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The One That Didn't Get Away

Yesterday's arrest of an al Qaeda operative points to what law enforcement can do right.

7:15 AM, Jun 11, 2002 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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AFTER WEEKS of embarrassing headlines about leads flubbed by the FBI and the CIA, followed by the revelation that a government loan officer had conducted a lengthy interview with chief-9/11-hijacker-to-be Mohammed Atta straight out of "Saturday Night Live"--she never got suspicious though he first refused to deal with "but a female," sang the praises of Osama bin Laden, and playfully suggested cutting her throat--yesterday's news of the arrest of Abdullah Al Mujahir came as something of a relief. It appears we can occasionally capture a bad guy after all.

And the case of Al Mujahir usefully refocuses attention from errors in the past to present challenges, notably in two areas where public policy is or should be evolving.

Terrorist profiling. Al Mujahir is an American. For the third time, we encounter an al Qaeda confederate who is not a foreigner. Though his detention was in no way the result of an airport security search, it serves as a reminder that the purpose of those searches is to nab terrorists--not Saudis, or Muslims, or people named Abdullah, but terrorists. Nationality is no foolproof guide; ethnicity, religion, patterns of travel to terror-sponsoring countries--all should be used for targeting searches, but they are only surrogates. Any sensible policy, while profiling for characteristics and patterns of behavior typical of known terrorists, also will recognize that none is foolproof and must remain alert to the likelihood that terrorists will adapt and revise their methods.

Preemption. "We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge," said President Bush at West Point on June 1. The Bush doctrine of anticipatory self-defense, repeatedly enunciated since last September, is not an entirely novel development in U.S. military doctrine, as Michael J. Glennon argued in The Weekly Standard. But as an overarching principle, replacing deterrence and containment, it requires some getting used to. This latest case of an American who has joined the enemies of the United States and been designated an "enemy combatant" by presidential directive is a small instance of that doctrine in action.

Al Mujahir was not arrested for past crimes, or even caught with a specific plot in hand. "He researched nuclear weapons and received training in wiring explosives while in Pakistan," said Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, "and he was instructed to return to the United States to conduct reconnaissance operations for al Qaeda.'' He is being held at a Navy brig in South Carolina without a lawyer and could apparently be detained indefinitely. In the era of nuclear terrorism, the logic of preemption is compelling, but its application carries us onto unfamiliar ground.

Claudia Winkler is managing editor at The Weekly Standard.