If Barack Obama came into office with a secret ambition, it was quite likely a desire to succeed where George Bush failed: to kill Osama bin Laden — preferably in the run-up to the 2012 election. Obama’s drone war in Pakistan now appears to make that prospect less unlikely.
According to Noman Benotman — the only expert who has an insider’s knowledge of al Qaeda — bin Laden’s personal courier, Mohammed Uthman, was one of the few people likely to know the al Qaeda leader’s whereabouts. Uthman was killed in a drone strike this month and its unclear whether the US even knew who they were targeting, reports Der Spiegel.
Uthman’s death reveals one of the fundamental flaws in the war on terrorism: killing so-called high-value targets makes it more difficult to track the operations of organizations whose structure is simultaneously adapting while under assault. The information that needs to be found is being lost while the ideology that needs to be transformed is being perpetuated.
The latest terror scare, is — the official line would have it — a reminder of the constant need to maintain vigilance. But it is also a reminder that in the course of the last decade, not a single politician has risen to face the real challenge: talking about terrorism in terms that acknowledge the capacity of adults to understand what constitutes a tolerable level of risk, while underlining the need for democratic governments to exercise only limited powers.
Instead the US government through a decade of war has fueled rather than diminished international terrorism and at the same time chosen to advise Americans when they should be moderately afraid, very afraid or terrified. What would be far more useful would be an ongoing audit of the government’s own efforts such that they can be seen to be doing more to generate awareness than hysteria or complacency and that the incentives for terrorism are diminishing rather than growing. On such a basis an under-performance alert could be issued in response to warnings such as this one, sent out on October 3: “The State Department alerts U.S. citizens to the potential for terrorist attacks in Europe.” They might as well just have said: “If something bad happens soon, don’t tell us you weren’t warned.”
If there’s one event in response to which President Obama should already have a carefully crafted plan, it is how he will handle a major terrorist attack — including one in Europe. So far, all the indications are that in such an event Obama’s response will simply reinforce the Bush paradigm: that a president must do everything in his power to make Americans safe and that new dangers can only be met by greater presidential powers. The only difference will be that he will act with technocratic ease and without Bush’s swagger. In that difference we should take no comfort.