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The Shoes That Didn't Drop

September 15, 2002|JAY TAYLOR | Jay Taylor was a deputy secretary of State for intelligence and research in the Reagan administration.

ARLINGTON, Va. — We've spent the last year, in a sense, waiting for another shoe to drop, for another dog to bark. But while a lot of things did happen, certain shoes have not dropped. Some dogs have been silent. It's time now to focus some attention on what hasn't happened.

Despite fears of "fifth columns" and "sleeper cells" this past year, no member of the American Muslim community of some 7 million has committed a terrorist act in the United States. Most of us spent the year waiting to hear the sound of cell doors slamming, for the announcement from U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft that charges had been filed against a significant chunk of those imprisoned after the massive post-9/11 sweeps. More than 1,000 Muslim visitors, students, illegal immigrants and other sojourners in this country were detained. But, after many months, most were quietly freed and deported. Finally, in the last week of August, the federal government indicted five of the detainees, charging them with having links to Al Qaeda. Four of these are foreign nationals. Only one is a U.S. citizen, and he is a Denver native who converted to Islam. The infamous would-be pilot Zacarias Moussaoui, of course, was arrested before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Although Ashcroft keeps warning that they are all around us, only one or two Al Qaeda sleeper cells have been uncovered in the United States--even if the five suspected terrorists arrested outside Buffalo, N.Y., on Friday are proved to have Al Qaeda ties, something not known at press time. One such cell--or even one individual, as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh demonstrated--can be extremely dangerous. Extraordinary measures are called for--perhaps even a $50-billion homeland security bureaucracy. But it appears that the scope of Al Qaeda's organization and support in the U.S. is far less than we had understandably feared after 9/11. Like a cobra in the house, Al Qaeda is lethal, but once its presence is known, it can be dealt with. The danger calls for safeguards, a focused search and lethal eradication--but not for burning down the house.

Another thing that hasn't happened, except in Pakistan and Afghanistan, is an overseas attack by Osama bin Laden's terrorists. Partly, this is because the Taliban and Al Qaeda were crushed in Afghanistan. And partly it is because police around the world have uncovered deadly plots and arrested many people suspected of having Al Qaeda ties. Numerous governments, including our own, have frozen suspicious assets totaling more than $140 million. As a consequence, the Bin Laden terror organization now has no open base or sanctuary, and its ability to raise and transfer funds is seriously diminished, as is its command system. But if, outside of Pakistan and Afghanistan, there are thousands or even just hundreds of dedicated and trained Al Qaeda jihadists still wishing for martyrdom, it is remarkable that they have not successfully launched another attack.

No doubt at some point, somewhere in the world, Al Qaeda will again launch a brutal attack on Americans, possibly a dramatic one. That the group has not been able to stage such an assault since 9/11 does not suggest that it is less committed to these murderous escapades--only that its global size and cohesion are not quite as awesome as we feared.

Some Americans would have us believe that Al Qaeda is not only enormous in size but is also a highly sophisticated killing machine, even on the verge of developing weapons of mass destruction. But the videos recently obtained by CNN and CBS, as well as the scribblings on yellow pads found during Operation Enduring Freedom, suggest that while the group certainly had an interest in nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, its level of knowledge was about equal to what an Internet-savvy high school student could pick up in an afternoon. Certainly an Al Qaeda terrorist could use easily obtainable materials to make a very destructive weapon--as did McVeigh. Theoretically the organization could steal radioactive material. But all this is a far cry from saying Al Qaeda itself is seriously "developing" weapons of mass destruction.

Al Qaeda is an evil group. But let's not call it an evil empire. It is a tiny fraction of the threat posed in the last century by Nazi Germany, the Japanese Empire or the Soviet Bloc with its thousands of nuclear missiles. Most prominent among the missing items since 9/11 is just this sort of perspective.

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