Rightfully, Americans breathed a sigh of relief this past Christmas when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed in his alleged plan to detonate explosives aboard Northwest Airlines flight 253 to Detroit. In the short run, what he stands accused of doing was a failure. In the long run, however, whether he succeeded or failed depends on what we do in response. The emergence this past week of disagreement between the United States and Yemen over whether to regard American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki as a terrorist brings this point into sharp and immediate focus.
Terrorism is a tactic that, in large part, stands or falls not because of what terrorists do, but because of what counter-terrorist governments do in return. America's response to Mr. Abdulmutallab's apparent plot seems to involve an increased and increasing focus on Yemen. That is understandable, given the time that Mr. Abdulmutallab appears to have spent in Yemen before his apparent attempted terrorist attack. Indeed, Yemen has been of special concern to American counter-terrorist officials at least since last June, when Muslim convert Carlos Bledsoe killed a United States Army recruiter in Arkansas. Bledsoe is reported to have spent time in Yemen before returning to America and developing his plan.
In turn, American officials suggested this past week that Mr. al-Awlaki, currently based in Yemen, has become a target of the Central Intelligence Agency, even as the Yemeni foreign minister has declared him to be "a preacher rather than a terrorist." Responding to Mr. Abdulmutallab's apparent attempt by shoring up America's own clearly faulty airline security measures makes obvious sense. How America pursues a broader approach in Yemen, however, may well prove the ultimate test of whether Mr. Abdulmutallab really succeeded or failed.
Terrorists can cause disruption, damage, and even death, as Americans know all too well from recent experiences. But, as terrorism scholars have long noted, terrorists seek to provoke reactions with strategic effects far greater than those that the terrorists can cause directly. The attacks of September 11, 2001 were intended above all else to provoke an American reaction that would enmesh the United States in bloody, costly, and unpopular violence in the Middle East. To the extent that those attacks caused America enduring strategic damage, they did so primarily because of how we reacted: how we fought, how much we spent, how we treated allies, and how we dealt with opportunistic enemies eager to take advantage of our focus on al-Qaeda.
After 9/11, individual Americans acted with conviction and courage; but, collectively, America reacted at times without clear and cogent foresight. When our military landed in Afghanistan, the United States remained unclear about exactly whom we were there to fight, and how, and for how long. Over eight years later, those unrelenting questions have landed us in a deep dilemma as to whether we are making progress there - and at what cost.
Moreover, the United States then marched into Iraq without a clear sense of how the operation fit into a broader counter-terrorist effort against al-Qaeda. We were also unsure how much we sought to do there, and how long we were willing to stay to do it. Almost seven years later, we remain.
Now, America appears to be studying intensely its options for approaching Yemen, a country long mired in a now-simmering civil war. One possibility is to act through Yemeni forces, supporting them as they target alleged al-Qaeda forces, such as the militants who have been killed over the past few months. Another possibility is to employ missile strikes from Predator drones, a tool to which the Obama Administration increasingly has turned along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. A third possibility is to utilize covert operations and small teams of special forces, as seems to be the intention for pursuing Mr. al-Awlaki. Stationing significant numbers of American forces on the ground in Yemen has not been definitively ruled out. Of course, some combination of these might be employed, as might less kinetic methods such as economic development and public diplomacy.
None of these options is inherently a foolish one; and finding an appropriate response depends partly on the subtleties of diplomatic relationships and the nuances of classified intelligence, all of which remain beyond the public's view. What the public can demand, however, is that America act with foresight rather than react with haste.
What we do in Yemen is likely to determine whether Mr. Abdulmutallab succeeded or failed four months ago. If he is able to lead the United States in diverting to Yemen resources, energy, and attention that would better serve our national interest elsewhere, then his attack ultimately will have succeeded. Further still, if he is able to enmesh America in yet another costly and continuing conflict in the Middle East, then he will have advanced al-Qaeda's agenda without himself taking a single American life.
If, however, America responds in a way that addresses the situation in Yemen firmly yet quietly, forcefully yet not with unnecessary force, and decisively yet perhaps even indirectly, then Mr. Abdulmutallab will, indeed, have failed. The strategic success or failure of terrorist operations depends less on the terrorist thrust than on the counter-terrorist parry. It is a time for us to act - but not to react.