Threat Assessment

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on January 3, 2006

(by Marvin Olasky, – Last month a 14-letter word emerged like an obscene blast from the past: “Vietnamization.”

That was supposedly what America faces in Iraq, but a new book by Richard Miniter, Disinformation (Regnery, 2005), calls the Iraq = Vietnam equation one of 22 “media myths.”

For the United States, Mr. Miniter points out, the Vietnam War started small and ended up large, as North Vietnam’s effort escalated from guerrilla warfare to tanks and infantry-division assaults. The Iraq War, though, began with U.S. soldiers quickly defeating tanks and infantry and now facing guerrillas, but not many of them: We are actively opposed by probably 10,000 fighters in Iraq, compared to the 1 million–100 times as many–under North Vietnam’s control in 1973. In Vietnam the United States was a counter-revolutionary force upholding a corrupt regime and facing the popular Ho Chi Minh, but in Iraq we are bringing about a revolution against generations of oppressors, while facing terrorist thugs who now wage war against their own people. Mr. Miniter discussed this and other “myths.”

WORLD: We’ve heard a lot about the threat posed by suitcase-size nuclear bombs. Why do you tell us not to worry?

MINITER: There are only two independent sources for all of the suitcase nuke stories: Russian Gen. Alexander Lebed and Stanislev Lunev, a Russian defector. Lebed made alarming claims on 60 Minutes and in other news outlets–all of them mutually contradictory. He also had a reputation for big drinks and tall tales. What’s more, the Russian officials responsible for safeguarding that nation’s nuclear weapons were quick to deny Mr. Lebed’s account, pointing out that neither he nor his staff bothered to make any inquiries of the military or the officers in charge of the weapons repositories.

Lebed is now dead. As for the second source, Mr. Lunev admitted to me that he had never actually seen a suitcase nuke. He had no idea if any were missing. Further investigation revealed that the entire class of portable atomic weapons, built by both the United States and the USSR, were dismantled in accordance with a 1991 treaty. American officials from the Department of Energy supervised the destruction of all of these weapons. It is impossible for terrorists to buy or steal weapons that no longer exist.

WORLD: The mainstream media have told us repeatedly that there was no tie between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Do you disagree?

MINITER: The accumulation of evidence compiled in government reports has not been disputed or refuted, only ignored by the majority of the media. There are four categories of proven connections between Iraq and al-Qaeda: meetings, money, training, and personnel.

Starting with meetings: Osama bin Laden met at least eight times with officers of Iraqi intelligence. Perhaps the most dramatic of these meetings occurred in 1996 when the director of Iraq’s external intelligence service made a rare journey outside Iraq to visit Mr. bin Laden in Sudan. Britain’s leading left-liberal newspaper, The Guardian, reported that a senior Iraqi intelligence officer traveled to Afghanistan in December 1998 to offer Mr. bin Laden asylum in Iraq.

As for money, captured Iraqi documents reveal payments from Iraq to al-Qaeda front groups. As for training, new evidence has emerged that Iraq trained al-Qaeda operatives to make poison gases and to hijack airplanes. Finally, personnel: The mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing entered the United States on an Iraqi passport and another of the 1993 bombers fled to Iraq, where he received a government job.

WORLD: According to distinguished professors, poverty causes terrorism and the most effective way to fight terrorism is to step up U.S. foreign aid to governments of poor countries. What’s your view of the poverty-terrorism link?

MINITER: Poverty does not cause terrorism. For the past 150 years, terrorism has been an upper-middle-class activity. That is certainly true of al-Qaeda. Virtually all al-Qaeda come from intact middle-class families and 63 percent of them have attended college, compared to 6 percent of the Third World population. Some 73 percent are married, according to a study performed by Marc Sageman, a former CIA official who now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. For better or for worse, they are among the best and the brightest that the Arab world has to offer. It is not poverty that causes terrorism, but ideology.

Interestingly, fighting poverty can provoke terrorism. It is no mystery why terrorists target aid workers, doctors, teachers, and missionaries. They see infrastructure improvements as a challenge to them in “their” area. So they usually step up attacks and target new buildings and personnel in response. It does not mean that we should not do our best to alleviate the suffering of our fellow man, only that we should be under no illusions that good works diminish terrorism.

WORLD: Another common statement: Halliburton made a fortune in Iraq, and that’s an example of how lives are being lost to improve the bottom lines of U.S. corporations. What’s the evidence?

MINITER: Many like to say that Halliburton is a “war profiteer,” but it actually hasn’t made much profit out of its two Iraq contracts. Audited financial statements from 2003 show that Halliburton earned $85 million on sales of $3.6 billion–a profit margin of 2.4 percent. Most people do better than that in their mutual funds. The cost of capital (i.e., corporate borrowing rates) is often higher than 2.4 percent, meaning that Halliburton could be losing money.

As a result of such poor performance, Halliburton considered suing the federal government to get out of its contracts and when that proved to be a non-starter, the company put the unit doing the Iraq work on the auction block. So far, no bidders that I am aware of.

WORLD: In the war on terrorism, how should we improve airport security?

MINITER: At first glance, focusing the searches on Arab males seems sensible; after all, all the 9/11 hijackers were Arab males. But, al-Qaeda is already recruiting non-Arab women or white men or anyone who doesn’t fit the profile. Remember John Walker Lindh? And several white Australians, including David Hicks, Jack Roche, and “Jihad” Jack Thomas joined the ranks of the Taliban or al-Qaeda. Additionally, al-Qaeda is recruiting in French prisons and among Filipino women who were born into Roman Catholic families and married Muslim men. The main flaw with racial profiling is that it fails to acknowledge that for every move there is a countermove in war.

The one thing that will work is “relationship profiling.” Identify everyone of every race or creed who has shared a lease or bank account with a known terrorist, add in everyone who has a received a phone call from a known terrorist or placed a phone call to a known terrorist, and include people who are related by blood or marriage to known terrorists. We know that terrorism, while profoundly anti-social in its effects, is very social in its internal operations.

WORLD: Conservatives often complain about the porous U.S.-Mexico border, but you argue that entry from Canada is far more likely.

MINITER: While certainly the Mexican border is open enough for tens of thousands to stream across each year, so far not a single al-Qaeda terrorist has been captured on or near the Mexican border. By contrast, several al-Qaeda operatives have been captured on or near the Canadian border, including Ahmad Ressam, who was arrested at a border crossing near Port Angeles (Washington state) in 1999. Mr. Ressam was at the center of a plot to blow up the Los Angeles airport during the millennium celebrations.

From al-Qaeda’s perspective, Canada offers three unique advantages over Mexico as a staging area and entry point into the United States. First, many major Canadian cities have significant Muslim immigrant populations, making it easier for al-Qaeda members to blend in. Mexico does not have a large Muslim immigrant population. Second, captured al-Qaeda manuals lay out detailed instructions for establishing a terrorist cell. If a cell is established in a Western country, one of the first things the cell leader is instructed to do is to get every cell member onto welfare. That way they don’t have to work; they can work full-time on terrorism. Canada has one of the most generous welfare systems in the world–while Mexico, for all intents and purposes, has no welfare system.

Third, Canada fights crime the way the United States did in the 1970s–with a skeptical eye on the police and a sympathetic one on the criminal. Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers who arrest a suspected terrorist will often see themselves attacked in the Canadian press as racists or worse, will find Crown prosecutors reluctant to bring the case absent perfect evidence, and will find judges more apt to criticize than congratulate them. As a result, Canada’s law enforcement treats terrorists the way its fisherman treat trout: “catch and release.” Canada, like France, is a more conducive environment for terrorists than we’d like to admit.

WORLD: The idea that the post-9/11 world is more dangerous for Americans than ever before is a staple of political speeches. Is that true?

MINITER: The statistical likelihood of death or injury from terrorism is virtually identical today to the pre-9/11 level. Indeed, you could argue that during the Cold War era Americans faced a greater threat than they do now. The USSR had enough nuclear bombs to end the lives of all Americans many times over, and it sponsored wars in Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere that devoured the lives of some 100,000 Americans. The USSR funded, trained, and directed dozens of terrorist groups that killed or maimed many Americans and their allies.

Thankfully we do not face such a determined threat from a global superpower today. Instead we confront a terrorist band of perhaps 15,000 fighters thinly spread over the globe. Yes, it is hard to find the sharks among the swimmers. But we are no longer menaced by shark-infested waters.

The actions of the U.S. government–killing or capturing some 5,000 al-Qaeda operatives in 102 countries since 9/11, taking the fight to the enemy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere–have helped bring the risk level down to pre-9/11 levels. That is quite an achievement. But the 9/11 attacks transformed the way the public sees the threat of terrorism from something distant and remote to something near and possible.

Copyright 2005 WORLD Magazine, Dec. 17, 2005, Reprinted here 1/3/06 with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at