Are We Safer?

On the stump, Barack Obama usually concludes his comments on Iraq by saying, “and it hasn’t made us safer.” It is an article of faith on the left that nothing the Bush administration has done has enhanced our security, and, on the contrary, its various alleged blunders have only contributed to the number of jihadists who want to attack us.

Empirically, however, it seems beyond dispute that something has made us safer since 2001. Over the course of the Bush administration, successful attacks on the United States and its interests overseas have dwindled to virtually nothing.

Some perspective here is required. While most Americans may not have been paying attention, a considerable number of terrorist attacks on America and American interests abroad were launched from the 1980s forward, too many of which were successful. What follows is a partial history:

1988
February: Marine Corps Lt. Colonel Higgens, Chief of the U.N. Truce Force, was kidnapped and murdered by Hezbollah.

December: Pan Am flight 103 from London to New York was blown up over Scotland, killing 270 people, including 35 from Syracuse University and a number of American military personnel.

1991
November: American University in Beirut bombed.

1993
January: A Pakistani terrorist opened fire outside CIA headquarters, killing two agents and wounding three.

February: World Trade Center bombed, killing six and injuring more than 1,000.

1995
January: Operation Bojinka, Osama bin Laden’s plan to blow up 12 airliners over the Pacific Ocean, discovered.

November: Five Americans killed in attack on a U.S. Army office in Saudi Arabia.

1996
June: Truck bomb at Khobar Towers kills 19 American servicemen and injures 240.

June: Terrorist opens fire at top of Empire State Building, killing one.

1997
February: Palestinian opens fire at top of Empire State Building, killing one and wounding more than a dozen.

November: Terrorists murder four American oil company employees in Pakistan.

1998
January: U.S. Embassy in Peru bombed.

August: Simultaneous bomb attacks on U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed more than 300 people and injured over 5,000.

1999
October: Egypt Air flight 990 crashed off the coast of Massachusetts, killing 100 Americans among the more than 200 on board; the pilot yelled “Allahu Akbar!” as he steered the airplane into the ocean. [UPDATE: Note correction below.]

2000
October: A suicide boat exploded next to the U.S.S. Cole, killing 17 American sailors and injuring 39.

2001
September: Terrorists with four hijacked airplanes kill around 3,000 Americans in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

December: Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber,” tries to blow up a transatlantic flight, but is stopped by passengers.

The September 11 attack was a propaganda triumph for al Qaeda, celebrated by a dismaying number of Muslims around the world. Everyone expected that it would draw more Muslims to bin Laden’s cause and that more such attacks would follow. In fact, though, what happened was quite different: the pace of successful jihadist attacks against the United States slowed, decelerated further after the onset of the Iraq war, and has now dwindled to essentially zero. Here is the record:

2002
October: Diplomat Laurence Foley murdered in Jordan, in an operation planned, directed and financed by Zarqawi in Iraq, perhaps with the complicity of Saddam’s government.

2003
May: Suicide bombers killed 10 Americans, and killed and wounded many others, at housing compounds for westerners in Saudi Arabia.

October: More bombings of United States housing compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia killed 26 and injured 160.

2004
There were no successful attacks inside the United States or against American interests abroad.

2005
There were no successful attacks inside the United States or against American interests abroad.

2006
There were no successful attacks inside the United States or against American interests abroad.

2007
There were no successful attacks inside the United States or against American interests abroad.

2008
So far, there have been no successful attacks inside the United States or against American interests abroad.

I have omitted from the above accounting a few “lone wolf” Islamic terrorist incidents, like the Washington, D.C. snipers, the Egyptian who attacked the El Al counter in Los Angeles, and an incident or two when a Muslim driver steered his vehicle into a crowd. These are, in a sense, exceptions that prove the rule, since the “lone wolves” were not, as far as we know, in contact with international Islamic terrorist groups and therefore could not have been detected by surveillance of terrorist conversations or interrogations of al Qaeda leaders.

It should also be noted that the decline in attacks on the U.S. was not the result of jihadists abandoning the field. Our government stopped a number of incipient attacks and broke up several terrorist cells, while Islamic terrorists continued to carry out successful attacks around the world, in England, Spain, Russia, Pakistan, Israel, Indonesia and elsewhere.

There are a number of possible reasons why our government’s actions after September 11 may have made us safer. Overthrowing the Taliban and depriving al Qaeda of its training grounds in Afghanistan certainly impaired the effectiveness of that organization. Waterboarding three top al Qaeda leaders for a minute or so apiece may have given us the vital information we needed to head off plots in progress and to kill or apprehend three-quarters of al Qaeda’s leadership. The National Security Agency’s eavesdropping on international terrorist communications may have allowed us to identify and penetrate cells here in the U.S., as well as to identify and kill terrorists overseas. We may have penetrated al Qaeda’s communications network, perhaps through the mysterious Naeem Noor Khan, whose laptop may have been the 21st century equivalent of the Enigma machine. Al Qaeda’s announcement that Iraq is the central front in its war against the West, and its call for jihadis to find their way to Iraq to fight American troops, may have distracted the terrorists from attacks on the United States. The fact that al Qaeda loyalists gathered in Iraq, where they have been decimated by American and Iraqi troops, may have crippled their ability to launch attacks elsewhere. The conduct of al Qaeda in Iraq, which revealed that it is an organization of sociopaths, not freedom fighters, may have destroyed its credibility in the Islamic world. The Bush administration’s skillful diplomacy may have convinced other nations to take stronger actions against their own domestic terrorists. (This certainly happened in Saudi Arabia, for whatever reason.) Our intelligence agencies may have gotten their act together after decades of failure. The Department of Homeland Security, despite its moments of obvious lameness, may not be as useless as many of us had thought.

No doubt there are officials inside the Bush administration who could better allocate credit among these, and probably other, explanations of our success in preventing terrorist attacks. But based on the clear historical record, it is obvious that the Bush administration has done something since 2001 that has dramatically improved our security against such attacks. To fail to recognize this, and to rail against the Bush administration’s security policies as failures or worse, is to sow the seeds of greatly increased susceptibility to terrorist attack in the next administration.

CORRECTION: A reader who has done considerable investigation into the Egypt Air crash called to say that the initial reports of the incident were wrong. Current thinking is that this was not a suicide/terror incident, and likely was caused by an airplane defect or malfunction. I’m not sure how much of this has been reported, but if it has been, I missed it. My apologies to the Egypt Air pilot.

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