Dec. 6, 2006 / 15 Kislev 5766

By Mort Zuckerman

It is chilling that the Baker-Hamilton report came on the eve of Pearl Harbor’s anniversary. In 1941, clashes every day in the Atlantic Ocean made us more focused on the imminence of war with Germany than with Japan. Today all eyes are on Iraq. It’s called the center of the war on terrorism, but it must not monopolize our attention. We need a third eye because we are now less likely to be attacked by international terrorists than by homegrown American citizens, self-radicalized individuals who are members of groups inspired by al Qaeda propaganda.

This is a profoundly demoralizing thought, given the long tradition of success our nation has enjoyed in infusing newcomers with the American ideal. Britain, taking a different course, was proud to have created a multicultural society. But apparently well-adapted young Muslims who were born in Britain exploded the subway bombs of July 2005. Now the head of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, Eliza Manningham-Buller, has come out with a grave warning. Not so long ago it was an offense for anyone even to mention the name of the head of MI-5. (The box office hit, Casino Royale, has it right: 007’s boss, Judi Dench, is a distinctly anonymous figure). So the fact that the MI-5 director has stepped out of the shadows is significant in itself. And what she says is that there are many more British Muslims who back the terrorists. MI-5 has stopped five plots to date. We know of the one to blow up 10 planes over the Atlantic, but MI-5 is monitoring 1,600 other suspects, mostly homegrown Islamic terrorists who get their training in murder and mayhem on the Internet. In Germany, too, only an alert train conductor prevented the detonation of propane and gasoline bombs that would have horribly burned and killed hundreds of commuters.

A new training ground. Interviews with the heads of counterterrorism and local police officials in the United States yield similar assessments. The threat is from second- and third-generation children of immigrants, fluent in English and accustomed to American society but using the legal rights of U.S. citizenship to rebel from within. They have learned the Koran on the Internet; they lead small clusters of 20 to 25 mostly young men who share feelings of alienation, a longing for self-importance, a need to be a part of some larger group or cause. They have developed what is called "adversarial assimilation."

The Internet has replaced Afghanistan as a training ground. It is effectively the university of jihadist studies, where hundreds of Muslims from all corners of the world can study the rules of jihad, while they live in it anonymously. Here they learn to fire a shoulder-held antiaircraft missile; to prepare explosives and make bombs out of batteries and improvise hand-thrown charges to hit vehicles; to seek a position on a crowded bus to achieve maximum casualties; to plan kidnappings; and to concoct botulism toxin. 

Marc Sageman, who collected the life histories of 400 would-be jihadists, found that most were well-to-do, with two thirds having some college education and only 27 percent characterized as lower class. Some 70 percent joined the ranks of the global jihadists while away from home. Separated from the traditional bonds of family and culture, they drifted to the mosques more for companionship than for religion, but there they found extremists who appeared to offer a compelling, all-encompassing explanation for their feelings of anomie and lack of self-worth.

If we are to avert mass casualties from the enemies within, it is imperative to fashion a new approach to find these people. Our criminal justice model has been to look for the criminal after the crime. This won’t do any longer. How do you punish a suicide bomber? We must disrupt plots before they are carried out. Gathering this intelligence will impinge on traditional civil liberties, but we simply don’t have much choice. As the well-known journalist, Harold Evans, told the Hudson Institute recently, "I’d rather be photographed by a hidden surveillance camera than travel on a train with men carrying bombs in their backpack. I’d regard being blown to bits on the street as more of an intrusion of privacy than having an identity card."

The jihadists are not just another protest group. They recognize no moral and legal standards-and we are fighting them with one hand behind our backs: The sad fact is that over the years our government has not earned enough trust to allow for reasonable compromises by which the intelligence agencies could get the bad guys without violating the privacy of the good guys.

What has been done to date-border controls, intensity of interrogation, even airport searches-has not diminished most citizens’ "feel of freedom." But if we were to experience a major attack that could have been thwarted by effective countermeasures, the public outcry for action would make the present restrictions seem a mere bagatelle. So the greatest threat to civil liberties today is not preventive measures, but failing to take them.