The Retribution Will Not Be Televised
Ten years after 9/11, our answer to al-Qaida won't be on 9/11.
If you're looking for something big to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11, look again.
Yes, there will be ceremonies that day. Politicians will give speeches. Think tanks will issue reports. Terrorists will try to mark the occasion by blowing something up.
But the real action won't be on 9/11. And that's because, in these 10 years, so much has changed.
9/11 was a single plot. It involved four hijackings, but they were coordinated. The idea was to hit the heart of the world's most powerful country in simultaneous attacks, sending a global message of power and intimidation.
In the months afterward, the U.S. did what we're accustomed to doing after being assaulted. We waged a war. We invaded the country from which the attack had originated. We took down the regime. Two years later, we invaded another country and took down another regime, associating it (erroneously) with the terrorists who had struck us.
But in the years since then, we've learned a lot. We've learned that conventional warfare won't defeat our new enemies. We've learned to answer them in a different way: not at once, in an invasion, but in hundreds of discrete—and discreet—operations.
Yesterday, in a mission "planned and conducted with technical assistance of United State Intelligence Agencies," Pakistan disclosed the capture of Younis al-Mauritania, an al-Qaida leader reportedly assigned by Osama Bin Laden to hit Western economic targets. According to Pakistan, al-Mauritania "was planning to target United States economic interests including gas/oil pipelines, power generating dams and strike ships/oil tankers through explosive laden speed boats." Such strikes are what you'd expect on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But they might not happen that day, because we didn't wait for the anniversary. The answer to 9/11 happened a week earlier.
In fact, the answers have been arriving on many days over many years. Al-Mauritania was one of three senior members of the al-Qaida council that plotted attacks on the U.S. and Europe. Another was Ilyas Kashmiri. But Kashmiri might not be around to celebrate the 10th anniversary of 9/11, because he hasn't been heard from since a drone missile reportedly hit him on June 3. Skeptics are debating whether he's still alive.
The guy directly assigned to orchestrate a big strike on us on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 was Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, Bin Laden's right-hand man. But Rahman might not be on hand for the big day, either. He hasn't been heard from since a drone strike reportedly took him out on Aug. 22.
Kashmiri and Rahman are just the latest in a long line of al-Qaida plotters who were supposed to hit us but got hit instead. You can find a list of them at the Long War Journal, a site that tracks their departures. From 2004 to 2007, the site counts four senior al-Qaida or Taliban operatives who lost their lives in U.S. airstrikes in Pakistan. Since 2008, that number has increased to 59. The number of strikes has gone from 10 to 264. The total number of al-Qaida, Taliban, and associated operatives killed by the drones now exceeds 2,000. And that doesn't count the expansion of the drone campaign to Somalia and Yemen.
Nor does it count arrests like al-Mauritania's or lethal ground operations like the assault on Bin Laden's compound. You hear about these operations only when they kill the top guy, Bin Laden, or when so many Americans die—as they did in the Aug. 6 helicopter downing in Afghanistan—that their mission gets exposed. Otherwise, for security and diplomatic reasons, the U.S. keeps mum. It answers the spectacles and boasts of al-Qaida with surgical, lethal silence.
You won't be reading bulletins on the work of these people—special forces, CIA operatives, contractors—on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Their job is to make that day a slow news day. To follow their work, you have to read sites like the Long War Journal, which tells you what happened on Aug. 16, Aug. 19, and Sept. 1. And you have to read investigative stories like those by Washington Post reporters Greg Miller, Julie Tate, Dana Priest, and William Arkin, which tell you what the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command are quietly doing in the air and on the ground.
Think about these people next Sunday when the politicians are giving their speeches. The real work of honoring the dead and protecting the living won't be on your TV screen. And it won't be on 9/11.
(Readings I recommend: You can find Priest and Arkin's book on the al-Qaida shadow war here. Ross Douthat in the New York Times argues that our assassinations of al-Qaida leaders are a success, but our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq aren't. Fareed Zakaria on CNN's Global Public Square explores the fight over the (not) " Ground Zero mosque." Peter Skerry in National Affairs urges Americans to confront Islamism without indiscriminate anti-Muslim " populist paranoia." And if you have any questions for Dick Cheney, he'll be speaking at the American Enterprise Institute this Friday on lessons learned since 9/11.)
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of Ilyas Kashmiri by Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images.