having to enter the US." US soldiers in Iraq probably absorb a few thousand jihadis who want to strike a blow against the Great Satan.
However, few US analysts are complacent about the future. Gartenstein-Ross says, "Our weakest link is that we are losing ground overseas. Al Qaeda has regained a safe haven in Pakistan's tribal areas."
With a haven, comes the luxury of plotting. Says intelligence expert Amy Zegart of the University of California-Los Angeles, "Al Qaeda's planning cycle is notoriously long. The 1998 African embassy bombings were at least five years in the making, as was 9/11." Eighteen per cent of the Terrorism Index respondents believe Bin Laden is "patiently planning" for a second attack.
In the past 13 months, the US has broken up at least three separate homegrown Islamic terrorist plots at the planning stage. A plot to bomb a Manhattan train tunnel was picked up by FBI monitoring of jihadi websites and encompassed police in six countries. A store clerk asked to copy a jihadi video on to a DVD tipped off police about an attack on a New Jersey military base. And two months ago, US security officials arrested a group wanting to blow up a fuel pipeline at JFK Airport thanks to a police informant.
Experts ascribe the US ability to avoid the sort of low-level terror attacks that trouble the UK, Indonesia and India to a number of reasons.
n The US has dramatically ramped up the counter-terrorism abilities of the FBI and its police since 9/11. "Intelligence is the spearhead of counter-terrorism," says Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside Al Qaeda. "By investing in intelligence, the US, Canada, Europe and Australia have prevented over 100 terrorist attacks since 9/11." The US, with 16 separate intelligence agencies with a spook budget of at least $50 billion, maintains an easy global lead in electronic and signal espionage.
This has been combined with "Al Capone prosecutions". Explains Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the anti-terrorism Foundation for the Defence of Democracies: "As plots tend to be disrupted at the early stages it is hard to win terrorism convictions. The defendants claim their threats were just talk. So former attorney-general John Ashcroft devised a strategy of charging them for the lesser crimes often committed in preparing an attack." This includes credit card fraud, illegal weapons possession and immigration violations.
US authorities also incorporate common people into their counter terrorism network. Truck drivers, garbage men, sales clerks and building security men are urged to report anything unusual to law enforcement officers. Many receive basic training on what to watch out for. Many breakthroughs in US homegrown terrorism cases have come from persons on the street. New York City pays for television ads thanking the over 14,000 people who reported suspicious activity to the police last year.
Most experts feel the "war on terror" has done little damage to civil rights, at least within US borders. The best attribute of US counter-terrorism, says terror analyst James Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation, is it does "a very good job of protecting and respecting the civil liberties of individuals…It does a poor job of defending itself against spurious allegations of abuse or incompetence."
The judiciary's assertiveness is a key reason. The Bush administration's early belief "the civilian judiciary could not handle terrorists" has been repeatedly undercut by the US courts, points out intelligence expert P.J. Crowley. "Extra-legal actions like Guantanamo Bay have been counterproductive." The US public are also more individualistic. Amy Zegart says that in the UK, university students asked authorities for more surveillance cameras. "I cannot imagine that coming from US students."
The other strength of the US: its Muslim community has been resistant to radicalization. Gartenstein-Ross says, "There is a cognizable difference between Muslims in the US and those in Europe. In Europe we see a refusal to assimilate, open manifestations of radicalisation." When Britain's MI5 chief last year said the UK was simultaneously monitoring 30 terror plots, 200 networks and 1,600 individuals, a FBI official publicly said the US domestic threat was on a much smaller and less organised scale.
The overall fact, says Crowley, is "democracies tend to be vulnerable to terrorism, but tend not to produce terrorists." And some democracies are better than others in not driving people to violence.
When a think tank asked 100 Washington foreign policy experts earlier this month what was the likelihood of a Madrid bomb blast-type terrorist attack in the US, 83 said they expected one in the next five years. Despite nearly six years of homeland security success under its belt, the US establishment is not confident of the future.
One obvious reason is bin Laden's successful regrouping in Pakistan. Says Gartenstein-Ross, "Last August's airplane plot in the UK was the first to emerge from the new safe haven. We can expect to see more of this variety." The other are the training grounds for Islamic fighters that exist not only in Iraq but also Somalia.
However, US terrorism experts are concerned at the virulent "down with Uncle Sam" attitude across the world. Says PJ Crowley: "The extent to which we are admired and favoured doesn't make us immune to terror, but it has served us well historically. Less violence has been directed against the US than most other countries." Rohan Gunaratna agrees: "The US is very good at operational counter terrorism: killing, capturing and disrupting operations. The US is very weak in winning hearts and minds of Muslims."
n The US needs to restore multilateralism to the heart of its counter-terrorism strategy. The present strategy, says Crowley, is overly dependent on military action - actions that have strained US relations with the world. "The solution is not a charm offensive, the US should pursue its national interest. But we have lost the sense of shared purpose we enjoyed with much of the world."
It is a view crossing ideological lines. "We can't do it alone. The problem of terrorism is international and consequently it will require an international solution," says Stanley Kober. "There is much we can all learn from each other in combating international terror," agrees James Carafano.
India is a country most believe should be at the forefront of such US anti-terrorism efforts. Crowley points out democracies work best with each other in fighting terror, particularly if they share Anglo-Saxon laws. Says Gartenstein-Ross, "India really understands this problem first hand. Russia and China have some experience. But terrorism is much more a pressing problem in India and, more than most, it is steeped in democratic values. Indo-US cooperation is more likely, especially as concerns grow over Pakistan."