Better law and an aware public have made us safer since 9/11

Since 9/11, the United States, with the help of our allies, has thwarted a number of terror plots.  Many involved suspects with “clean” records.

Peers described Abdulla Ahmed Ali as well-read and charismatic. He frequented the local gym and was considered a charitable man. That was before he became the ringleader of a plot to detonate liquid explosives on seven transatlantic planes bound for the U.S. and Canada in 2006.  

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To almost all who knew him, Najibullah Zazi was just the friendly hot dog stand vendor who liked to joke with his customers — not a member of al Qaeda plotting to attack the New York City transit system.

Until February, Khalid Aldawsari was a young college student studying chemistry at a Texas university. Yet he obtained two of the three major components needed to construct a bomb and was researching potential targets.

These plots were identified because Congress passed legislation that reorganized and refocused our intelligence system. As one of the co-authors of the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, it is clear that the law also directly enabled our government to locate and kill Osama bin Laden a few months ago. And it continues to impact the sharing of intelligence both horizontally across the government and vertically with state and local law enforcement.  

Despite the good track record, there is no such thing as 100 percent security. To improve the odds, two areas need work: countering the narrative of extremism and building citizen resiliency.  

Al Qaeda and other terror groups use a narrative — a compelling storyline — to convince susceptible individuals that violent extremism is the only way to achieve their goals. With more than 50 percent of the world’s population under the age of 30 and the vast majority of those characterized as “at risk,” socially and/or economically, we have a huge problem.

Extremist groups get the narrative out through mediums like Inspire magazine, a regular electronic communication written in colloquial English with step-by-step instructions for assembling bombs and deploying weapons. And they post thousands of videos with inspirational sermons by the notorious terrorist mentor Anwar al-Awlaki like “44 ways to support Jihad.”

How do we refute Awlaki’s statements such as, “Assassinations, bombings, and acts of arson are all legitimate forms of revenge against a system that relishes the sacrilege of Islam in the name of freedom?”

We made a major strategic mistake just after 9/11 in misnaming the “war on terror,” which only fed into the terrorist narrative. But there is still an opportunity to combat this narrative.

First, get the facts out. Let’s start with the most important: Muslims are the primary victims of terror. Al Qaeda kills eight times more Muslims than non-Muslims.

Second, use technology to our advantage. Social media plays a role both in recruiting members to extremist groups and fueling pro-democracy movements across the Arab world. 

Third, citizen resiliency is actually an antidote to extremism. The more our government trains and prepares its citizens, the more likely they are to report suspicious behavior. The more they understand what to look for and what to do, the more resilient they will be.

An aware public has played a key role in preventing attacks: Richard Reid’s attempted shoe-bomb, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s underwear bomb and Faisal Shahzad’s smoking car bomb in Times Square.

The point of terrorism is to terrorize — to intimidate and use fear as a means of coercion. An informed, resilient public that shows tolerance and respect for the rule of law is the terrorists’ worst nightmare. 

Harman served eight years on the House Select Committee on Intelligence and eight years on the House Homeland Security Committee before leaving Congress earlier this year to become president & CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.