Don’t Mention the War
Why does the Obama administration find it so hard to utter the words ‘terrorism’ and ‘jihad’ and ‘Islamic extremism’?
On Saturday, May 1, a crude car bomb composed of gasoline canisters, propane tanks, fertilizer, and fireworks failed to detonate in Times Square. A nearby T-shirt salesman saw the 1993 Nissan Pathfinder-turned-bomb start smoking. New Yorkers are reminded endlessly: If you “See Something, Say Something.” The vendor did. New York City police and FBI agents swarmed the vehicle, the bomb was disassembled, and 53 hours later a Pakistani-American man named Faisal Shahzad was in custody.
We were lucky. Shahzad panicked. He left in a hurry and failed to take several additional steps that might well have led to the detonation of the bomb. If he had remained calm and if the bomb been better built, there is no telling how many passersby would have been killed.
A few days later, on May 4, President Obama tried to put the attack in context.
The last few words were a bit awkward. It is as if the president wanted to say the attack “has been thwarted” but then realized he could not. The attack failed because Shahzad did not do a better job of constructing his makeshift bomb. No government agency can take credit for that.
Still, the Obama administration celebrated the “Times Square incident,” as it is delicately called on the White House’s website. It is, the administration believes, a counterterrorism success. After praising the “ordinary citizens” who “were vigilant and reported suspicious activity to the authorities,” President Obama claimed that the attack “failed because these authorities—local, state and federal—acted quickly and did what they’re trained to do.” The Washington Post followed up with an account saying that Shahzad’s swift capture was a “rare moment to celebrate” for beleaguered Attorney General Eric Holder. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs echoed this sentiment, saying, “We want to celebrate the success of, rightly so, of what law enforcement was able to do.”
But success in the war on terror is not apprehending terrorists after their attacks fail. Success is preventing them from attempting the attack in the first place.
The Times Square attack was the third time in the past six months that an individual terrorist with ties to high-level Islamic radicals overseas has launched an attack on the American homeland. In each instance, America’s vast, multibillion dollar intelligence and law enforcement establishment failed to detect the terrorists’ plans beforehand. And in each instance Obama administration officials moved quickly to minimize the significance of the attack and downplay the connections that the attackers had with international terrorists.
On the morning of May 2, the day after the attack, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano appeared on ABC’s This Week. Jake Tapper asked her about the likelihood of international involvement in the attempted bombing, pointing to similarities between the crude bomb discovered in the SUV and those used in attempted bombings in London and Glasgow in 2007.
“Well, right now, we have no evidence that it is anything other than a one-off, but we are alerting state, local officials around the country, letting them know what is going on,” Napolitano replied.
Calling the attempted attack a “one-off” wasn’t a direct response to Tapper’s question. What’s clear is that Napolitano, who used “one-off” twice and also described the bomb as “amateurish,” wanted to downplay the seriousness of the attack. So did other Obama administration and law enforcement officials, who dismissed claims of responsibility by the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan).
Many details of Faisal Shahzad’s life remain murky. It will take weeks, if not months, to fill the gaps in our knowledge of his biography. But one thing is clear: When he drove a 1993 Pathfinder to Times Square on May 1, he was a committed jihadist, an Islamist radical inspired by religion to kill Americans.
Shahzad arrived in the United States in 1999. Even in pre-9/11 America, he provoked suspicion. According to CBS News, Shahzad carried $80,000 in “cash or cash instruments” with him into the United States on his trips from Pakistan beginning in 1999, and his name was entered into the U.S. government’s Traveler Enforcement Compliance System—a database “designed to identify individuals suspected of or involved in violation of federal law” in CBS’s description. It stayed on the list through 2008. Shahzad comes from a prominent Pakistani family, so perhaps the cash was merely intended to help him start his new life abroad. Still, it was enough to draw the interest of American authorities more than a decade ago.
Shahzad’s activities again warranted scrutiny by federal authorities in 2004, when he sold his Norwalk, Connecticut, condominium for $261,000. According to the New York Times, the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) interviewed the buyer “asking for details of the transaction and for information about” Shahzad. The authorities told the buyer they were merely “checking everything out.” Why they thought Shahzad deserved checking out is not yet clear as the JTTF doesn’t typically knock on the door every time a condo is sold.
It is not clear when Shahzad became radicalized, but by early 2009, he was certainly a committed jihadist. On April 17 of that year, he became a naturalized American citizen. In June, he quit his job as a financial analyst at a Connecticut firm and returned to Pakistan, where he would receive bombmaking training at a terrorist camp.
In Pakistan, according to multiple press accounts, he was met by Mohammed Rehan, the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed (the “Army of Muhammad”)—a known al Qaeda ally. Jaish-e-Mohammed was originally created by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency as part of the Pakistani government’s proxy war in Kashmir. Over time, it became more tightly integrated with al Qaeda—partly as a result of their shared safe haven in northern Pakistan.
New recruits do not just happen to meet a terrorist of Rehan’s standing. Rehan must already have had good reasons to trust Shahzad. According to some accounts, Rehan even personally escorted Shahzad to the training camp in Waziristan. Pakistani officials have reportedly arrested Rehan in connection with the bombing.
It wasn’t just the Jaish-e-Mohammed. Leaders of the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or “Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan”) claimed responsibility for “the recent attack in the USA” in a series of videos. Such claims are hard to prove, of course, and terrorist groups often claim responsibility for attacks in which they had no role to project an aura of power and boost recruitment. But these claims were interesting not only because of their contents but because of the timing of their posting. The first video was posted a day before the attack on an Internet video channel created that same day.
In that video, Qari Hussain Mehsud, a trainer of suicide bombers and senior member of the Pakistani Taliban leadership, explained that the attack was meant to avenge the deaths of senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders, including Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban until his death last summer in a Predator strike.
Shahzad is reported to have family contacts among the Pakistani Taliban. In interrogations with U.S. officials after he was captured, he acknowledged attending a training camp in Taliban-dominated Waziristan and, like Qari Hussain, said that his motive was revenge for the drone attacks. The attack that killed Baitullah Mehsud took place while Shahzad was likely at the training camp in Waziristan.
With increasing specificity, news reports last week highlighted Shahzad’s ties to jihadists.
On Friday, May 7, however, the Wall Street Journal reported that General David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, had described Shahzad as a “lone wolf.” Supporters of the administration quickly pointed to those comments as confirming the initial views of Obama administration officials that Shahzad did not have terrorist connections.
Contacted by The Weekly Standard on Friday about the comments, a public affairs officer for the general, Colonel Erik Gunhus, said that Petraeus “was talking in general terms about what he had seen as of 0800 on Thursday” and was “not making a definitive statement or prediction.”
On Friday, the Washington Post reported that “U.S. officials say evidence points to the involvement of the Pakistani Taliban, a predominantly Pashtun group based in the Afghan border region whose anti-state agenda traditionally did not overlap with that of Kashmir-focused organizations.” The paper also cited Pakistan’s interior minister, Rehman Malik, who said Thursday that Shahzad did not act alone.
Late last week, ABC News added a new twist: Shahzad “had contact with” al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki. Citing law enforcement and intelligence sources, ABC reported that Shahzad’s “web of jihadist contacts” included “the figure who has emerged as a central figure in many recent domestic terror attempts—radical American-born Muslim cleric Anwar Awlaki.”
That may be somewhat overstated. According to a source with knowledge of the investigation, Shahzad has acknowledged downloading Awlaki’s sermons from the Internet and, more generally, supporting Awlaki’s efforts to take the jihad to America. But this source says it’s unclear that Shahzad and Awlaki had any two-way communications.
Whatever his role—whether direct and operational or distant and inspirational—Awlaki’s reach cannot be disputed. And it is yet another element of this attack that echoes the other two attacks on the U.S. homeland in the last six months.
The first of those came on November 5, 2009, when Major Nidal Malik Hasan went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas. Almost immediately after that attack, administration and law enforcement officials downplayed the possibility that Hasan, a practicing Muslim, was motivated by a radical ideology. One FBI official told Fox News that the bureau was not even discussing the possibility of Hasan’s connections to terrorist groups.
But we quickly learned that Hasan had email contact with Awlaki in the months leading up to his attack. At first the FBI dismissed the contents of those emails as “benign.” But that claim became hard to defend when details of the emails were leaked. (In one, Hasan asked whether it was permissible under sharia law to kill U.S. military personnel. And in another, Hasan told Awlaki that he could not wait to join the cleric in the afterlife.) The bureau revised its assessment, claiming only that the emails were consistent with Hasan’s research as an Army psychologist.
It was not until months after the Fort Hood shooting that the Obama administration would label it an act of terrorism. “Violent Islamic terrorism . . . was part and parcel of the Ft. Hood killings,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the Senate Homeland Security Committee in February. But, astonishingly, the report that came out of a Pentagon review of the attack did not even mention Hasan’s radical views or his contacts with Awlaki.
The second attack came on December 25, 2009, when a Nigerian al Qaeda recruit, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, boarded a Detroit-bound plane wearing an underwear bomb. Months earlier, Abdulmutallab’s father had let the U.S. embassy in Abuja know that his son had adopted extremist views and disappeared into Yemen, an al Qaeda hotspot. Other intelligence demonstrated that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is headquartered in Yemen, was preparing to use a Nigerian recruit in an attack. Indeed, AQAP was training Abdulmutallab at the time. Abdulmutallab was also a known friend of Islamic extremists living in England, where he had studied for years.
As in the case of the Fort Hood attack, federal authorities failed to connect the dots beforehand. And, as was the case in Times Square, America simply got lucky. Abdulmutallab’s underwear bomb failed to ignite. Vigilant passengers pounced on him to make sure he did not get another chance to bring down the airliner.
From the outset, the Obama administration downplayed the attack and Abdulmutallab’s connections to terrorists. Despite the fact that the U.S. government did nothing to stop Abdulmutallab, Napolitano and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs claimed that the “system worked.”
Napolitano said that there was “no indication” the Christmas plot was “part of anything larger.” And three days after the attack, in a statement on December 28, President Obama called Abdulmutallab an “isolated extremist.”
Even at the time they made these comments there were indications in the press that Abdulmutallab had been dispatched by al Qaeda. Abdulmutallab told interrogators on Christmas Day that he had been trained in Yemen and that other terrorists would follow.
So, three attacks in six months, by attackers with connections to the global jihadist network—connections that administration officials have gone out of their way to diminish.
The most striking thing about all three attacks is not what we heard, but what we haven’t heard. There has been very little talk about the global war that the Obama administration sometimes acknowledges we are fighting and virtually nothing about what motivates our enemy: radical Islam.
This is no accident. Janet Napolitano never used the word “terrorism” in her first appearance before Congress as secretary-designate of Homeland Security on January 15, 2009. Shortly thereafter, the Washington Post reported that the Obama administration had dropped the phrase “Global War on Terror” in favor of “Overseas Contingency Operations.” And just last month, we learned that the White House’s forthcoming National Security Strategy would not use religious words such as “jihad” and “Islamic extremism.”
When asked why she did not utter the word “terrorism” in the course of her testimony, Napolitano explained that she used “man-caused disaster” instead to avoid “the politics of fear.”
The Department of Homeland Security was created after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history to prevent further terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. And the head of that department is worried that using the word “terrorism” is playing the politics of fear.
The White House is very sensitive to criticism that Obama does not understand the United States is at war. “I don’t think anyone realizes this very hard reality more than President Obama,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, in a statement after the Christmas Day attack. Pfeiffer went on: “In his inaugural, the President said ‘our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.’ ”
It is true. Obama said this. But in that same speech, Obama offered another view of the source of our security. “Our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”
And the president’s mention of the war came not as a bold declaration of strength, but as an entry in a much longer list of national maladies—most of which were domestic in nature.
It is not enough for the president to recognize that we’re at war. He has to lead us in the fight.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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