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9/11 and Al Qaeda: The price of victory

August 29, 2011 | 12:34 pm


Is Al Qaeda finished? 

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 nears, it would certainly be welcome news that the organization that carried out those attacks has been defeated.

On Sunday, The Times reported that Al Qaeda's reputed second in command, Atiyah Abdul Rahman, had been killed in Pakistan, probably in a strike by a U.S. drone:

A few weeks after [Osama] bin Laden was killed in Pakistan during a raid by U.S. Navy SEALs, some analysts suggested that Rahman, a Libyan, had emerged as Al Qaeda's leader. That didn't turn out to be the case -- the leadership spot went to Egyptian Ayman Zawahiri -- but it underscored how central a role Rahman has played.

And what's the big picture? As the story says:

Rahman's death is likely to lend credence to a view in some U.S. policymaking circles that Al Qaeda's defeat is within reach.

Recent events "hold the prospect of a strategic defeat, if you will, a strategic dismantling of Al Qaeda," incoming CIA Director David H. Petraeus said last month.

Also in July, Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, who oversees Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy at the National Security Council, said the U.S. was "doubling down" on its strategy of covert targeted missile strikes in Pakistan since Bin Laden's death, believing that Al Qaeda is susceptible to a decisive blow.

"I think there are three to five senior leaders that, if they're removed from the battlefield, would jeopardize Al Qaeda's capacity to regenerate," Lute said. He declined to name them, other than Zawahiri. But clearly Rahman would have been on that list.

Of course, it's been a hugely expensive effort to dismantle the terrorist organization, and to protect the United States. 

For example, The Times also reported Sunday on spending for domestic antiterrorism efforts:

A decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, federal and state governments are spending about $75 billion a year on domestic security, setting up sophisticated radio networks, upgrading emergency medical response equipment, installing surveillance cameras and bombproof walls, and outfitting airport screeners to detect an ever-evolving list of mobile explosives.

Which has some questioning whether that is money well spent:  

"The number of people worldwide who are killed by Muslim-type terrorists, Al Qaeda wannabes, is maybe a few hundred outside of war zones. It's basically the same number of people who die drowning in the bathtub each year," said John Mueller, an Ohio State University professor who has written extensively about the balance between threat and expenditures in fighting terrorism.

"So if your chance of being killed by a terrorist in the United States is 1 in 3.5 million, the question is, how much do you want to spend to get that down to 1 in 4.5 million?" he said.

On the other hand, just from an economic standpoint, the effort has been a plus:

One effect is certain: Homeland Security spending has been a pump-primer for local governments starved by the recession, and has dramatically improved emergency response networks across the country.

An entire industry has sprung up to sell an array of products, including high-tech motion sensors and fully outfitted emergency operations trailers. The market is expected to grow to $31 billion by 2014.

So, is Al Qaeda finished? Of course not. For example, on Saturday in Iraq a suicide bomber killed at least 28 worshipers at a mosque in Baghdad, and at least one official blamed the Iraqi affiliate of Al Qaeda.

But it's also possible that Al Qaeda has been so crippled that it's no longer capable of carrying out a spectacular attack on the U.S. 

And the price for that?  Well, there are the permanent changes in the way Americans now live. As The Times story on domestic security spending says:

Like the military-industrial complex that became a permanent and powerful part of the American landscape during the Cold War, the vast network of Homeland Security spyware, concrete barricades and high-tech identity screening is here to stay. The Department of Homeland Security, a collection of agencies ranging from border control to airport security sewn quickly together after Sept. 11, is the third-largest Cabinet department and -- with almost no lawmaker willing to render the U.S. less prepared for a terrorist attack -- one of those least to fall victim to budget cuts.

But when I think of the cost, what I see are the faces of our soldiers. Go here, to The Times' obituaries for California’s war dead and read their stories.

If we're safer today -- and if Al Qaeda is crippled --  we have these young men and women to thank.


9/11: Lower Manhattan, 10 years after [Photos]

Gunmen kidnap son of slain governor in Pakistan

Some fear post-revolution Libya may look like Iraq

Tripoli chaos raises fear of missiles going to terrorists

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: The Justice Department's Rewards for Justice website gives information about Atiyah Abdul Rahman. Credit: Rewardsforjustice.net

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