Nine years ago, on September 11th, 2001, a well-coordinated team of 19 al-Qaeda terrorists who had infiltrated the United States months before highjacked four airplanes, crashing two into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon, killing nearly three thousand people.
On Christmas Day 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to detonate an explosive device on an airplane bound from Amsterdam to Detroit, instead setting himself on fire before being subdued by unarmed civilians on the plane.
The latter incident should be evidence that al-Qaeda’s ability to conduct complex, large-scale attacks has become diminished in the face of sustained efforts by the United States and its global partners. Instead, the right has become al-Qaeda’s unwitting hype men. Shortly after news of the failed attack broke, Rep. Peter King of New York, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, said the failed bombing “shows how deadly this enemy is, this shows how real this threat is, and how we have to do whatever we can to protect the American people.” Sen. Richard Shelby declared that the war with al-Qaeda would last another half a century. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, King’s counterpart on the House Intelligence Committee, accused the Obama administration of not taking the threat from terrorism seriously—while admitting he had yet to be briefed on the incident. Hoekstra is famous for letting his mouth work faster than his brain; in 2006 he called a press conference to announce that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq—they hadn’t.
It’s hard to imagine that even al-Qaeda thought they would get so much good publicity for a failed attack that resulted in the alleged attacker setting himself on fire and being neutralized by unarmed civilians. The news that Abdulmutallab’s father tried to warn U.S. authorities about his son’s radical intentions suggests that the U.S.’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies are still struggling to find an effective way to sift through the massive amounts of information they collect to determine which threats are real and which aren’t. But Republicans have used the incident to exaggerate the ongoing threat al-Qaeda poses to the United States in order to score points against the administration, and in doing so, have given al-Qaeda the best reaction they could have hoped to get under the circumstances. While the plot itself failed, the GOP was eager to make sure Americans were terrorized anyway.
This isn’t the first time Republicans have sought to inflate the threat of terrorism for political reasons—the Bush administration refined the approach to an art. In order to sell the American people on the war in Iraq, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice warned that “[w]e don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud," suggesting that Saddam Hussein had acquired nuclear weapons. For eight years, every failed terror plot, no matter how serious, was portrayed as a catastrophe narrowly averted. The foiled plots were then used to justify whatever national security policy the administration wanted to pursue.
Since the White House changed hands, the GOP playbook hasn’t changed much—they’ve continued to portray terrorists as warriors with abilities bordering on the supernatural in order to push for particular policies, erode support for democratic institutions or simply gain political ground. Republicans have spent months warning that the closure of Guantanamo Bay Prison and transfer of detainees to American soil could lead to terrorists escaping and conducting attacks on the American people, despite the assurances of organizations like the American Correctional Association and the Federal Prison Officers’ Union that they can be held safely. When Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he would be trying Khalid Sheik Mohammed and the other alleged 9/11 conspirators in civilian court, Dick Cheney warned that the trial could make Mohammed “more important than Osama bin Laden,” by giving radical Islam a platform, as though the thin line protecting the entire Muslim world from being radicalized were the transcripted rants of an alleged mass murderer. As for the failed plot on Christmas Day, the right’s reaction has been similarly unhinged—with Joe Lieberman all but calling for an invasion of Yemen based on reports that Abdulmutallab may have traveled there.
Islamic terrorists are criminals who like to imagine themselves as nigh-unstoppable holy warriors—and the GOP’s knee-jerk panic responses have helped cultivate that image.. The irony is that, to the frustration and disappointment of civil-liberties and human-rights activists and in defiance of his own campaign promises, Obama’s national security policies aren’t all that different from those of the Bush administration—and in some cases they are even more aggressive. The Obama administration has kept the “hybrid” system for trying suspected terrorists in civilian courts and military commissions; it has maintained the Bush-era FBI guidelines on racial and ethnic profiling and surveillance; it is pushing for a renewal of the Patriot Act with few changes or safeguards added and it has used the state secrets doctrine to block court scrutiny of Bush-era abuses. The administration has expanded the use of drone missile attacks in Pakistan to the point where the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings suggested such use may violate international law.
The substantive objections the GOP has to Obama’s national security policies—beyond his decision to outlaw torture and close Guantanamo—are few. Even George W. Bush and John McCain wanted to close Gitmo before Republicans realized they had another opportunity to stoke American fears to their advantage. Consider the polices that Republicans now advocate: Keeping Gitmo open;. torturing detainees in American custody or treating Muslim Americans differently from everyone else simply because they are Muslim. These policies only work to al-Qaeda’s advantage by making their complaints against the West look substantive, supporting the idea that Islam is locked in a “clash of civilizations” with the West.
The GOP’s attempts to inflate the threat of terrorism has had terrible consequences for American interests in the past—although the strategy has clearly worked politically. In their attempts to exploit American fears of terrorism, the right’s terrorism hawks have become al-Qaeda’s most reliable hype men.
The tragedy is that a panicked superpower willing to fight terrorism by abandoning its democratic institutions and overextending itself through prolonged military conflicts is exactly the kind of outcome Osama bin Laden had in mind in the first place.
Adam Serwer is a writing fellow at the American Prospect.