Wednesday, January 6, 2010

U.S. a house divided on terrorism

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- We're only a week into the New Year and, already, Yemen is this year's Afghanistan.

Yemen is a mess made more so by its al-Qaida problem but we knew that before the would-be Christmas Day underwear bomber turned up with a profile that included training in Yemen with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

The biggest news isn't that Yemen is a problem, that it was a Nigerian child of privilege who tried to blow up a plane or that so many red flags were missed before his pants were extinguished by a fellow passenger.

Since 9/11, everyone thinks about such a scenario every time they walk down the aisle of a jet, checking the seat assignment on their boarding pass against the numbers above the rows and the people in them. It's impossible for even a failed terrorist attack to remain impersonal and un-emotional.

The biggest shock this time, aside from the intelligence failures the president outlined yesterday, has been the level of politicization of the personal and emotional, with the former vice-president accusing the current president of pretending we're not at war and critics reviewing the administration's response based on theatrical criteria such as insufficient panic and inadequate levels of emoting.

If you try, just as a strategic exercise, to process this narrative through the lens of its perpetrators, it's hard to imagine a better gift for al-Qaida than Dick Cheney using the underwear bomber as yet another tactic to de-legitimize this president and hoard political points for more earthbound battles yet to come.


The big picture message to al-Qaida in all the Christmas week finger-pointing is that causing havoc in the most powerful nation on Earth is easier than it used to be.

The questions the perpetrators don't want asked aren't about the polarization-fueling domestic game. They're about how al-Qaida has adapted its political mission to a shifted market, how the mysteries of radicalization play out on Jihadi web sites and what targeted nations can do about it.

The belated, oversized spotlight on Yemen underscores the reality that this isn't a conventional war and, more and more, it's not being fought as one. Behind all the noise there's a reminder of that lesson from Afghanistan and Pakistan already reflected in the new U.S. approach.

There's also a caution that engaging al-Qaida as though you're fighting a life-size game of "Risk" on a big map of the world against a single, mobile villain could inspire under-governed, lawless countries to see an al-Qaida franchise as the key to a new kind of fear-based security development.


Al-Qaida means "the base" in Arabic but the base's base is not in Yemen or in Afghanistan or in Somalia and that's not because it keeps moving. It's a mindset sold by people who know how to manipulate by dangling the false promises of validation and power.

It's not about religion. It's about exploiting religion to package those false promises by twisting evil into good and wrong into right in a way that transcends geography.

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