nine days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, George W. Bush defined
victory in the “war on terror” as the defeat of al-Qaeda and “every
terrorist group of global reach.” But now with almost no debate, the
Bush administration has expanded those ambitious goals by adding the
elimination of potential “homegrown terrorists.”
In effect, this bait-and-switch definition of
“victory” guarantees that the “war on terror” will indeed be endless,
striking not just at al-Qaeda and other organized terrorist groups that
can operate internationally, but including disaffected youth in the
United States and elsewhere who might be inspired by al-Qaeda or some
other extremist ideology.
This mission creep was reflected in several recent
developments, such as the arrest of seven young black men in Miami for
agreeing to collaborate with an FBI agent posing as an al-Qaeda
operative and the CIA’s shutting down of a special unit that has been
dedicated to tracking al-Qaeda for the past decade.
Intelligence officials said the CIA disbanded the
al-Qaeda-focused “Alec Station” late last year and reassigned its
analysts to a broader Counterterrorist Center because the center’s
then-director Robert Grenier felt that the reorganization would better
meet the shifting terrorist threat. [NYT, July 4, 2006]
At the heart of that changing threat is a
heightened concern about “homegrown terrorism,” which is not directed by
al-Qaeda or another international terrorist group but may be inspired by
them. An example of that type of terrorism was the July 7, 2005, subway
bombings in London, carried out by four young Muslims from northern
Yet, rather than take this declining capability of
al-Qaeda to conduct direct attacks on the West as a sign of victory – or
as an indication that the 9/11 attacks were a case of lax U.S. defenses
letting al-Qaeda get in a lucky punch – the Bush administration has
redrawn the parameters of the potential threat.
“We’ve already seen this new face in terrorism in
Madrid, London and Toronto,”
said FBI Director Robert Mueller in a speech to the City Club in
Cleveland. “They were persons who came to view their country as the
Mueller’s comments also could have applied to the
Miami Seven case, although some critics see it more as an example of the
administration manufacturing a “homegrown” threat to justify Bush’s
continuation of extraordinary presidential powers and further
encroachments on American constitutional rights.
“Without the help of the FBI, determined to
establish a ‘homegrown’ terrorist threat, as elucidated by FBI head
honcho Robert Mueller in Cleveland as the bust unfolded in Miami, these
‘terrorists’ hailing from a cult that believes in shape-shifting
reptiles, would have gone nowhere,”
wrote journalist Kurt Nimmo.
The seven Miami defendants appear to be alienated
young men, but there is no evidence that they would have “sworn
allegiance” to al-Qaeda if an undercover FBI agent hadn’t approached
them with promises of cash, uniforms and supplies. Even then, as FBI
deputy director John Pistole said, their plan was “aspirational rather
Despite the breathless media attention to the
arrests – one CNN anchor even wondered if the Miami Heat’s celebration
of the NBA championship might be disrupted by the terrorist threat – the
seven African-Americans had no weapons, no explosives and no concrete
plans for waging a “full ground war against the United States,” as
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales claimed.
“We’re as puzzled as everyone else,”
said Howard Simon, director of the Florida chapter of the American
Civil Liberties Union. “There’s no weapons, no explosives, but this
Though rounding up these seven young men may not
have headed off some imminent terrorist attack, the arrests did serve
several other purposes, including injecting a new dose of fear into the
American people, giving Republican candidates a boost in the November
elections and justifying continuation of the “war on terror” at a time
when Bush’s strategies are facing new questions and challenges.
Most notably, on June 29, a majority of the U.S.
Supreme Court rebuked Bush’s proposed military tribunals for trying many
of the 460 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The five-justice majority
declared that the “war on terror” does not grant the President unlimited
As Marty Lederman
observed in an analysis for SCOTUSblog.com, the court determined
that Bush’s conduct is “subject to the limitations of statute and
treaty” and the court made clear that “Congress’s enactments are best
construed to require compliance with the international laws of armed
conflict, absent contrary legislative direction.”
Perhaps most importantly, the Supreme Court ruled
that the Geneva Convention applies as a treaty obligation to the
conflict against al-Qaeda.
In citing the Geneva Convention, the court
unambiguously rejected legal theories put forth by the White House
Office of Legal Counsel when it was run by Alberto Gonzales who argued
that provisions of the Geneva Convention were rendered “quaint” and
“obsolete” by the 9/11 attacks.
In repudiating the White House position, the
Supreme Court implied that the administration has committed war crimes
at Guantanamo. Theoretically at least, the ruling would open U.S.
officials to prosecution under the War Crimes Act, which defines a war
crime as any act that “constitutes a violation of common Article 3” of
the Geneva Convention.
Although few people expect George W. Bush and
Donald Rumsfeld to be put in the docks as war criminals, the court’s
ruling does mark the most significant institutional challenge to Bush’s
assertion of virtually unlimited powers as commander in chief.
For his part, Bush has hinted that he may treat the
Supreme Court’s ruling as more of an advisory opinion than a binding
Responding to a reporter’s question shortly after
the court’s decision, Bush rhetorically put quote marks around the word
“Yeah, I – thank you for the question,” Bush
said, “on a quote, ‘ruling’ that literally came out in the midst of
my meeting with the prime minister [of Japan], and so I haven’t had a
chance to fully review the findings of the Supreme Court.”
Between the quote marks around “ruling” and the
later reference to the court’s “findings,” Bush conveyed a sense that he
didn’t necessarily consider the decision to be binding on his actions.
Some congressional Republicans also indicated that
they might just ratify Bush’s previous plan for Guantanamo tribunals –
which would have sharply restricted the rights of the defendants – and
then dump the issue back in the Supreme Court’s lap.
Bush already knows that four justices – Antonin
Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and John Roberts – are prepared to
sign off on Bush’s claims to extraordinary powers for prosecuting the
“war on terror.” If one of the other five justices switches or is
replaced before a new ruling, Bush might well be granted his wishes.
Given Bush’s assertion of “plenary” – or unlimited
– powers as commander in chief, it would follow that he doesn’t believe
the Legislature or the Judiciary has any control over his actions.
Regarding legislation passed by Congress, Bush has
issued hundreds of “presidential signing statements” to effectively
nullify laws that he believes encroach on his authority. For instance,
in December 2005, Bush signed a law prohibiting abuse of terror suspects
but then added a signing statement asserting his right to ignore the
Though Bush has sworn to “faithfully execute the
law in a manner that is consistent with the Constitution,” he has made
clear that he actually sees the laws as optional depending on whether
they serve his interests.
Beyond these legal issues raised by the “war on
terror,” there is the troubling question of whether Bush’s strategy is
endangering national security by relying too much on force. Traditional
counterinsurgency tactics emphasize addressing root causes of extremist
violence, such as economic conditions, cultural sensitivities and
Yet Bush has discovered that tough talk and rough
tactics play well with his political base and with Americans frightened
by the prospect of another 9/11 attack. In allied countries, however,
there is a growing concern that the Iraq War is fueling the terrorist
threat by riling up Muslims living in the West.
After the London bombing and the earlier Madrid
train attacks, large majorities in Britain and Spain blamed their
government’s involvement in the Iraq War for making those countries more
vulnerable to terrorist attacks. In Spain, the calls to withdraw from
Iraq contributed to the election of Jose Zapatero, who soon pulled
Spanish troops out of Iraq.
In Afghanistan, U.S.-backed president Hamid Karzai
has urged the United States to reconsider its strategy of relying on
military force to hunt down terrorists and to begin addressing the root
causes of terrorism.
Karzai said the recent deaths of 600 Afghanis were
“unacceptable” and warned that the U.S. strategy was feeding a Taliban
resurgence in Afghanistan and a growing militancy in neighboring
Indeed, it appears the Bush administration may have
entered into a circular pattern of reacting to terrorism with greater
force, which in turn generates more anti-Americanism and more terrorism,
which justifies even a more severe application of force.
survey of over 100 of America’s top terrorism experts found an
overwhelming consensus that the world is more dangerous for the American
people than it was on Sept. 11, 2001. Over half the experts cite Islamic
animosity and the Iraq War as the main reasons why the world is becoming
Eighty-seven percent of those surveyed believed
that the war in Iraq has had a negative impact on U.S. national
security. Other contributing factors were the detention of terror
suspects in Guantanamo, U.S. policy toward Iran and U.S. energy
Suicide for the Republic
In a June 28 panel discussion about the survey,
retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary
of State Colin Powell, noted that some experts say that between 40
million and 100 million Muslims around the world support the killing of
American men, women and children for political objectives.
Wilkerson said it was impossible to neutralize this
widespread hostility by relying on military force. Plus, he said, if the
United States did try to eradicate this Muslim anger through force, “we
will commit suicide as a democratic republic.”
Throughout the Cold War, Wilkerson said, even when
facing a security threat much worse than al-Qaeda, presidents balanced
the needs of national security and the constitutional principles that
ensure a democratic republic.
Under Bush, there has been a “radical departure”
from that tradition of compromise, Wilkerson said.
Not only has Bush’s departure from constitutional
principles led to an “imperial presidency,” Wilkerson said, but many of
Bush’s “war on terror” policies have exponentially increased
anti-Americanism and fueled the terrorist threat.
Other experts agreed that Bush’s strategy is
playing into al-Qaeda’s hands.
Former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, who ran the
now-disbanded al-Qaeda task force, said Osama bin-Laden knows that his
ragtag band of terrorists can’t do much in taking on the awesome power
of the U.S. military, but bin-Laden hopes that his call to arms can
inspire people inside the United States and elsewhere to take up his
Jason Burke, author of Al-Qaeda: The True Story
of Radical Islam,
argues that al-Qaeda is “an idea, not an organization,” with bin
Laden and other leaders having no “need to organize attacks directly.”
Instead, al-Qaeda leaders “merely need to wait for
the message they have spread around the world to inspire others.” Rather
than following orders from above, autonomous cells launch attacks on
targets independently at times of their own choosing, actions which are
then applauded by al-Qaeda leaders.
That may be the underlying significance of the
Miami Seven case, if indeed the government’s allegations are correct
that these young African-Americans agreed to the FBI informant’s demand
that they swear allegiance to al-Qaeda.
Bush’s “war on terror” may now be refocusing itself
on disaffected individuals who are driven by their exclusion from
society or economic hardship to turn toward extremism and possibly
violence against their own country’s power structure.
According to a 1999 report commissioned by the
Clinton administration entitled “Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why,”
terrorists “often are unemployed, socially alienated individuals who
have dropped out of society.” In western societies, some terrorists also
are “intellectual and idealistic,” the report said.
“These disenchanted youths” usually “engage in
occasional protest and dissidence” before turning to terrorism, an
escalation that often follows “violent encounters with the police,” the
Dealing with some of those underlying issues may
ultimately prove more effective in addressing alleged homegrown
terrorism than pre-emptive arrests.
But less violent tactics for defusing social
tensions have never been of much interest to Bush, who has gotten great
political mileage out of macho rhetoric about bringing in terrorists
“dead or alive” and bombing “rogue states.”
Bush also has offered the American people
simplistic, feel-good explanations for the motivation of terrorists.
In his Sept. 20, 2001, speech to a joint session of
Congress, for instance, he not only defined what victory would be but
offered his famous explanation for why the United States was attacked
nine days earlier.
“Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it
does not end there,” Bush
said.. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach
has been found, stopped and defeated.
“Americans are asking, why do they hate us? They
hate what we see right here in this chamber – a democratically elected
government. … They hate our freedoms – our freedom of religion, our
freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with
Now, almost five years later, Bush has expanded his
counterterrorism plan to go after potential “homegrown” threats, even
though that strategy is certain to erode some of the same freedoms that
Bush extolled just nine days after 9/11.
Despite this downward spiral in the “war on
terror,” Bush stands to continue benefiting from the political support
of frightened Americans who are ready to trade their constitutional
liberties for a sense of a little more safety at the shopping mall.