TCS Daily

What If It Ended at the Beginning?

By Russell Seitz - December 13, 2004 12:00 AM

Some things end at their beginning. If cunning Odysseus had perished early on in the Iliad, we might be occupying Troy instead of Baghdad, and the Odyssey would never have begun. Last month Osama Bin Laden raised Islam's foremost besieger of cities, the late Mohammed Atta, to the rank of "Commander General". With reason -- it takes singular ingenuity to achieve stunning surprise. But where will he find another? Agamemnon's planning staff delivered a ten year stalemate, not the Trojan Horse, and in 1993 all Bin Laden's old crew could do was blow a hole in the WTC's basement.

Since 9-11 al Qaeda has failed to escalate to weapons of mass destruction, or implement its mature plans for a dozen-plane attack. Why should it try? You can't upstage the unforgettable, and 9-11 is a meme on a par with Pearl Harbor and the Trojan horse. A day that lives in infamy cannot be repeated by surprise.

Despite the media's obsession with nukes, nerve gas, and germs, the last thousand days have brought only history repeating itself as 'Groundhog Day' as 90's-style acts of terror have repeated themselves at lesser ground zeros in Indonesia and Spain. The banality of evil has numbed us to the unsubtle distinction between old-fashioned terror and unrealized future fears of WMD's. Mohammad Atta may have chose the moment of his death as wisely as his target and impact velocity, for 9-11's breathtaking success has made us forget he was not: a weapons expert. His resort to hijacking 757's testifies to Al Qaeda's lack of WMD's at the War On Terror's outset .

The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing owed much to the example of Al Qaeda's 1993 attack on the WTC. Yet for all the fears of homegrown WMD that followed, America's Militia Movement disappeared in a puff of shame. Today al Qaeda is less the 'foundation' its name implies than a template -- self-selected groups of Islamists emulate its operations more or less autonomously. Their numbers belie Bin Laden's claims as a Commander of the Faithful -- scarcely one Muslim in 100,000 has answered his call.

The Iraq war puts Europe closer to today's terrorist firing line than America, and the EU has increased its focus on those supporting terrorist cells, and the Mosques and prison groups that are centers of radical recruitment . The cultural respect commanded by Islamic veterans of Afghanistan and Bosnia enabled them to recruit Al Atta's pilots, so Europe fears jihadi's returning from Iraq may someday recruit the perpetrators of a European 9-11.

In America, 9-11 has become such a national institution that we wince at quantifying it, as though the horror's enumeration might be a prelude to its denial. But knowing the enemy's numbers is vital in time of war -- even a War on Terror.

Estimates of Al Qaeda's armed strength vary. Has it added 18,000 recruits since 9-11 as IISS estimates, or shrunk to 3,000 surviving veterans as some in the Pentagon opine? Some doubt it matters -- only 25 men sufficed to fill the Trojan Horse. Confusion as to OBL's intentions is compounded by the sheer number of analysts -- there are 1,500 think tanks inside the Beltway, and Al Qaeda seems to be handily outnumbered by Weekly Standard subscribers.

Small cadres can beget great horrors, but few totalitarian movements outlive their infamy. Atrocities that stagger the imagination arise from ideas that repel the mind. President Bush warns we still linger "in the mirage of safety", and The Weekly Standard that we must "fundamentally change the political culture of the Middle East" lest "radicals without conscience gain the weapons to kill without limit." This is vintage Cold War rhetoric, but neither Al Qaeda nor Iraq is an ICBM armed Evil Empire with an Iron Curtain to hide behind. Not much in the volumes written about the nuclear ambition of nations pertains to a cult on the run- for some counterexamples, see:

Bin Laden is indeed a man who would be Caliph, but he lacks the resources of a nation, let alone a civilization. We have seen the enemy, and he has less than one division. We are not in the midst of another 30 Years War, and few of the worst fears of Hollywood, or the think tanks are commensurate with the limited means of a very backward enemy.

Despite our continuing obsession with weapons of mass destruction, his gambit was simply an exercise in grand theft aero. The revolution in military affairs can only deliver its historical torque through the clutch of technical literacy. Any Army tank driver or Air Force Sp4 struggling to keep abreast of systems updates can testify that the vaunted Taliban "Terrorist Manuals" are little more than comic books. No evidence links them to the three real domestic anthrax attacks -- or the 2,000 hoaxes and false alarms that occurred in the weeks after 9-11. Salafist fanaticism may rival Marxist zeal in malevolence, but its aversion to modernity costs it political traction.

Much said about WMD's has proven apocryphal, and Al Qaeda's arsenal may lack state of the art expertise as well as WMD materiel. But the War on Terror is anything but phony. Attacked by every means a superpower and its allies can devise, Osama's minions are a shrinking cancer on the body of Islam. As its attrition continues, firepower and intelligence bandwidth are focused ever tighter on what remains, a feedback loop fast becoming a noose around Osama's neck . Having worn out its cool welcome in Pakistan's Tribal Areas, Al Qaeda's next winter may be spent in the forbidding elevations of between the Karakorum and the Hindu Kush.

When civilizations clash for ages, their roughest edges dull first, and the prospect of their mutual destruction becomes less assured. Forty years after Stanley Kubrick's scary movie, the persistent coexistence of weapons and hope may drive Doctor Strangelove's Islamic understudies to despair. Some will try to repeat 9-11 -- count on it. But while what remains up al Qaeda's sleeve remains a mystery, the Damoclean existential threat of the Cold War has faded into history. The threat of radwaste bombs and cyber attacks makes us shudder, but the reality is that people still live, and prosper in downtown Hiroshima. Once the rhetoric of extinction served to deter any thought of confronting an evil empire. Now it merely serves to inflate into satanic stature a merely evil man.

Soon the War on Terror will have outlasted World War II. As that day approaches, consider what an embedded reporter in the Sudan wrote about "the curses that Mohammedanism lays upon its votaries... No stronger retrograde force exists in the world: were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science -- the science against which it had vainly struggled -- the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome."

What Churchill wrote at Omduran in 1898 remains true today. Hubris is less pride than the blindness arising from it. Our recent fall has left us too bruised to consider how severe our enemy's injuries may be -- or that Al Qaeda's best shot may have been exactly that. Perhaps they know it. After four years in the Pale Horse's saddle, OBL is looking more like the Knight of the Sad Countenance than the Shadow of Allah Upon The Earth.


TCS Daily Archives