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Times Square and the long war on terror

By Philip Mudd, Special to CNN
  • Philip Mudd says bomb attempt reminder of ongoing al Qaeda campaign and U.S. response
  • He says al Qaeda takes long view of terror campaign even as ideology crumbles
  • U.S. counterterrorism is patient too, he says, making progress with Pakistani allies' help
  • Mudd: Americans should deny Times Square suspect, and terrorist foes, attention

Editor's note: Philip Mudd is a senior research fellow with the New America Foundations' Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative. He managed Iraq analysis for the CIA from 1999 to 2001; during the George W. Bush administration, he served as the first deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Security Branch. He was nominated by President Obama -- and later withdrew his nomination -- as undersecretary of intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security in early 2009.

(CNN) -- Americans are convulsed, for today, by the chilling story of a naturalized American who allegedly plotted the murder of innocents in Times Square. Similar stories last fall -- of an Afghan-American from Denver who conspired with colleagues in New York, of a Pakistani-American from Chicago who was affiliated with the Mumbai murderers -- also gripped this country.

Stepping back from the weekend drama, though, we should be reminded of the lessons we are learning about our nation's counterterrorism campaign, which continues with patience and determination even as our civil society is diverted by health care, Wall Street and immigration.

We naturally turn our attention to these various domestic issues, because they are critical for us and future generations.

Our al Qaeda adversaries are more single-minded and more driven. But they are also deluded.

Senior al Qaeda members over time have talked about the duration of their own campaign: It may take decades or centuries. Unlike us, they may view setbacks as affirmation: If this were easy, perhaps it wouldn't be right. U.S. intelligence estimates, by contrast, underscore our shorter vision. One year, they estimate, al Qaeda reconstitutes; the next they struggle. But I don't think this is the view of al Qaeda's long-term leaders.

They have seen their attacks on Manhattan and Morocco, Bombay and Bali, Saudi Arabia and Spain, all conducted in the span of a decade, many not by al Qaeda members but by individuals inspired only by the group's message. For some, al Qaeda is revolutionary, a victor that succeeded against the head of their snake, America.

In a sense, although terrorism operations after September 11 have been less lethal and a remarkable number of Muslims have been murdered by al Qaeda, if we look at the world through an al Qaeda lens, we might see a battlefield we didn't expect. It would show the spread of a revolution to individuals who are ideologically inspired, if operationally lacking.

We see episodic terrorist plots that divert us from global warming, mortgage crises and immigration disputes. Our adversary sees others take up its revolutionary standard and the progress of its cause. It is neither deterred nor diverted.

Patience, though, and steady resolve also pay dividends for us. An attacker failed on Christmas Day on a plane bound for Detroit. Another attacker failed this week at the crossroads of the world. They failed at attempts that bore no resemblance to the painstaking plot of a decade ago. U.S. military and intelligence operations, coupled with Afghan allies, now deny safe havens to al Qaeda, and tens of thousands of coalition forces continue to enforce that success. Intelligence, law enforcement and foreign security allies have crippled al Qaeda affiliates in Europe, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

Terrorist groups may resurge with the resilience that is a hallmark, but those groups are nonetheless reeling.

And in the al Qaeda heartland, Pakistan, which does not always see the world our way but nonetheless is taking heavy losses in its civil war, is keeping an adversary off-balance enough to prevent a build up of the safe havens that had been so available in the 1990s.

We tend to write books -- to spin out an accepted narrative -- quickly in this country, but many chapters in this book cannot yet be written. In a war of ideology that stretches back two decades and more, the terrorists have lost far more ground ideologically than operationally. A group with a message of return to an Islamist golden era centuries ago is increasingly being viewed as a cabal of misguided murderers who discard innocents' lives.

Let us not give them what they want from the Times Square incident: endless debates about threats we face from jihadists and debates about whether we are safer but not yet safe. Our adversary revels in the publicity from failed attacks. They spread the message that we are weak as we writhe in self-scrutiny about why security isn't perfect. Our adversaries take pleasure in being called jihadists, warriors. They want to be seen as gallant fighters, carrying a banner inherited from equally gallant forebears.

It is not so. The ideology unfurled by al Qaeda a decade ago may have had ideological resonance then; it has less now, as potential adherents understand that the only message is one of wanton bloodshed in pursuit of a goal that is unclear and unachievable.

Let Times Square go. Don't let our adversary glory in it. And, if the purported plotter, Faisal Shahzad, is in fact the perpetrator, let him rot without comment. If he did this, he is no jihadist, no revolutionary. He may be, instead, just a man bent on killing innocent women and children. That is not jihad. It is murder.

The more patient we are, the more we learn to walk away from Times Square events quickly and return to more important business, the more our adversary withers. We will see more in future years, as their patient campaign dies from the weight of its ideology of murder. But patience, too, will win for us, slowly grinding an enemy that was once celebrated into a cult of fanatics who kill without end and without meaning. There are no quick wins in the battlefield of the mind.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Philip Mudd.