'Can't Defeat Them Unless We Understand Them'

Zach in Rochester, N.Y., writes: Mr. Clarke, In your January piece for the Atlantic, you practically predicted that by late June/early July of 2005, we would see al Qaeda suicide bombers strike the West once again. The investigation so far of the London bombings seems to be pointing back to al Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan, with an Egyptian bomb maker similar to a Ramzi Yousef or Karim el Mejjati supplying a genuine sleeper cell with deadly explosives.

In recent months we have seen some extraordinary activity from al Qaeda itself. The Taliban's insurgency has increased its sophistication to include deadlier roadside bombs and a seemingly coordinated suicide bombing campaign. Only a couple weeks before the attacks in London, a video message from Ayman al Zawahiri appeared. In your view, is al Qaeda's next major attack just around the corner?

Answer: The London attack does seem to have connections to the inner al Qaeda in Pakistan, not just to the larger jihadi movement that we often call al Qaeda. I had thought, Zach, that the central al Qaeda was largely out of business, but it seems otherwise. I still believe central al Qaeda is relatively limited in its capabilities (the London attack was relatively small) and that the threat now is from other jihadi groups. Regrettably, I think the larger jihadi movement will continue attacks for many years to come.

Mel in Georgia writes: What ways do we have of cutting terrorists' supply of cash and following their money trail to identify their funding sources?

Answer: There has been a great deal of progress on the money front. Two good studies are available at the cfr.org Web site. The bottom line, Mel, seems to be that while we have made it difficult for terrorists to use the international banking system, there are many other ways in which to move money.

Gina in Jacksonville, Fla., asks: Shouldn't we do as the British do and post signs in all of our subway/train stations advising travelers exactly what to do if they see an unattended bag: i.e., ask around whose it is, notify station personnel, call 999 (emergency)? The British authorities expect those calls and the population is prepared to notice and eliminate this danger. In an age of limited budgets, signage would be a low-cost, effective way to make the public aware of their responsibility.

Answer: Absolutely right, Gina, and some of that is being done in the DC Metro, the T in Boston, the MTA in New York and other mass transit systems. These systems are making announcements over PA systems on trains and on platforms. Of course, we want to get such bombers well before they get to a train station, but we also need a last line of defense. Riders can be that last line.

Mark in Colorado asks: What is the likelihood that terrorists will use "simple" bio attacks, like spreading e. Coli, Salmonella, etc., on foods (grocery stores, restaurants, distributors) in large cities? Seems like a modest group of dedicated terrorists could do this. If they got into the supply chain, illness could pop up all over the country, almost randomly and could be truly terrifying.

Answer: There are many ways terrorists could make our life difficult. Our society is open and many of our systems are fragile, built on an assumption of security. We need to reduce our vulnerabilities while simultaneously increasing intelligence efforts to identity those who would take advantage of the vulnerabilities. How do we distribute resources among these tasks, Mark? We get a bigger payoff from intelligence programs and they should get funded more generously than the defensive measures. Nonetheless, there are steps that would deter or prevent terrorists from attacking some of our critical infrastructure. At the height of the Cold War, President Reagan greatly increased national security spending. At the height of the war on terrorism, we have not yet engaged in a similar effort to address homeland security.

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