Progress and new worry in terror war
Iraq handover could allow US to refocus forces, but anxiety persists about hits at home and abroad.
WASHINGTON — The US Embassy in Pakistan virtually shut down Tuesday following warnings of a terrorist attack.
An Al Qaeda-linked group is threatening to turn Yemen into a "third swamp" for US forces now fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
FBI officials are increasingly concerned that terrorists are planning a US strike meant to disrupt November's elections.
Whatever US progress in handing Iraq back to the Iraqis, the struggle against radical Islamist terrorism continues around the globe. In the short run, developments in Iraq probably won't affect the larger conflict. If nothing else, significant US forces will remain there for some time to come.
But US officials hope to transfer resources as soon as possible to other nations, such as the Philippines, where the war on terror has so far been something of a holding action. If the US troop presence in Iraq could be cut in half, "about 40 percent of our entire combat capability [would then] be freed up to pursue other people where they need to be pursued," says a retired Army general.
As far as Washington is concerned, the most worrisome front on the terror war may be within US borders. Officials remain convinced that Al Qaeda wants to carry out some spectacular strike to influence US politics. The Democratic National Convention in Boston July 26-29, and the Republican National Convention in New York Aug. 30 - Sept. 2, might be particularly attractive targets.
"This summer and fall our nation will celebrate a number of events that serve as powerful symbols of our free and democratic society," FBI Director Robert Mueller said recently. "Unfortunately, the same events that fill most of us with hope and pride are seen by terrorists as prime vehicles for sowing fear and chaos."
Electronic intercepts indicating Al Qaeda's glee over the effect of the March 11 Madrid bombings on the Spanish elections are among the reasons US authorities are worried about November, they say.
"War on terror" is a loose terminology that covers a wide array of US security activities, of course. FBI enforcement inside the US is one of the war's core components. So is Special Forces liaison with domestic security in Africa, East Asia, and other regions.
To the Bush administration, the toppling of Saddam Hussein was a central front in the terror war. But the nature of links between the Hussein regime and Al Qaeda remains a matter of dispute.
The displacement of a dictatorship of epic proportions may eventually change the nature of the entire Mideast, by showcasing the benefits of democracy and economic development. That is the hope of the administration, in any case. But for now the invasion of Iraq appears to have spurred Al Qaeda-related recruitment throughout the region, and provided terrorists a central front on which to confront US forces.
"They've had this opportunity to become a much more professional cadre of thugs," says Jessica Stern, an expert on terror at Harvard University.
The fortunes of these foreign fighters in Iraq may depend on the ability of the interim government to win ordinary Iraqis to its side. "It could affect the foreign fighters in that they get less support domestically," says Judith Yaphe, an Iraq expert at the National Defense University.
As long as an insurgency continues in Iraq, and US troops are targeted there daily, it will remain the top priority of the US national security establishment. That's why reducing the violence there is so important, not only for Iraq's future, but for the future of the terror war, say experts.
Resources are the issue. As the recent call-up of 5,600 members of the Individual Ready Reserve shows, the Pentagon remains hard-pressed to find enough personnel to fulfill its global obligations. Cutting the US presence by 60,000 or 70,000 troops, if that were possible anytime soon, would be a big help.
"Perhaps [that would] free us to devote more resources to Afghanistan, to the extent it has been the poor cousin to US efforts overseas in combating terrorism," says Jim Walsh, a security expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
Of late, there have been some counter- terror successes in the Afghanistan region. Last week, Pakistan's military launched a helicopter assault along the Afghan border that killed an Al Qaeda-linked figure, Nek Mohammed, who had been accused of sheltering insurgent forces.
But Afghanistan itself has been battered by attacks on election workers, registration sites, and other targets linked by Taliban guerrillas to the nation's upcoming September elections. And Pakistan has its own troubles - continued violence by Islamic militants was behind the shutdown of most operations recently at the US and British embassies in Islamabad.
In Saudi Arabia, attacks on Westerners have left diplomats and foreign workers on edge, even though Saudi forces recently killed alleged terror mastermind Abdulazia al-Muqrin. In Yemen, a shadowy group that professes Al Qaeda ties has threatened a Saudi-like explosion of violence, even as Yemeni authorities prepare to open the trial of several suspects in the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.
Such events may sum up the US experience so far in the war on terror. For all the tactical successes - and there have been many - it is facing a dynamic and adaptable radical Islamist foe. "I would say that maybe at this particular moment, we may be a bit safer and we may be a little less likely to experience a catastrophic attack any time in the near future," said Daniel Benjamin, coauthor of "The Age of Sacred Terror," at the Council on Foreign Relations last week. "But I think that over the long term we're losing ground."