A Resilient National Spirit

December 21, 2011

NOTE: The NSN Daily Update will be on hiatus until January 4th for the holiday season. We wish our readers a safe and happy holiday.

The color-coded alerts are gone, but terror plot warnings are now seen as an inevitable part of the holiday season. With al Qaeda on its heels, the U.S. faces a real but weakened threat, experts say. Counterterrorism and law enforcement officials work tirelessly and have scored important successes over the last year. Since the very purpose of terrorism is to instill fear and provoke overreaction among the public, an America that refuses to overreact, rush to judgment or give in to fear is an America that defeats terrorism – at the holidays and throughout the year.

U.S. faces a real but weakened terror threat, with al Qaeda on its heels. The Washington Post reported last month on the views of senior U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence officials: “The leadership ranks of the main al-Qaeda terrorist network, once expansive enough to supervise the plot for Sept. 11, 2001, have been reduced to just two figures whose demise would mean the group’s defeat.” Brian Katulis and Peter Juul of the Center for American Progress recently explained: “The Al Qaeda network over the past three years suffered its greatest losses since the United States and its allies evicted the terrorist organization from Afghanistan in 2001. Consider the achievements: President Barack Obama ordered a daring and risky Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011, and dozens of other senior Al Qaeda leaders have met their demise since President Obama took office; This summer, U.S. drones killed Ilyas Kashmiri, commander of Al Qaeda’s Pakistan operation, and Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, Al Qaeda’s top operational planner who became the organization’s number two after bin Laden’s death; Anwar al-Awlaki, a key member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula believed to be responsible for organizing a number of attempted attacks against the United States, was killed in another drone strike in Yemen at the end of September.” [Washington Post,  11/22/11. Brian Katulis and Peter Juul, 11/1/11]

Counterterrorism officials and law enforcement work tirelessly and vigilantly to keep Americans safe. As former 9/11 Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste wrote, “[T]he bipartisan 9/11 Commission made a number of recommendations to make us safer. Most of our suggestions have been incorporated into the fabric of our national defense. We are more alert, more interconnected, more willing to share information and better able to gather and exploit intelligence than we were 10 years ago. At long last, Osama bin Laden has been subtracted from the equation.” [Richard Ben-Veniste, 8/23/11]

The purpose of terrorism is to instill fear and cause an overreaction Brian Fishman, counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation, explains, “Terrorists kill for two basic reasons: They want to disrupt and destroy institutions or symbols of a political order they despise and they want to intimidate people not touched by the attack directly.” This is particularly true of small-scale attacks.

As Ben-Veniste writes, “I do not mean to suggest that we can be complacent about terrorist attacks on our home soil or that we should not require accountability. It is time, however, to have an adult conversation about how we as a nation can deny our enemies a reaction far disproportionate to the actual damage they cause.” [Brian Fishman, 7/23/11. Richard Ben-Veniste, 8/23/11]

When we prevent terrorists from hobbling us with fear, we deter future attacks.  Stephen Flynn, member of the 9/11 Commissioner Co-Chairs’ National Security Preparedness Group says that, “[O]ne of the primary motivations for terrorist groups to embrace less-sophisticated attacks is their growing confidence that these attacks will generate a big-bang for a small buck. Specifically, they are counting on even small-scale attacks that produce few casualties and modest destruction to generate fear, political recriminations, and a rush to put in place expensive and disruptive safeguards.  If how we react – or more precisely, when we overreact – elevates the appeal of carrying out these attacks on U.S. soil, it follows that there is an element of deterrence by denying these terrorist groups the return on investment they hope to receive.” [Stephen Flynn, 9/15/10]

Jumping to conclusions is harmful. Columbia University’s DART Center for Journalism and Trauma reminds commentators, bloggers and advocates, when news is fresh and emotions are raw: ”Beware of any ‘expert’ who seems too ready to provide a long-distance diagnosis or otherwise rush to conclusions… Beware the risk of propagating imitators… Treat manifestoes with caution.”

After embarrassing early misstatements by a Washington Post blogger about the perpetrators of Norway’s horrific terror attacks this past summer, James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic, said that “this is a sobering reminder for those who think it’s too tedious to reserve judgment about horrifying events rather than instantly turning them into talking points for pre-conceived views.” Fishman stated that, “One clear lesson is that speculation about the perpetrators of a terrorist attack should be left aside until there is clear evidence of some kind.” [Frank Ochberg and Bruce Shapiro, 1/9/11. James Fallows, 7/23/11. Brian Fishman, 7/23/11]

Strength and resilience are core American attributes, as we were reminded in this 9/11 anniversary year.  “Resilience has historically been one of the United States’ great national strengths.  It was the quality that helped tame a raw continent and then allowed the country to cope with the extraordinary challenges that occasionally placed the American experiment in peril,” writes Flynn.  We must refuse to fall victim to fear and a siege mentality.  As President Obama said following the failed plot in Times Square, “We know the aim of those who try to carry out these attacks is to force us to live in fear… And thereby amplifying the effect of their attacks, even those that fail. But as Americans, and as a nation, we will not be terrorized. We will not cower in fear, we will not be intimidated. We will be vigilant, we will work together, and we will protect and defend the country we love to ensure a safe and prosperous future for our people.” [Stephen Flynn, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2008. Barack Obama, 5/4/10]

What We’re Reading

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki of Iraq is urging Kurdish leaders to hand over Vice President Tariq al Hashemi, who is wanted for arrest on terrorist charges, which al Hashemi calls “fabricated” and believes are religiously motivated.

Gen. John Allen, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, suggested that U.S. forces could be stationed in Afghanistan after the target withdrawal date of 2014.

Thousands of Egyptian women are demonstrating against the Egyptian military’s treatment of women protestors after one was photographed being beaten and dragged through the streets.

Gulf Cooperation Council members endorsed a proposal by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to form a single regional entity, a move seen as countering Iran and Syria.

U.S. and South Korean officials are cautiously opening lines of communication and aid with North Korea during the transition of power from the late Kim Jong-il to his son Kim Jong-un.

More than 200 people have been killed in two days of clashes throughout Syria, one day before Arab League monitors arrive to monitor a negotiated peace agreement.

Alexi Navalny and Ilya Yashin, prominent leaders of Russia’s political opposition, were released from prison after being detained for organizing the ongoing anti-government protests throughout Russia.

Serbian police arrested Zvonko Veselinovic, the alleged leader of an ethnic Serb armed resistance to an independent Kosovo, after both NATO and the European Union urged Serbian leaders to end the uprising that has injured NATO peacekeepers.

Chinese officials agreed to compromise on demands set by villagers in the southern city of Wukan after they threatened to expand their protests over controversial land deals.

Amnesty International is asserting that UN peacekeepers failed to protect civilians in the disputed Abeyi region between Sudan and South Sudan.

President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo was sworn in for a second term, despite stiff objections by supporters of opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi.

Commentary of the Day

Isobel Coleman explains why the promises of the Arab Spring uprisings don’t necessarily improve the lives of Arab women.

John Adams writes that NATO continues to be the best vehicle for trans-Atlantic peace and prosperity, but whether it will remain viable depends on tough American and NATO choices.

Thomas Friedman analyzes the prospects for Iraq’s future now that it is fully independent.

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