Terror took no holiday last week as gunmen sprayed mayhem and murder across Mumbai, India, killing more than 180 people at last report and wounding hundreds more. Luxury hotels, restaurants, a Jewish community center, the main train station, and other public sites were all targets of the terrorist group that some news reporters identify as the Deccan Mujahideen.
While investigations ensue and recriminations grow thick (elevating longstanding tensions between India and Pakistan, where the mountainous regions hide many Al Qaeda fugitives including Osama Bin Laden), Americans should consider what this latest horror means for our own national interests. Going into the eighth year of the post-9/11 era, we have learned a great deal about terrorism, but seem no closer to solutions. Walking shoeless through airports is not a solution. Adding even more onerous security precautions at train stations and hotels — metal detectors at restaurants, anyone? — may apprehend the occasional dim-witted person who forgets to leave the cigar cutter at home, but serious terrorists are long past the day of smuggling weapons past visible security. The Mumbai terrorists apparently came into the city on boats and entered the businesses through back doors; some reports suggest that some may even have infiltrated hotel staffs. Seems they weren’t even very sophisticated, just very aware of soft targets.
The reality is that terrorists can be anywhere at any time. The question is why — what is it that makes some human beings hate civilization so much that they are willing to abandon all moral codes, kill and maim as many people as possible, devastate families and communities, often committing suicide as their final nihilistic statement? By all accounts, an irrational fanaticism drives Bin Laden and his acolytes, driven by a profoundly distorted reading of religious imperatives. Religion, too, becomes a victim of the terrorist who claims to act in the name of belief.
Over the holidays I’ve been reading Ron Suskind’s The Way of the World about the War on Terror and Iraq. What’s clear from this report and so many other accounts of the work of the intelligence community and the policies of successive administrations is that internal power struggles in the U.S. government have often subverted effective responses to terrorist threats while also promoting ineffective actions based on faulty evidence, e.g., the fiasco over now-refuted claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. These mis-steps only served to inflame and encourage Al Qaeda. A conventional war against an unconventional enemy is failing badly; the real threat of rogue terror networks not aligned to any nation remains real, along with the potential for a catastrophe far greater than any previous incident, something perhaps involving nuclear material.
President-elect Barack Obama already has his hands full with the economic recovery. His choice to keep Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense seems wise for now, and making Hillary Clinton Secretary of State does far more than placate her supporters — the Clinton team has strong foreign policy experience and a global network of allies and information that can be crucial to ensuring national security in the days ahead. Strengthening global alliances while restoring America’s reputation for effective diplomacy will be vital to the new administration’s ability to ensure security and peace in the days to come.