The Limits of Defense

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed terrorist attack continues to dominate the news, as new information about Abdulmutallab comes to light. While a student in London, he was an anti-anti-jihadist who could have passed for an American liberal:

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, a former president of the Islamic Society at University College London, advertised speakers including political figures, human rights lawyers and former Guantánamo detainees. …
The event he organised took place in January 2007 and included talks on Guantánamo Bay, the alleged torture of prisoners and the War on Terror.

How’s this for a statistic?

He is the fourth president of a London student Islamic society to face terrorist charges in three years. One is facing a retrial on charges that he was involved in the 2006 liquid bomb plot to blow up airliners. Two others have been convicted of terrorist offences since 2007.

Here in the U.S., bureaucratic finger-pointing is already underway as facts emerge about who knew what about Mr. Abdulmutallab. Obviously, multiple breakdowns occurred both within the intelligence community and in the air safety system. President Obama pronounces himself outraged and vows to get to the bottom of it.
Some are advocating new airport security measures, including full-body scans that may or may not detect plastic explosives. That might be a good idea. I went through one of those machines yesterday; but, frankly, I have little confidence that such technology, or any other technology, can make us secure against terrorist attack.
I don’t find it at all surprising that our intelligence agencies didn’t catch on to Abdulmutallab, even after his father essentially turned him in. Nor am I surprised that airport security didn’t detect his explosive shorts. President Obama calls these “systemic failures,” but the reality is that systems do fail–often. Having gone through something like 800 airport security screenings since 9/11, I can attest that the process is semi-conscious at best. At the point of contact, the would-be terrorist will always be more highly motivated than TSA personnel or their overseas equivalents. Apart from that, if we ever did succeed in effectively securing our airports, the terrorists could easily transfer their attention to shopping malls.
So, if there is some technical innovation that increases our chances of catching terrorists, by all means let’s implement it. But playing defense against terrorists is essentially a losing game. They will inevitably pierce our defenses, if not on the first try then not long thereafter. What we need in the war against Islamic terrorists is offense, not defense. We can’t sit back and let them bring the fight to us; we have to attack them where they live, and–to be blunt–kill them before they train and equip fools like Abdulmutallab to kill us.
While details are sketchy, the current operations in Yemen look like the right kind of approach. Tom Joscelyn writes:

A former detainee at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility was killed by Yemeni forces during a raid in Arhab, which is north of the capital Sanaa, on Dec. 17. The former detainee, Hani Abdo Shaalan, was preparing attacks along with other al Qaeda terrorists against the British embassy and other Western targets at the time.
The raid that killed Shaalan was one of several operations carried out across Yemen – in Arhab, Sanaa, and the southern province of Abyan – against al Qaeda targets. The Yemeni government claims that dozens of suspected terrorists have been killed, while dozens more have been captured. Shaalan’s death has been confirmed by both the Yemeni government and a human rights activist familiar with his case, according to the Washington Post.

Likewise, we need to kill terrorists in Afghanistan. Not to prop up the quasi-government of that semi-state, but to keep them from effectively organizing attacks against us. We need to continue, and escalate, our attacks on jihadists in Pakistan. And we need to kill terrorists wherever they exist around the world–Somalia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Nigeria, and so on.
We must, meanwhile, stop releasing terrorists that we already have in custody, and we must take full advantage of every opportunity to gain information about terrorists’ plots and activities. As Paul noted earlier today, the Obama administration has already blown a golden opportunity to obtain vital information from Abdulmutallab.
Is the Obama administration up to carrying out a sustained offensive against Islamic terrorists? The jury is out. Its intended release of more Guantanamo terrorists and its kid-gloves treatment of Abdulmutallab are very bad signs. On the other hand, Obama seems to have been willing to give our military authority in a number of instances, from Yemen to Pakistan, to go after the terrorists.
Our best hope, I think, lies in Obama’s political calculation. As a “peace” candidate elected in the midst of a war that unfortunately continues, he is in a difficult position. Obama is pretty much universally viewed as weak, as a result of his own pronouncements. He is now at great risk: if there is a successful terrorist attack, many millions of Americans will conclude, rightly or not, that it was the result of Obama’s “soft” policies on national security. His already dismal approval ratings will plummet to levels that I don’t believe we’ve ever seen for an American president. Obama’s instinct for self-preservation, if nothing else, should lead him to take reasonably effective measures to prevent future attacks. And, if he and his advisers have any sense, they will inexorably be led to the necessity of unremitting offensive action.