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March 25, 2004

Ask The Orkin Man

Give us a few years, and we'll show Al-Qaeda what terrorism really is. We've already started practicing.

The plan was chilling in its detail and deliberation. The four men, all trained al Qaeda operatives, were to walk into Minnesota's famous Mall of America two days before Christmas. They would slip overcoats stuffed with C4 plastic explosive onto the retail racks in each of the mall's four department stores -- and then detonate the explosives from afar, using cell phones. The intended result: bloody chaos to terrorize the "average American family" untouched by Sept. 11, 2001.

As he pored over the 18-page document, Dennis Pluchinsky was struck by its cold-blooded specificity -- from the 900-word draft of a letter claiming responsibility for the attack, to a minute-by-minute timeline, to a detailed budget that even noted the free continental breakfast at Days Inn near the mall. Total operational cost: $2,716, not including explosives.

But with a quarter-century of experience analyzing terrorism threats, Pluchinsky quickly spotted the holes that could unravel the plot. "4 Arab males flying together would attract suspicion in today's post 9/11 environment," he scribbled in red pen. Plus, he added, why no Koranic quotes in the communique?

This "terrorist cell leader" would have to settle for an A-minus.

Civilization and Its Enemies talks a bit about the failures of Al-Qaeda after 9/11. In short, they didn't follow up. For weeks after the WTC collapse, people waited the other shoe to drop, and it never did. Aside from the still-mysterious anthrax letter, nothing happened. Had there been further attacks, against targets like The Mall of America, or schools and daycare centers then the impact on American would have been much greater.

If the objective of Al-Qaeda were to instill psychological terror and panic among the American people, then such geographically dispersed small-scale attacks could be of great strategic advantage. In the highly charged aftermath of 9/11, the psychological impact of each attack would have been immensely amplified by the media's twenty-four-hour news cycle; most critically, a string of such attacks would have had the effect of making all people in the United States feel themselves under the direct threat of terrorism, not merely those who live and work in national landmarks and in the great symbols of national power. The strategy would have brought terrorism home to the average American in a way that even 9/11 had not done, and it would have multiplied exponentially the already enormous impact on the American psyche of Al-Qaeda's original act of terror.

Yet they did not, possibly because of a lack of resources, though as the group had no problems getting the 9/11 hijackers into the county. Harris ascribes the lack of follow-up to Al-Qaeda's sense of the grandiose. There's no glamour to be had in bombing a mall after one of your compatriots went to Allah at the controls of a 747, in other words.

But what if the lack of follow-up was due to a simple failure of imagination--not about the initial attacks per se, but what was to come after them? Al-Qaeda, like the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, seems to have thought that one great attack would be all that was needed to topple the rotten edifice that was the U.S. No one seems to have asked "What if the U.S. doesn't collapse?"

America excels at asking "What if" questions. The terrorism classes at George Mason and elsewhere are the results of that ability. Al-Qaeda may see the U.S. as a Great Satan, but when it comes down to it, the country as a whole is more like a white-coated lab technician. First we study the noxious bug in order to learn its ways, ask how it might behave in a given environment, and then come up with ways to kill it.

America isn't the world's policeman. It's the Orkin man.

Posted by Bigwig at March 25, 2004 12:15 PM | TrackBack
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