Plans of Attack

By Richard A. Clarke
Sunday, December 7, 2008

Ten young men land a small boat at a quay in a city of 18 million people. Within minutes of setting ashore, they are throwing grenades and raking crowds with automatic weapons fire. Days later, almost 200 people are dead, more are wounded, the financial capital of a nation of a billion people has ground to a halt, and the world is riveted.

To most of the world, the Mumbai massacre seems inexplicable and random, like the periodic devastation caused by typhoons or tornadoes, or simply pointless, just killing for killing's sake. But the attack was neither random nor pointless. The carnage in Mumbai was goal-oriented, an attempt to advance an overall strategy that is being ruthlessly pursued by the Islamist radical network.

That network of groups is approaching 2009 with a specific agenda. So, too, is the incoming leadership of the network's chief enemy, the United States. To understand how the two sides think, imagine two hypothetical meetings in which each side plots its terrorism agenda for 2009.

* * *

Rawalpindi is a military city, home to Pakistan's senior

officers and retired military men. That would seem to make it an unlikely place for the world's most wanted terrorists, the people whom U.S. officials call "high-value targets," to meet. But Rawalpindi is where the ringleader of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, hid, precisely because no one would think of looking for him there. Perhaps the leaders of al-Qaeda, the Taliban movement that is again on the march in Afghanistan and some Pakistani terrorist groups obsessed with Kashmir would also come together there -- say, in a safe house owned by a sympathetic retired Pakistani leader of the country's powerful and shadowy military intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI).

A half-dozen bearded and robed men are sitting on rugs in a circle. As the titular leader of the movement, Osama bin Laden opens the meeting. After praising God, he thanks the former ISI general for hosting the group. "I recall well how you often met with me in Afghanistan during the war against the godless Soviets," bin Laden says. "I remember how you helped us set up our training camps there in the 1990s, and how you provided us with safe haven here in Pakistan when we left Afghanistan after our 'planes operation' brought down the towers in 2001." He pauses to sip his tea. "It looked bad for us at the end of 2001. But now, thanks to God and thanks to the help of our friends in Pakistan, we are exactly where we wanted to be: draining the Americans' blood in the mountains of Afghanistan, walking the road toward reestablishing a government of the faithful there, a new caliphate. That will be the first of many caliphates, of many truly pious governments, that will rule all the nations of Islam. And one day, long after we are gone, they will, God willing, unite into a single caliphate to rule over all the world."

But the leader of the Taliban is shaking his head in disagreement. "Does the commander of the faithful disagree that this is God's plan?" bin Laden asks the Afghan cleric.

Mullah Muhammad Omar glares at his erstwhile ally with his only eye. "Unlike you, I cannot know God's plan," he snaps. "What I do know is this: I used to rule the Emirate of Afghanistan, and now, because you brought the Americans to my country after your planes plot, I am in exile. Yes, I am comfortable enough, in a villa under ISI protection in Quetta, but other Pakistani military officers are making things difficult for us. My forces are preparing to liberate our homeland from the American stooge, Hamid Karzai, but sometimes, when the Americans insist, the Pakistani military harasses us. And Pakistan still won't stop the Americans from raining missiles on us from their 'planes without men,' killing my lieutenants."

The only young man in the circle, Hakimullah Mehsud, a leader of a Pakistani group also known as the Taliban, wags a finger in the air. "If the Pakistani military do not stop this harassment, we will cut off the Americans' supply lines," he declares. "All of the Americans' things in Afghanistan come through our country." Growing more agitated, the young Pakistani leaps to his feet. "If the Pakistani military keeps it up, we will wage jihad right here and take over the country! Then we will have the nuclear bomb!"

"Sit down," commands Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's No. 2. "Soon, the Pakistani army will leave the Afghan border. Thanks be to God, to Hafiz Muhammad Sayeed and to Lashkar-i-Taiba." Zawahiri nods his head in thanks to the red-bearded Sayeed, the head of the organization behind the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-i-Taiba (Army of the Pious). "No one in India believes that you in Lashkar could have pulled off the Mumbai attack without help from Pakistani intelligence. So the enraged Indian public will demand that their government respond. And once India begins to move its troops toward the Pakistani frontier, the Pakistani army will abandon the Afghan border, leaving us free to operate, to cut the Americans' supply lines, to reinforce our brothers who are killing the Americans inside Afghanistan."

Zawahiri throws his short, squat body back into a mound of pillows and smiles at bin Laden. "Our tactics are forcing the Americans to rain down airstrikes on Afghan villages," says the Egyptian physician turned terrorist. "This is already causing the government in Kabul to demand a timetable for American withdrawal. This spring, we will step up our attacks, before the Americans can shift their forces from Iraq back to Afghanistan. After the snow melts, we will overrun the Americans' bases. This new American house Negro, Barack, will be forced to negotiate a peace with our brothers in the Taliban. Then the Americans will leave, and we will have created the caliphate we dream of."

A long pause follows. Bin Laden breaks it, speaking softly, looking at the rug beneath him. "I fear this Barack is not as weak as you think, doctor. Already, many of the faithful are ready to forgive the Americans their sins just because they have chosen him as their leader. It is a setback for us." Bin Laden raises his head, and a wry smile passes briefly over his face. "But . . . his economy is badly ill. If it gets much worse, he will have to bring all of his troops home. So . . . we may have to increase their pain level. We have done that before."

* * *

On the ground level of the West Wing of the White House, a dozen men and women trickle into the wood-paneled Situation Room. They balance thick briefing books and cups of hot coffee from the White House Mess next door. The meeting's chairman, a member of the National Security Council staff, brings to order this gathering of the Counterterrorism Security Group, the committee that coordinates U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Behind and above his chair is the seal of the president of the United States.

"All right, let's get going," the NSC man intones. "President Obama wants a high-level game plan for counterterrorism efforts in 2009. First, we need the intelligence picture." The NSC staffer turns to the woman sitting to his left, who works in the National Counterterrorism Center.

"Well, as we said in the recent National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism, we had a break for a while after we smashed the al-Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan after 9/11," she begins. "But now al-Qaeda has reconstituted itself in the Pakistani tribal areas, right along the border with Afghanistan. The Pakistani army tries every once in a while to rein them in, but essentially, they're just too weak to gain control of the Wild West border areas. Al-Qaeda is busy training terrorists up there, including Europeans and Asians, people who could slip into the United States without arousing suspicion. And al-Qaeda is also developing another sanctuary in Somalia, where their local allies have been taking over Somali cities. It's not a soothing picture. We could see al-Qaeda attacks in 2009 on the Arabian Peninsula, in Europe, even here at home. But of course, we have no actionable intelligence pointing to a specific plot."

The intelligence officer pauses. "We are also getting reports that al-Qaeda has created joint fighting units with the Taliban, which are attacking U.S. bases in Afghanistan from their sanctuary inside Pakistan."

Sighing, the NSC man turns to the Navy admiral on his right for a report from the military. The white-suited officer signals a colonel sitting behind him to project a PowerPoint slide onto the large flat screen at the end of the room. "As you can see from Chart One," the admiral says, "we will reinforce Afghanistan with one brigade from the 82nd Airborne in the first quarter of '09. What we do after that depends on how fast we can get more brigades out of Iraq and over to the Afghan front."

The colonel clicks a button. "Chart Two," the admiral says. "We anticipate a major Taliban offensive in April, once the brutal winter weather passes. Which is good for us, because once we get them out in the open, we can pound 'em with airpower."

Another click from the colonel. "Chart Three," the admiral continues. "But to 'win' in Afghanistan, we need the State Department to step up to the plate. We need reconstruction, economic development, governance efforts. State also needs to persuade the Pakistanis to clean up the border area and keep our supply lines into Afghanistan secure."

The State Department representative, a career Foreign Service officer, takes her cue. "That's not going to be easy," she warns. "We were making some decent progress with the Pakistanis last year, even getting them to start a rapprochement with the Indians. But after Mumbai, all of that is at risk. If the Indians overreact, we could really be off to the races. We need our new president to use his pretty considerable appeal in South Asia, not just to stop these hotheads from going to war, but to actually broker a deal between India and Pakistan. He also needs to persuade the NATO allies to keep their forces in Afghanistan, maybe increase their numbers a little and allow them to fight. And of course, he has to win the battle of ideas by reestablishing America's support for democracy, human rights and international law."

The NSC man looks at the ceiling tiles. "And what would you have the president do on the second day?"

* * *

Seven years after 9/11, the United States has neither eliminated the threat from al-Qaeda nor secured Afghanistan, where bin Laden's terrorists were once headquartered. To accomplish these two tasks, we must now eliminate the new terrorist safe haven in Pakistan. But that will require effective action from a weak and riven Pakistani government. It might also depend upon dealing with the long-standing India-Pakistan rivalry. On balance, al-Qaeda's agenda for 2009 looks to be the easier one.

Richard A. Clarke served as White House counterterrorism coordinator under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. His most recent book is "Your Government Failed You: Breaking the Cycle of National Security Disasters."

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