4 years, 7 months ago
Robert Bunker writing at Small Wars Journal assesses the relative threat posed by transnational Islamic jihadists versus the Mexican cartels. After citing a portion of Napolitano’s concern about the growth of the lone wolf terror threat, Robert weighs in.
While the above statements—some might even say political “sound bytes”— uttered by US Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano were directed at America’s European allies, they convey the ongoing Washington obsession with Al Qaeda to the exclusion of other non-state threat entities. The memory of the 9/11 attacks is still a visceral experience for most of our nation’s financial and political elites.
Napolitano now equates lone wolf (Al Qaeda inspired) attackers, who need to take commercial aircraft to reach the US, as a significant threat to our nation. Such terrorists have extremely limited combat capabilities, both destructive and disruptive, and suffer from lack of training, equipment, and finances. They represent nodal criminal-soldiers (devoid of network support) who at best can engage in sporadic active aggressor (shooter) or IED (improvised explosive device) attacks. Such attackers are not the most pressing US national security threat; even if a few got through, the damage inflicted will be inconsequential to the integrity of American society and the functioning of its governmental system. Yes—even a suicide bomber or two detonating in the Mall of the Americas, on Wall Street, or in a high-end bistro in N.W. DC is a survivable attack for our nation, though the media would replay newscasts of the incident ad infinitum and make quite a bit of money off of the ad revenue in the process.
I’m a bit troubled by Robert’s seeming dismissal of the threat of transnational Islamic insurgency. True enough, the so-called “lone wolf” cannot do much more than inflict terror and localized loss of life and property. But Robert is assuming that all such terrorists are going to be lone wolfs. Perhaps not, and perhaps also since we know that Hezbollah fighters are crossing the Southern Border, Robert’s assumption forces the conclusion that it isn’t a threat.
On the contrary, in A Terrorist Attack That America Cannot Absorb I described a plausible scenario in which economic disaster would be effected as a result of the attack. True enough, this kind of attack would require several hundred well trained, well equipped and highly motivated fighters – fighters and equipment that a group like al Qaeda may not currently be able to field. But it’s also true that Hezbollah may be able to, and an attack of this nature, even if only partially successful with fewer fighters than I have described, would have significant consequences. In my view Robert is thinking tactically rather than strategically as he pans the idea that transnational Islamic fighters are no longer a threat. Small time hits against human-targer rich environs are a tactic of terror. Destruction of infrastructure directly resulting in the inability to replace that infrastructure is a strategy – one that thankfully the enemy hasn’t deployed.
However, I agree with his assessment of the threat of Mexican cartels.
What is most amazing about Napolitano’s statements is that they ignore a far more significant threat derived from geographic proximity, mass of numbers, training and organization, wealth, and corruptive capability. Mexican cartel operatives do not have to take commercial flights to get to the US and hundreds-of-thousands of personnel exist running the gamut from foot-soldiers through lookouts into narcotics production and distribution, street extortion, human trafficking, kidnapping, and bulk thefts. Tens-of-thousands of these cartel members operate in the US in conjunction with US street, prison, and motorcycle gangs which number well in excess of 1 million individuals. The Mexican cartels control more wealth than Al Qaeda ever had at its disposal—even at Osama bin Laden’s high point— and have specialized commando units on par, if not surpassing, the best Al Qaeda could ever field. Further, the Mexican cartels have taken corruption to an art form and have compromised entire regions of the Mexican state. This corruption is now being used in a targeted manner on the US border— hundreds of documented incidents exist— a capability with which Al Qaeda has never possessed to threaten the US homeland.
Common sense dictates that we address the real threat next door and already over the border— in excess of 1,000 US cities have Mexican cartel operatives in them. While the Mexican cartel threat to the US is subtler than that of Al Qaeda— the 9/11 attacks were indeed fierce and bloody— it is also in many ways more threatening, especially now that Al Qaeda central is a former shell of itself. While ‘border spillover’ attacks and corruption have been downplayed and wide swaths of Mexico resemble a war zone (with well over 45,000 deaths), we continually hear DHS rhetoric about Al Qaeda being the #1 threat to the United States.
On a related note, I am not at all persuaded that we are winning the border war by reports that arrests on the Southern border have plummeted. The number of Hispanic students in Alabama also recently plummeted due the implementation of E-Verify. The failing American economy is less enticing for illegal immigrants, and so it isn’t surprising that the balance of illegals coming and going is being modified. There is also a shift in violence within Mexico itself, meaning that areas that were once secure are now not, and vice versa.
That doesn’t mean that the border is secure. Analogous errors in judgment occurred in Iraq when we believed that the tribal awakening in Ramadi secured Anbar, when in reality the insurgents had simply moved to Fallujah and had to be cleared from that city in 2007. Pressing the Taliban out of Helmand moved them to Quetta (for R&R), Kandahar, Kunar and Nuristan.
The cartels will prove to be adaptive and amorphous, and we should generally ignore anecdotes as a pointer to larger trends.