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A blog on terrorism, democracy and international politics

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Richard Clarke, al-Qaeda and Pearl Harbour 

The current investigation the Bush Administration's failure to prevent the September 11 attacks from happening has generated some scary but ultimately pointless stories. For example, several media outlets have rehashed the story about Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's chilling warning (since revived by an interview with Lebanese paper al-Safir) to the American Government twelve days before the attacks. Apparently, Mubarak told the Administration (and I quote) that "something was going to happen". To which they no doubt replied, "Thanks Hosni, we'll get right onto that."

Naturally, those who have a deep emotional investment in the Bush Administration being proven inept or negligent have taken this information as being in some way meaningful.

What, precisely ought the Government have done?
  • Closed all foreign embassies?
  • Shut down the entire country's mail system and closed down all government buildings in case "something" meant the then unprecedented mailing of anthrax through the post?
  • Set up road blocks across the country in case a car bomb or truck bomb was going to be detonated in a repeat of the Oklahoma bombing or the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing?
  • Checked thousands of reservoirs in case al-Qaeda agents had planted ricin? (Al-Qaeda's Kurdish affiliate, Ansar al-Islam, apparently manufactured ricin in a lab in northeast Iraq, and the deadly chemical has been found in several European countries in connection with al-Qaeda)
  • Shut down the entire rail network in case al-Qaeda was going to attempt something along the lines of the Madrid bombings?
  • Post armed guards outside all nightclubs in case al-Qaeda was going to try something like the bombings of the Sari Club and Paddy's Bar in Bali?

    Although these precautions may have reduced the probability of success of threats that sound plausible in retrospect, in most cases the threats would have sounded like inventions from a Tom Clancy novel in August 2001. In a large, open society, terrorists can invent just about any plan and put it into effect.

    Second guessing who will attack what, when and how is essentially impossible without good intelligence. In the event, the attacks of 11th September were more unbelievable than any of the above possibilities, and indeed President Mubarak states, "But nobody expected the event would be of such enormity. We did not know that they would hit this target or that, and we were all surprised when planes with passengers on board hit the twin towers."

    The two best ways of combatting terrorism are (1) to gather intelligence and (2) to weaken terrorist organisations and eliminate the most dangerous possible methods of attacks. The destruction of al-Qaeda training bases in Afghanistan and northern Iraq and the cleanup of the illicit WMD trade that has resulted from the war in Iraq certainly address point (2). How does Bush stand up on point (1)?

    Ought the Bush Administration have known how great a threat al-Qaeda was before September 2001? Critics argue that the Administration ought to have been able to sort out a picture of the al-Qaeda threat from the vast stream of tip offs and "something will happen" warnings beforehand. For example, indications that several Muslims had taken flying lessons and not learnt to take off or land should have rung alarm bells, whereas the fact that Iraq sponsored the attempted assassination of George Bush Senior, and the regime's repeated attempts to hinder arms inspections (apparently an elaborate bluff) should have been passed aside as mere 'static'

    Of course, the US Government should have listened to the people whose job was to sort through the stream of intelligence and prioritise threats. Ideally, such people ought to be able to tell the government who is going to attack its interests, how, and where.

    It is for this reason that the claims of Richard Clarke seem to be biting. Clarke was responsible for tracking terrorist threats against America before September 2001, and was immediately demoted to the head of the Cyberterrorism threat assessment after the attacks. A lot of coverage has recently been given to Clarke's claims that the Bush Administration brushed off his warnings that al-Qaeda could organise an attack that would be America's "next Pearl Harbour". Clarke says he urged Wolfowitz to divert resources into the prevention of this "next Pearl Harbour", to no avail.

    In fact, as Jan Haugland's Secular Blasphemy blog has revealed, Clarke was very loudly demanding that the Bush Government divert resources into preventing the imminent "digital Pearl Harbour". That's right, Clarke predicted that the greatest threat to American security was not al-Qaeda but Internet viruses.

    That certainly puts Clarke's demotion to the Cyberterrorism unit into perspective...
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