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Beware the Holy War | The Nation

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Beware the Holy War

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The Detroit case is emblematic of so many of the "terrorism" cases that US officials have prosecuted since 9/11, which have often followed the trajectory of a tremendous initial trumpeting by the government only to collapse, or to be revealed as something less than earth-shattering, when the details emerge months later. Who can forget Chaplain James Yee, the Al Qaeda spy at Guantánamo who turned out to be cheating not on his country but on his wife? Or the unfortunate Oregon lawyer busted for his alleged role in the Madrid bombing attacks? Or, as Curtis points out, how the Justice Department held a press conference to announce the disruption of an "Al Qaeda terrorist cell" in Buffalo, New York, when in reality those arrested had made the dumb mistake of lying to federal investigators about briefly attending a Taliban training camp at a moment when it was unclear that this was a crime, and there was no evidence that they were involved in terrorism? The Buffalo case was, in sum, the ex post facto criminalization of bad judgment, not the discovery of an Al Qaeda cell or the prevention of a terrorist attack.

About the Author

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen, a Schwartz senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know.

Also by the Author

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Indeed, an authoritative survey by NYU's Center on Law and Security released in February found that of the 119 criminal cases the Bush Administration has pursued under the rubric of the war on terrorism since 9/11, "the courts have indicted relatively few individuals on the charge of direct acts of terrorism and convicted only one [Richard Reid]," the so-called "shoe bomber," who, of course, wasn't an American sleeper cell but a British-Jamaican who tried to blow up an American Airlines flight he boarded not in Paris, Texas, but in Paris, France.

The American sleeper-cell phenomenon has been much exaggerated by both US officials and hyperventilating stories in the media, which is not to say that sleepers have not existed in the past. For instance, Ali Mohamed, Al Qaeda's military trainer, was a US Army sergeant in the late 1980s who married a Mexican-American woman and was working as a computer network specialist in California when he was arrested in 1998, thirteen years after first arriving in the States. Mohamed was the aide bin Laden dispatched to case the US Embassy in Kenya in 1993, five years before it was destroyed by Al Qaeda's local cell.

However, since 9/11 there has been no evidence of sleepers like Mohamed operating in the United States. Either these sleeper cells are so asleep they are effectively dead, or they simply don't exist. The onset of the Iraq War and the presidential election both offered perfect occasions for the supposed cells to strike, but nothing happened. And the 9/11 Commission, building on the work of the largest criminal investigation in history, concluded that the hijackers did not have a support network in this country. This fact, taken together with the lack of real terrorism cases or terrorist attacks in the United States, leads one to surmise that there are no American sleeper cells. And support for this view came from an unlikely quarter in March: The FBI, in a leaked report, concluded that "US Government efforts to date also have not revealed evidence of concealed cells or networks acting in the homeland as sleepers."

That's the good news. But is that the real problem, anyway? There have been sleepers such as Ali Mohamed who have embedded themselves in American society for many years, but the real threat from Islamist terrorists has historically come from visitors to the country. That was the case in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center--the mastermind of which, Ramzi Yousef, arrived from Pakistan intent on attacking American targets--and that was also the case in the 9/11 attacks. It was also true of Ahmed Ressam, who was stopped at a Canadian border crossing in December 1999 on a mission to bomb Los Angeles International Airport, and also of Reid.

In fact, the Islamist terrorist threat to the United States today largely emanates from Europe, not from domestic sleeper cells or, as is popularly imagined, the graduates of Middle Eastern madrasas, functional idiots who can do little more than read the Koran. Reid is British, Al Qaeda member Zacarias Moussaoui is French and the 9/11 pilots became militant in Hamburg. The attacks in Madrid last year that killed 191, and the assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, demonstrate that men animated by Al Qaeda's worldview have recently conducted significant acts of terrorism in Europe, a trend that is likely to accelerate as continued heavy Muslim immigration into Europe collides with widespread racism to create a population of alienated Muslims who often feel that no matter how much money they make, or how long their families have been in the country, as Pakistanis in London they are never quite British, or as Algerians in Paris they are not quite French, or as Moroccans in Madrid they can never be really Spanish. These are not powerful nightmares; they are a reality, a view that Curtis may finally come around to when a significant terrorist attack is carried out in London, which British authorities regard as inevitable.

Still, despite my many disagreements with The Power of Nightmares, which sometimes has the feel of a Noam Chomsky lecture channeled by Monty Python, it is a richly rewarding film because it treats its audience as adults capable of following complex arguments. This is a vision of the audience that has been almost entirely abandoned in the executive suites of American television networks. It would be refreshing if one of those executives took a chance on The Power of Nightmares. After all, its American counterpart, Fahrenheit 9/11, earned more money than any documentary in history. And what Curtis has to say is a helluva lot more interesting than what Michael Moore had to say.

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