Mission Not Accomplished

From Walter Russell Mead’s “Al-Qaeda Is Alive and Well“:

Contrary to exclamations from the Obama administration and the mainstream press, Al-Qaeda is not dead, not gone, and not “on its last legs.” In fact, the regional groups that together make up “Al-Qaeda” have had different fortunes in recent months, as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross reports for Foreign Policy, but its fighters are still out there….

It seems that Al-Qaeda willingly hid from public view, regrouped, explored new areas of operation, trained, and gathered recruits, all before the 9/11/12 attack in Benghazi—and all amid repeated spiking of the football in Washington over the killings of Osama bin Laden and Abu Yahya al-Libi, among others….

Americans have a pattern of prematurely declaring victory in these kinds of long, drawn-out struggles. Think back to Lyndon Johnson’s “light at the end of the tunnel” in Vietnam, the “death throes” of the Iraqi insurgency that Vice President Cheney thought he saw, and the triumphal crowing after bin Laden’s death that Al-Qaeda was on the verge of strategic defeat. We ought to be more careful declaring victory, especially when we aren’t exactly sure to begin with what victory would even look like.

As if to underscore Mead’s warning, here is a tidbit from The Telegraph:

Al-Qaeda has been blamed for a recent series of forest fires across Europe, as the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service claimed they were set by arsonists as part of the group’s low-cost attack strategy.

“One should note that setting fires to forests in the countries of the European Union is a new tendency in al-Qaeda’s strategy of a ‘thousand cuts’,” Alexander Bortnikov said, according to state news agency RIA Novosti, at a meeting of heads of security agencies.

“This method allows (al-Qaeda) to inflict significant economic and moral damage without serious preliminary preparations, technical equipment or significant expenses.”

In linking al-Qaeda to the deadly wildfires, Mr Bortnikov pointed to calls to launch a “forest jihad” by various extremist websites which he said also publish detailed instructions about how and where to best carry out arson.

He said it was very difficult for special services to find and prosecute such arsonists.

Deadly fires have swept through forest land in EU countries such as Portugal and Spain over the past few months, killing scores of people and forcing thousands to evacuate. (“Al-Qaeda blamed for Europe-wide forest fires,” October 4, 2012)

It seems to me that someone ought to be taking seriously the kind of scenario that I laid out in “The Next 9/11?”:

…I challenge the [Obama] administration to tell me that the following has not happened and cannot happen in the United States:

  • A large but dispersed collection of improvised weapons for improvised, mortar-style attacks has been gathered in and around major U.S. cities and transportation and energy nodes.
  • These weapons are positioned so that their activation, on a massive scale would create havoc and panic — and might well disrupt transportation and communication networks. (With a massive salvo, not every weapon must reach its target.)
  • These weapons can be activated remotely — perhaps through signals transmitted from a single point — so that they can be fired in coordinated waves. Each successive wave disrupts and complicates rescue and recovery efforts that ensue from preceding waves, heightens confusion and panic, and lays the groundwork for economic disaster and political repression.

Obama’s political correctness, I fear, goes hand-in-hand with his demonstrated fecklessness in matters of national security. The intelligence and special operations forces of the United States should be capable of detecting and dismantling a threat of the kind outlined above. But will they be given the necessary resources and leeway? I doubt it.

I wrote that more than a year before the murders of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans. Murders that underscore Obama’s insouciant incompetence in the face of a determined enemy.

The Next 9/11?

Obama has released a paper titled “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.” It ends — as one would expect of a screed bearing Obama’s imprimatur — with a statement of “guiding principles”:

We must continually enhance our understanding of the threat posed by violent extremism and the ways in which individuals or groups seek to radicalize Americans, adapting our approach as needed….

We must do everything in our power to protect the American people from violent extremism while protecting the civil rights and civil liberties of every American….

We must build partnerships and provide support to communities based on mutual trust, respect, and understanding….

We must use a wide range of good governance programs—including those that promote immigrant integration and civic engagement, protect civil rights, and provide social services—that may help prevent radicalization that leads to violence….

We must support local capabilities and programs to address problems of national concern….

Government officials and the American public should not stigmatize or blame communities because of the actions of a handful of individuals….

Strong religious beliefs should never be confused with violent extremism….

Though we will not tolerate illegal activities, opposition to government policy is neither illegal nor unpatriotic and does not make someone a violent extremist….

That must set a record for the highest number of treacly, politically correct, operationally useless and self-defeating statements made in the span of a typewritten page.

If this is how the Obama administration sets about protecting Americans from terrorism, I fear that the next 9/11 isn’t far off.

For example, I challenge the administration to tell me that the following has not happened and cannot happen in the United States:

  • A large but dispersed collection of improvised weapons for improvised, mortar-style attacks has been gathered in and around major U.S. cities and transportation and energy nodes.
  • These weapons are positioned so that their activation, on a massive scale would create havoc and panic — and might well disrupt transportation and communication networks. (With a massive salvo, not every weapon must reach its target.)
  • These weapons can be activated remotely — perhaps through signals transmitted from a single point — so that they can be fired in coordinated waves. Each successive wave disrupts and complicates rescue and recovery efforts that ensue from preceding waves, heightens confusion and panic, and lays the groundwork for economic disaster and political repression.

Obama’s political correctness, I fear, goes hand-in-hand with his demonstrated fecklessness in matters of national security. The intelligence and special operations forces of the United States should be capable of detecting and dismantling a threat of the kind outlined above. But will they be given the necessary resources and leeway? I doubt it.

UPDATE (10/15/15): There are plenty of other cheap and easy ways of killing Americans en masse, making their lives unbearable, or crippling economic activity; for example:

A 2013 attack on an electric substation near San Jose that nearly knocked out Silicon Valley’s power supply was initially downplayed as vandalism by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the facility’s owner. Gunfire from semiautomatic weapons did extensive damage to 17 transformers that sent grid operators scrambling to avoid a blackout.

But this week, a former top power regulator offered a far more ominous interpretation: The attack was terrorism, he said, and if circumstances had been just a little different, it could have been disastrous.

Jon Wellinghoff, who was chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission when the shooting took place, said that attack was clearly executed by well-trained individuals seeking to do significant damage to the area, and he fears it was a test run for an even larger assault.

“It would not be that hard to bring down the entire region west of the Rockies if you, in fact, had a coordinated attack like this against a number of substations,” Wellinghoff said Thursday. “This [shooting] event shows there are people out there capable of such an attack.”

Wellinghoff’s warning about the incident at PG&E’s Metcalf substation was reported this week by the Wall Street Journal, expanding on a December report by Foreign Policy magazine.

FBI officials said they are taking the shooting very seriously.

“Based on the information we have right now, we don’t believe it’s related to terrorism,” said Peter Lee, an FBI spokesman in San Francisco. But, he added, “Until we understand the motives, we won’t be 100% sure it’s not terrorism.”

Months after the shooting, the bureau has named no suspects.

Potential terrorism scenarios usually involve elaborate cyberattacks, expertly executed hijackings or smuggled nuclear weapons. But concern grows that California may have come unnervingly close to learning that calamity might just as easily be inflicted by a few well-trained snipers.

As law enforcement tries to piece together who fired at the electricity facility, lawmakers and analysts express bewilderment that little is being done to protect against a repeat performance….

The classified report was completed in 2007 and became public two years ago. Asked what has happened since then to protect the nation’s electricity system, Morgan replied that very little has been done.

The attack on the PG&E facility targeted the sophisticated transformers that are at the backbone of the nation’s electricity grid. The giant pieces of equipment are essential, costly and could take months to replace. Knock out enough of them, experts warn, and an entire region can be crippled for an extended period. They are also typically out in the open like sitting ducks.

On that April night, the attackers managed to disable 17 of them just by shooting through a chain-link fence. The bullet holes caused the transformers to leak thousands of gallons of oil, and ultimately overheat. Grid operators scrambled to reroute power from elsewhere to keep the system from collapse. The power stayed on, but just barely, because it happened during a time when demand for electricity was very low.

“Fortunately it was spring and we did not have air conditioners running full throttle in the morning,” said Stephanie McCorkle, a spokeswoman for the California Independent System Operator in Folsom, which runs most of the state’s electrical grid. “That’s why the situation was manageable.”

Wellinghoff, now a partner at the San Francisco law office Stoel Rives, said the grid’s interdependence on substations across large swaths of the country — and a scarcity of spare equipment — makes it possible to trigger an enduring blackout across several states simply by destroying key transformers in one of them.

Days after the April shooting, Wellinghoff flew out to review the damage with experts from the Pentagon and the FBI. They noticed piles of stones had been set up outside the site, apparently by someone who had scoped it out to guide the snipers. [Evan Halper and Mark Lifsher, “Attack on Electric Grid Raises Alarm,” Los Angeles Times, February 6, 2015]