August 11, 2006 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Lessons from London

We can learn a lot from the breakup of the terrorist ring in England that panned on bombing multiple transatlantic international flights -- particularly if we stick to the facts and forget about trying to score political points for the next election.

 

Start with what we know: This was a serious plot by serious people. I've talked to senior officials in the administration who are in the know, and they said this was a well-organized ring of professional terrorists. And the plot they hatched was not out of a Tom Clancy novel. In fact, it's been tried before: A similar scenario involving liquid explosives stashed in carry-on baggage -- one that would have hit multiple international flights simultaneously -- was stymied in 1995.

 

More reassuringly, we also know we weren't caught flat-footed. U.S. intelligence and law enforcement cooperated in the investigation. Senior government officials knew what was going on and the Department of Homeland Security had contingency measures ready to go to respond to the threat.

 

In fact, now is probably a pretty safe time to fly. Terrorists like predictability. They like to know the security obstacles they will face and the likely result of their attack. They can be sure of none of those now. Any active operatives who are still out there are -- for now, at least -- likely to be more interested in hiding out than striking out.

 

What can we learn? The lessons from these arrests are rather straightforward. First and most important, let's acknowledge there is a war on terror -- one there is no hiding from. They are people out there who are trying to kill us and destroy our way of life (and who aren't going to stop no matter what we do in Iraq), and we are trying to stop them. That's a war by any name.

 

And it's going to be a long war. While the United States and Britain have done much to frustrate the designs of the terrorists, it's going to take some time to destroy the capacity of these groups to turn terrorism into a transnational cooperate enterprise for the slaughter of innocents.

 

Fortunately, we're not doing too badly on that score. When all the facts emerge about how this ring was broken up, we'll find that, like many of the successful counterterrorism operations in the United States since 9/11, law enforcement and intelligence agencies used tools similar to those granted in the Patriot Act. Yes, it turns out we do need these tools to break down the walls and connect the dots. And yes, they work.

 

Here's another remarkable lesson. Like the recent breakup of terrorist conspiracies in Toronto and Miami, the investigations were all conducted within the rule of law. We didn't use Star Chambers or set up torture cells. We didn't throw out the Constitution. We've seen that we can effectively fight terrorism and live a free society.

 

So, what next?

 

The most important thing to do now is to resist all the knee-jerk solutions that will come next, from throwing billions of dollars at inspecting every cocktail napkin that goes on a plane, to strip searching anyone from a foreign country with too many vowels in his name, to apologizing for fighting terrorism in the naïve hope that the terrorists will leave us alone.

 

What we should do is what we are doing: getting the terrorists before they get us. That's the best to way to fight and win the terror war.

 

James Carafano is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), and author of the new book "G.I. Ingenuity."

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow