Like Obi Wan, Osama bin Laden Has Come Back More Powerful Than Ever Before

In a piece that serves only to claim we need even more invasive online surveillance because we’ve made al Qaeda more insidious than before Osama bin Laden died, Michael Hirsh tries to make Abu Musab al-Suri the new boogeyman (who, as J.M. Berger notes, may not even be alive!).

The truth is much grimmer. Intelligence officials and terrorism experts today believe that the death of bin Laden and the decimation of the Qaida “core” in Pakistan only set the stage for a rebirth of al-Qaida as a global threat. Its tactics have morphed into something more insidious and increasingly dangerous as safe havens multiply in war-torn or failed states—at exactly the moment we are talking about curtailing the National Security Agency’s monitoring capability. And the jihadist who many terrorism experts believe is al-Qaida’s new strategic mastermind, Abu Musab al-Suri (a nom de guerre that means “the Syrian”), has a diametrically different approach that emphasizes quantity over quality. The red-haired, blue-eyed former mechanical engineer was born in Aleppo in 1958 as Mustafa Setmariam Nasar; he has lived in France and Spain. Al-Suri is believed to have helped plan the 2004 train bombings in Madrid and the 2005 bombings in London—and has been called the “Clausewitz” of the new al-Qaida.

[snip]

But the agency’s opponents may not realize that the practice they most hope to stop—its seemingly indiscriminate scouring of phone data and emails—is precisely what intelligence officials say they need to detect the kinds of plots al-Suri favors.

[snip]

And the consensus of senior defense and intelligence officials in the U.S. government is that NSA surveillance may well be the only thing that can stop the next terrorist from blowing apart innocent Americans, as happened in Boston last April. “Al-Qaida is far more a problem a dozen years after 9/11 than it was back then,” [Navy Postgraduate School expert John] Arquilla says.

[snip]

Officials also say they need more intelligence than ever to determine which of the multifarious new jihadist groups is a true threat. “The really difficult strategic question for us is which one of these groups do we take on,” [Michael] Hayden says. “If you jump too quickly and you put too much of a generic American face on it, then you may make them mad at us when they weren’t before. So we are going to need a pretty nuanced and sophisticated understanding of where there these new groups are going and where we need to step up and intervene.”

Some officials suggest that to do that—to discriminate carefully between the terrorists who are directly targeting U.S. interests and those who aren’t—the United States needs to step up, not slow down, the NSA’s monitoring of potential targets. [my emphasis]

Hirsh doesn’t seem to notice it, but even while he quotes former and current architects of our counterterrorism strategy like Michael Hayden and Mike Rogers, if his tale is to be believed, you have to also believe those former and current counterterrorism leaders committed these grave counterterrorism failures:

  • Allowing no fewer than 25 failed states to flourish, especially in Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Libya, and Iraq
  • Failing to win or even establish governance in Afghanistan
  • Rendering al-Suri to Syria where he may or may not have been let free
  • Taking on Bashar al-Assad (who the article admits provided us counterterrorism support, including presumably proxy torturing al-Suri) even while not backing dictators who provide counterterrorism support during the Arab Spring
  • Abandoning Syrian rebels to Assad

Then Hirsh goes on to recite the debunked claims about how useful the Section 215 dragnet is (though curiously, he doesn’t mention Basaaly Moalin, perhaps because elsewhere Harold Koh admits that even most members of al-Shabaab aren’t members of al Qaeda, much less those who materially support al-Shabaab), how that would have (and, the implication is) and is the only thing that might have prevented 9/11.

Hirsh doesn’t even seem to notice that he repeats the claim that only NSA dragnets can prevent a Boston Marathon attack, yet NSA dragnets didn’t prevent the Boston Marathon attack.

Obviously, the whole thing is just as Mike Rogers/Michael Hayden sponsored advertisement to pass DiFi’s Fake FISA Fix (the article doesn’t address why she doesn’t just accept the status quo).

But in the process, Hirsh has instead laid out solid evidence we should never trust the people who’ve been running our war on terror for the last 12 years, because, if even a fraction of what he claims is true, they’ve actually made us far less safe.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

10 replies
  1. Anonsters says:

    Hayden’s quoted as saying the following eminently reasonable thing:

    If you jump too quickly and you put too much of a generic American face on it, then you may make them mad at us when they weren’t before. So we are going to need a pretty nuanced and sophisticated understanding of where there these new groups are going and where we need to step up and intervene.

    Hirsh then draws the eminently stupid conclusion that that means we should surveil everyone in the world. The true conclusion is that we need to invest serious money, time, and effort into studying the root causes of radicalization, the Middle East, Arabic, Farsi, Middle East history, Islamist ideology, etc. But nah, it’s just easier to use our cool toys to spy on everyone.

  2. Snoopdido says:

    “Hirsh doesn’t even seem to notice that he repeats the claim that only NSA dragnets can prevent a Boston Marathon attack, yet NSA dragnets didn’t prevent the Boston Marathon attack.”

    While his entire article is rife with specious assertions, this was what most drove my own ire with Hirsh’s fearmongering article.

    Just how much more clueless could the author possibly be that it doesn’t dawn on him that his advocacy for more NSA dragnetting in order to prevent another Boston Marathon attack somehow rests on his incredulous avoidance of the fact that the NSA current dragnetting didn’t prevent the Boston Marathon attack?

    Michael Hirsh, pwned by his own piece and apparently he’s too dumb to notice.

  3. orionATL says:

    dumb and dumber:

    m. hirsh writes: “..Intelligence officials and terrorism experts today believe that the death of bin Laden and the decimation of the Qaida “core” in Pakistan only set the stage for a rebirth of al-Qaida as a global threat…”

    well, how stupid of bush and obama. if only they had not “decimated” a-q’s core and left the “big thinker” alive, we would not need to keep the nsa, doj, fbi, and dod on constant war footing.

    just think, we could be nsa free by now.

    michael hirsh, too dumb to breath!

  4. scribe says:

    Speaking solely for myself, I foresaw this kind of problem – that with the geniuses in charge who were in charge (and remain so) things would only get worse and in ways like described above – stuck in traffic on the evening of 9/11.

    FWIW, the title of one of the editorials in the current edition of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung (translates as): “Someone who has so many spying locations doesn’t need friends”.

    As the recent wave of developments leading toward a non-nuclear-armed Iran show, patient, careful diplomacy and adherence to high standards of conduct tend to show results, especially when the results desired include the other guy adhering to high standards of conduct, including honesty in fact and deed.

    Of course, talk is cheap and doesn’t make for huge hardware budgets, so the defense-intelligence-police-state complex has no use for it.

  5. Don Bacon says:

    Hey, if I were going to bomb an airplane, I would use email. I wouldn’t stupidly post it in the open that I was going to bomb an airplane. Flight 76. That wouldn’t require $50 billion in NSA/CIA spies. So I would use email. Bomb. Airplane. Flight 76.

    But I’ve been hearing some bad things about email. Can you believe it? So I may go to Stromberg’s Homing pigeons, their Opal White Bar Racing Homer, Stylish & fast. Fifty bucks each.
    http://www.strombergschickens.com/prod_detail_list/Non-Pedigreeed-Racing-Pigeons

    Take THAT, NSA!

  6. GKJames says:

    “Al-Qaida is far more a problem a dozen years after 9/11 than it was back then.”

    If that’s the case, can we (i) get our money back; (ii) indict the national security/military industrial complex for gross negligence and material misrepresentation (toss in a RICO claim for fun….); and (iii) stop infecting the military officer class with this obtuse nonsense?

  7. bevin says:

    “The true conclusion is that we need to invest serious money, time, and effort into studying the root causes of radicalization, the Middle East, Arabic, Farsi, Middle East history, Islamist ideology, etc.”

    No such study is necessary. It has all been done, done well and often. The answers are rather simple: the root cause of radicalisation in the Middle East is us-the Euro-American Empire. And nobody, least of all anyone in government, believes otherwise.
    What needs to be studied is the specious reasoning that lies behind decisions to add insult to injury, provocation to provocation and sponsored terrorism to the defence of tyrants.
    Any way an ordinary Arab turns he cannot but see the United States and its allies behaving very badly.

  8. Anonsters says:

    @bevin:

    The answers are rather simple

    Simple answers to complex problems are often bad ones, and your “simple answer” is just that. Go read volume 1 of Abu Zubaydah’s diary at Al-Jazeera America, which covers the period during which Zubaydah decided to go to Afghanistan and become a mujahid. If, after reading the 115 pages or so, you’re not convinced that the problem is much more complicated than you originally thought, then there’s nothing more I can say to you, because you’ve been blinded by your own ideology.

    Yes, the U.S. itself shares a significant portion of the blame. No, the radicalization problem is not monocausal.

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