April 7, 2009 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Terrorism

How to Keep the War on Terrorism Out of America's Backyards

No longer will federal officials speak of "the long war" and "the war on terrorism." The administration has banned these terms from the government lexicon.

That's not to say that the long war against transnational terrorism is over. Just ask the police in Lahore, Pakistan. Last week, terrorists armed with heavy weapons and grenades stormed Lahore's police academy.

When police recaptured the facility after an eight-hour gun battle, here is what they found: A dozen dead, scores injured, trembling hostages... and the head of a terrorist who had detonated his suicide vest. (They found his arms across the room.)

Just a few weeks earlier, in broad daylight, terrorists had shot up the bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team as it navigated traffic in downtown Lahore.

Lahore is Pakistan's second-largest city. It lies far from the Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds along the Afghan border, but well within the reach of terrorists.

And the war doesn't stop there. In November 2008, for three bloody days, Indian police and military forces battled heavily armed and well-organized terrorists who fanned out across the city of Mumbai. Mumbai sits more than 800 miles south of Lahore.

It would be a mistake to dismiss the resurgence of terrorist ground assaults as something that happens "over there" in the sub-continent. Between 1995 and 2004, Chechen terrorists staged three major ground assaults in Russia. The most notable attack came in Beslan, where they held more than 1,100 hostages at a school. When the shooting stopped, 334 lay dead, more than half of them children.

America itself is by no means immune. Among the numerous terrorist attacks foiled since 9/11 was one plotted by a Pakistani national. When arrested in August 2005, he was planning assaults on the Israeli consulate, California National Guard facilities, and other targets in Southern California. Two years later, the FBI arrested six men from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, who were preparing an armed assault on Fort Dix.

Just last week, a Pakistani Taliban leader promised to "launch an attack in Washington that will amaze everyone in the world."

The best and most effective way to keep transnational terrorism from becoming a backyard war is to stop terrorist attacks before they start--and do it in a way that lets our free society remain free. There is no need to erect barricades, ban assault weapons, or strip-search everyone entering Washington. Not if we focus on uncovering terrorist plots and thwarting them before they get underway.

No matter what the method--be it car bombs or dirty bombs, ground assaults or air attacks--most terrorist attacks share many features in common. All require financing, planning, recruiting, training, equipping, organizing, reconnoitering, rehearsing, and transporting people and material to the point of attack. These are the tell-tale signs to focus on. And the best way to find them is through effective intelligence gathering and investigations.

Many of the tools most needed to thwart terrorist attacks were authorized by the USA Patriot Act passed by Congress after the 9/11 attacks. Congress stipulated that these powers would expire unless reauthorized by law. In 2006, Congress extended the authorities, but some are coming up for renewal again this year.

One such provision gives authorities secure access to business records. Another allows "roving wiretaps" to thwart terrorists who try to elude surveillance by jumping from cell phone to cell phone.

FBI Director Robert Mueller recently urged Congress to renew these authorities, calling them "exceptional" investigative tools for protecting national security. Mueller has it right.

Much of the hair-on-fire complaints against the Patriot Act were completely irresponsible. There was no fire, just groundless fear.

The Patriot Act was passed eight years ago. The Constitution is still here; our freedoms are alive and well, but the terrorists have been unable to strike us again. It's not for lack of trying.

Let's keep the tools that keep us safe. It's better to stop the terrorists at the planning stage than to fight them in the streets.

James Jay Carafano is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation and the author of GI Ingenuity: Improvisation, Technology and Winning World War II.

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

First Appeared in The D.C. Examiner