The Scent of Victory?

Leon Panetta, newly installed Secretary of Defense, proclaimed in Kabul on Saturday that the United States was “within reach of strategically defeating Al-Qaeda.” He did not explain how Washington defines ‘Al-Qaeda’ today. Nor did he specify what is meant by ‘defeat.’ Those are critical omissions. Without greater precision we are not in a position to assess the significance of the statement or to estimate the likelihood of success in meeting the American objective. It was simpler in the wake of 9/11. Then it was thought that Al-Qaeda was a unitary organization, hierarchically structured and with clear command and control. In other words, sort of like Goldman Sachs. That is certainly not the case nowadays. Remnants of ‘classic Al-Qaeda’ haunt the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its leadership is fragmented, its foot soldiers scattered. Al-Qaeda today is at best a loose holding company; more likely, little more than a franchise operation. Moreover, its franchise units seem to have limited operational capability.

Secretary Panetta made specific reference to U.S. born Imam Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen and unnamed members of al-Sabah in Somalia. There is a glancing reference to Al-Qaeda in North Africa. But al-Sabah has a Somalian agenda and none of its leaders have been involved in attacks on American interests for thirteen years. It has no known capability to do anything on American territory. Al-Awlaki is the supposed instigator of two failed airline plots most noteworthy for their amateurishness. As for AQNA, it is little more than a crime family specializing in equal opportunity kidnapping and extortion. What to make of this picture? Most striking is that the United States does not seem to be in danger of serious Al-Qaeda directed terrorist acts on its homeland for the foreseeable future. There is almost no likelihood of another 9/11 attempt. Second, inchoate groups of activists with some potential to develop over time an approximation of a dangerous capability can be found in an number of places – including Hamburg and other European cities. So why concentrate a huge effort in AfPak that drains hundreds of billions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury, inflicts casualties on thousands of Americans, ravages the Afghan countryside and undercuts America’s standing in the world? The answer is inertia ? intellectual, psychological, organizational and political. Change is a forlorn hope as the Obama people continue the tradition of at once evoking a generation long war on terror and trumpeting their stellar successes.


Al-Qaeda has become an American obsession – especially for the security/intelligence establishment and the huge terrorism industry that it has spawned. A detached appraisal of the current situation, set against the backdrop of the 9/11 decade, points to the conclusion that the prevailing threat estimate is grossly exaggerated. That holds for both likelihood and magnitude of any conjectured attack. My personal view is that a truly consequential threat, were it ever to materialize, would take a very different form. It would involve just a handful of persons from the greater Middle East with expert credentials in biology, chemistry or the like. One may run a large import-export business. They would have ready access to the United States where they may have institutional ties to universities/research laboratories as well as business connections.They are not radical fundamentalists; indeed, they may not be particularly religious. They would be motivated by grievances such a close relative or two killed by Blackwater in Baghdad, a drone attack, or something similar. They would have experienced deep humiliation at some point in dealings with American officials. They would be embittered by U.S. actions ? direct or indirect – against Muslims re. Palestine, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Lebanon, even Egypt.

The plot could entail creating a nationwide anthrax style panic. Lethal material might be sent to the Pentagon, Central Command, the CIA and/or any high profile American politician. Killing a few persons would be the aim. In addition, packets of the material would be distributed in a small number of airports, sports stadiums and freight cars. As a practical matter, this in itself is child’s play. (Try it with some innocuous substance). The perpetrators would inform the media of their location ? IRA fashion. Once their existence is confirmed, the group would declare that 25 similar packets have been placed in other locations. It may be true or it may just be a feint. Then watch the panic.

What could we do about it? No standard counter terrorism tactics would have any preventive effects. The hundreds of billions we have spent to make Americans safe and secure would have been wasted. The perpetrators will have been motivated by concrete American actions in the Middle East. They might demand their cessation. Does anyone in Washington think in terms of this possible threat? Nothing that I have heard or read suggests that they have. Why? One, it is hard to admit impotence ? especially in American macho culture when the testosterone is churning. Two, there is the powerful terrorism industry. Reflection is not expensive and requires few resources. It makes neither money or careers. Three, the United States is incapable of changing its ‘pro-active’ policies in the Middle East – for reasons of intellectual, emotional and political deficiency. Finally, politically, thinking along these lines has no pay off, and we live in an era when gaining electoral office eclipses any serious thought about what one might do once having attained it. For some, even the Presidency’s appeal is mainly as a good resume item ? and a heck of a lot more fun than anything else they can imagine. Finally, as a people Americans cannot stand living with uncertainty.

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.


More articles by:

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

March 21, 2018
Paul Street
Time is Running Out: Who Will Protect Our Wrecked Democracy from the American Oligarchy?
Mel Goodman
The Great Myth of the So-Called “Adults in the Room”
Chris Floyd
Stumbling Blocks: Tim Kaine and the Bipartisan Abettors of Atrocity
Eric Draitser
The Political Repression of the Radical Left in Crimea
Patrick Cockburn
Erdogan Threatens Wider War Against the Kurds
John Steppling
It is Us
Thomas Knapp
Death Penalty for Drug Dealers? Be Careful What You Wish for, President Trump
Manuel García, Jr.
Why I Am Leftist (Vietnam War)
Isaac Christiansen
A Left Critique of Russiagate
Howard Gregory
The Unemployment Rate is an Inadequate Reporter of U.S. Economic Health
Ramzy Baroud
Who Wants to Kill Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah?
Roy Morrison
Trouble Ahead: The Trump Administration at Home and Abroad
Roger Hayden
Too Many Dead Grizzlies
George Wuerthner
The Lessons of the Battle to Save the Ancient Forests of French Pete
Binoy Kampmark
Fictional Free Trade and Permanent Protectionism: Donald Trump’s Economic Orthodoxy
Rivera Sun
Think Outside the Protest Box
March 20, 2018
Jonathan Cook
US Smooths Israel’s Path to Annexing West Bank
Jeffrey St. Clair
How They Sold the Iraq War
Chris Busby
Cancer, George Monbiot and Nuclear Weapons Test Fallout
Nick Alexandrov
Washington’s Invasion of Iraq at Fifteen
David Mattson
Wyoming Plans to Slaughter Grizzly Bears
Paul Edwards
My Lai and the Bad Apples Scam
Julian Vigo
The Privatization of Water and the Impoverishment of the Global South
Mir Alikhan
Trump and Pompeo on Three Issues: Paris, Iran and North Korea
Seiji Yamada
Preparing For Nuclear War is Useless
Gary Leupp
Brennan, Venality and Turpitude
Martha Rosenberg
Why There’s a Boycott of Ben & Jerry’s on World Water Day, March 22
John Pilger
Skripal Case: a Carefully-Constructed Drama?
March 19, 2018
Henry Heller
The Moment of Trump
John Davis
Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect
Uri Avnery
The Fake Enemy
Patrick Cockburn
The Fall of Afrin and the Next Phase of the Syrian War
Nick Pemberton
The Democrats Can’t Save Us
Nomi Prins 
Jared Kushner, RIP: a Political Obituary for the President’s Son-in-Law
Georgina Downs
The Double Standards and Hypocrisy of the UK Government Over the ‘Nerve Agent’ Spy Poisoning
Dean Baker
Trump and the Federal Reserve
Colin Todhunter
The Strategy of Tension Towards Russia and the Push to Nuclear War
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
US Empire on Decline
Ralph Nader
Ahoy America, Give Trump a Taste of His Own Medicine Starting on Trump Imitation Day
Robert Dodge
Eliminate Nuclear Weapons by Divesting from Them
Laura Finley
Shame on You, Katy Perry
Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography