02/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Resilience of Terror

As we enter the last month of the Bush presidency, progressives around the country are increasing in giddiness. Given the president's legion mistakes in foreign and domestic policy alike, this happiness is well deserved. Yet, as good as it will be to see him go, it is important to recognize that he occasionally got things right, or at least partly right.

While George Bush's conduct and labeling of the "War on Terrorism" leaves much to be desired, he was right to make it a top priority. This may seem like an obvious point -- after all, nobody is for terrorism -- but it's not a point we can afford to take for granted. Unless we want to return to a conservative counter-terror strategy, progressives must articulate an understanding of the terrorist threat that can win the confidence of the American people and reduce the incidence of terrorism around the world.

Thanks to the presidential transition and November's attacks in Mumbai, we are living in a time of uncertainty over the threat of terrorism. Shortly before the attacks, I gave a lecture on terrorism to an undergraduate audience, and wondered about the relevance of this topic to students barely old enough to remember 9/11. Only nine per cent of voters highlighted terrorism as their primary concern in the November election. Yet terrorism regained its hold on the public consciousness with the attacks, prompting myriad columns on how to deal with terror's latest manifestation.

The smoke cloud thrown up by the attack has cleared, providing some details. The attackers were tied to Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), a Pakistan-based group that -- with the help of Pakistani intelligence -- operates in Kashmir and throughout the region. It is also a member of the network of terrorist groups established by Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, and its leader has called for the establishment of Muslim rule over all of South Asia.

A particularly shocking development is that the attackers deliberately sought out U.S. and British citizens, and managed to kill two Americans. They also attacked the city's Jewish house, brutally murdering its occupants. To place this in context, out of all known attacks by groups tied to Kashmir, only three Americans have been killed, two by al-Qaeda (AQ) and one by Jaysh-e-Mohammed (which has links to both AQ and the Taliban). In contrast, although past LeT attacks have caused hundreds of fatalities, they have not resulted in any known American deaths.

The expansion from local grievance to targeting Westerners bears the mark of AQ. Less an organization than a branding operation, today's AQ -- representing a "hybrid threat" -- has expanded its market into not only Pakistan, but Indonesia and North Africa as well. This trend is also apparent in groups not directly tied to AQ. The 2005 bombings in the London Subway followed AQ's standard mode of attack, but were carried out by individuals only loosely affiliated with the transnational network.

This very plausible AQ influence on LeT could represent one of two developments. Either the groups have increased cooperation since AQ reconstituted itself in Northwest Pakistan, or LeT has adopted AQ's brand and methodology to gain greater media attention. Neither option is comforting. If regional terrorist groups continue to adopt AQ's focus on Western targets, this could result in a profound transformation of the threat. It would allow AQ to exert influence around the world even if its operational capabilities have been curtailed. At best, this could mean an increased threat to U.S. interests; at worst, it could create a transnational movement connected only by Internet chat rooms.

We can place much of this troubling development at the doorstep of the Bush administration. The administration's diversion of resources from Afghanistan to Iraq prevented US forces from capturing bin Laden and completely disrupting AQ's network, while the lack of attention to Pakistan's Northwest Province allowed the dangerous reconstitution of AQ bases. Moreover, Bush's aggressive unilateralism squandered the very real opportunity for multilateral cooperation to fight the threat of terrorism after 9/11.

The conservative counter-terrorism strategy has failed. Progressives have a chance to demonstrate the viability of a strategy focused on international engagement, economic and political development, and the adoption of a military strategy based on facts instead of rhetoric. But this chance will only be realized if we remain aware of the great threat posed by terrorism, and make its prevention a key component of the Obama Administration's foreign policy.