Might al Qaeda be like the planarian worm?
The strike against Osama bin Laden was strategic, and our counterterrorism efforts must be as well, but that’s easier said than done. We tend to overreact, playing into the terrorists’ hands.
Consider the revelation that plans for an attack against the nation’s railways were found in bin Laden’s house. This is not really news, as we have known rails are a serious target since Madrid and London suffered attacks in 2004 and 2005. The Transportation Security Administration has implemented some security measures, such as random bag searches, and it has piloted others, such as use of sensors at rail stations, but now there’s a call for more action. For example, Senator Charles Shumer (D-NY) recommends that rail passenger names be checked against a no-fly list.
It makes sense to explore ways to enhance rail security, but commuter and long distance rail systems create logistical challenges far exceeding those at airports. Consider, for example, that there are 1.2 million commuter rail passenger trips a day versus 28,000 commercial air flights. And that doesn’t include the long-distance passenger and freight rail trips. The number of trips and entry points, and the 233,000 miles of track all make securing the rails an entirely different animal from the airports. Let’s not let bin Laden, even in death, trick us into foolish reactive behaviors.
As for the ultimate implications of bin Laden’s death for al Qaeda, I can’t help but think of the planarian worm, which has the unusual ability to regenerate body parts, including a head and brain, following amputation. That’s not to say there was no point in going after bin Laden. First, justice was served; second, severing the head may not kill the worm, but it certainly disorients it, creating opportunities. What matters now is what the U.S. government does with the time this buys.
The fact that the mission yielded intelligence is perhaps more important than that it lopped off the worm’s head. If that intelligence helps the United States cut more deeply into the worm’s body, it could affect its ability to regenerate, and that could, indeed, be a game changer. It is possible, as Peru’s crushing of the Shining Path proved, to really take the fight out of a terrorist organization with repeated body blows, though it is difficult to achieve, especially when you’re dealing with a more disparate group over a far larger territory than Peru.
Going forward, the extent to which Islamist extremism flourishes in the world may hinge more on how the Middle East bonfire of the monarchies proceeds than on the events of May 1, 2011, and future related efforts to defang al Qaeda.
That, in any case, is my assessment. We’ll look more deeply into how security experts assess the state of the war on terrorism after bin Laden in our “9-11, 10 Years Later” analysis in September.