If you start looking for threatening targets inside the toxic stew that Syria has become, you’re going to find a lot of them.
This week, the United States finally engaged in what was promised for months to be a campaign aimed at degrading the Islamic State’s capabilities, but American forces also executed strikes on the al-Qaeda affiliated Khorasan Group at the same time. The research and development arm of al-Qaeda, which had relocated to Syria from South Asia in order to recruit the Western jihadist fighters flooding the region, was, according to the Pentagon, nearing “the execution phase of an attack either in Europe or the homeland.”
They were testing bombs regularly, were seeking to develop non-detectable explosive material which they wanted to smuggle on airliners, and American officials believe an attack by his group on Western interests was “imminent.”
That is important. Barack Obama has never repudiated the George W. Bush doctrine of preemptive strikes so long as the threat being neutralized in those strikes is present and directly impending.
“I would also argue that we have the right to take unilateral military action to eliminate an imminent threat to our security — so long as an imminent threat is understood to be a nation, group, or individual that is actively preparing to strike U.S. targets (or allies with which the United States has mutual defense agreements), and has or will have the means to do so in the immediate future.” Obama wrote in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope. “Al Qaeda qualifies under this standard, and we can and should carry out strikes against them wherever we can.”
“Iraq under Saddam Hussein did not meet this standard, which is why our invasion was such a strategic blunder,” the president continued.
But just how “imminent” was the threat from Khorasan Group? Some officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to the AP, say that the definition of the word has been stretched a bit in this case.
“[T]wo U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss classified assessments, said there was no particular location or target that had come to the attention of U.S. intelligence agencies,” AP reported.
Another official elaborated on the threat to CNN:
The plots against the United States were discovered by the intelligence community in the past week, an intelligence source with knowledge of the matter told CNN. The source did not say what the target may have been, but said the plot potentially involved a bomb made of a nonmetallic device like a toothpaste container or clothes dipped in explosive material.
A plot involving concealed bombs on airplanes “was just one option they were looking at,” a U.S. official said.
Let’s be clear: Targeting and executing strikes on terrorist targets plotting attacks on Western interests is perfectly laudable. It happens quite often in theaters across the Islamic world with little fanfare. Just hours ago, a U.S. drone killed at least seven suspected Islamist militants in North Waziristan. Even if attacks on Western targets were only in the planning stages, it is possible that the intelligence community believed a Khorasan leadership target killed in Monday night’s strikes was exposed and the president took advantage of a window of opportunity. That is praiseworthy.
But the United States also executed that strike at the same time as they opened a new, long-expected campaign designed to disrupt and eventually “destroy” the Islamic State in northern Syria. There are not many in the West with knowledge of the region who believe the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria represents an imminent threat to the United States. The group, whose very name reflects their regional ambitions, seeks to establish itself as a political actor in the region. Once secure and stable internally, few think ISIS would not seek to export terror to the West. The ISIS threat is a looming one.
The war against ISIS is, in part, a response to this organization’s grotesque crusade of inhumanity, but it is also a preemptive war. A terror state with a documented interest in acquiring and deploying unconventional weapons cannot be allowed to mature. The United States is right to act now before the threat from ISIS becomes an imminent one, or they strike first.
At the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, President Barack Obama will address the assembled world leaders about the threat posed by ISIS and the Western fighters in its ranks. He will tout the regional coalition he has assembled to combat this apocalyptic organization, and he will note that the United States is leading the way in the effort to neutralize the dangerous radical Islamic fundamentalist militias proliferating in the Middle East.
It all sounds so familiar.
“Should we be able to prevent another, much more devastating attack, we will, no question,” former Vice President Dick Cheney said in the wake of 9/11. “This nation will not live at the mercy of terrorists or terror regimes.”
In taking a page from the Bush administration’s book, Obama was well-advised.