On Counterterrorism, Good Bests Lucky

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Analysts and politicians reluctant to credit President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism policies have described alleged bomber Faisal Shahzad’s failure in Times Square as “lucky.” But we were not lucky; we were good. 

    Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies defused the bomb, identified and arrested Shahzad and started to unravel a web of contacts with nefarious organizations on the other side of the globe — all in 53 hours. 

    This was a model operation, combining a sense of urgency with efficient intelligence-sharing practices meticulously developed since Sept. 11. The suggestion that “we got lucky” misses the point and demeans the solid work done by our intelligence and law enforcement professionals. 

    To be sure, it was a good thing that the bomb was poorly assembled and did not go off. But the fact it was poorly assembled was no accident. It is the result of aggressive counterterrorism policies overseas and an extensive security network at home. 

    The Pakistani and U.S. governments have made it a top priority to deny Al Qaeda and other militant groups a safe haven in the mountainous tribal regions of northwest Pakistan. These efforts have worked. It has grown difficult in the tribal regions for terrorists to plan, train, operate or otherwise stick their heads out of their caves.

    Careful, precise and diligent work has removed top-tier explosives trainers, attack planners and leaders from the battlefield.  

    These operations have substantially increased under the Obama administration and have helped to create the reality that Shahzad allegedly faced when he traveled to Pakistan. The trainers available to him — if he managed to contact any — may have lacked the experience, time or ability to teach him how to make a functional bomb. 

    The terrorists’ ability to communicate and coordinate potential attacks has also been significantly degraded. The extensive long-distance planning and large money flows that characterized the Sept. 11 attacks have become far more difficult for terrorists to carry out without being detected. 

    Shahzad may have been able to make some contact with handlers in Pakistan — and receive some money. But not to the extent necessary to carry out a major, sophisticated attack.

    Preparing an attack in the United States has also become harder. It has become more difficult for suspected terrorists to travel into the United States, as many — though not all — are on no-fly or selectee lists.
    Stronger state and federal laws have improved the law enforcement officers’ ability to detect purchases of potentially dangerous materials, like fertilizers with ammonium nitrate. This may have forced Shahzad to buy fertilizer that lacked the same explosive properties.

    Information-sharing between the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center and other intelligence agencies has enhanced our ability to identify terrorists before they attack — as demonstrated by the recent arrests of Najibullah Zazi and David Headley.

    This is not to say that the system is perfect — far from it.

    As the recent Senate Intelligence Committee report on the Flight 253 incident suggests, our intelligence and law enforcement agencies need to learn from these recent cases of attempted terror attacks on U.S. soil. Terrorism remains a dynamic threat, requiring that we continually modify our defenses to counter the enemy’s changing tactics.

    But we should not dismiss the enormous strides that our law enforcement and intelligence agencies — and yes, the administration — have made against the terrorism threat.

    These successes are not the product of luck. They are the product of hard work, smart policy and a determination to get the job done.

    And I’d rather be good than lucky.

    Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) is chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee. A U.S. Army combat veteran, Reyes served in the U.S. Border Patrol for more than 26 years before being elected to Congress.