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The Element of Predictable Surprise

by Richard Fernandez

….The WOT is now officially over, except for low-level responses like drone strikes and targeted intelligence operations. But what if it’s not? What if the president declared victory with the enemy still rampant in the field? In retrospect, the major strategic miscalculation of the Obama administration may have been a failure to anticipate that the terror threat would evolve. Their implicit assumption was that the jihad would remain at the al-Qaeda 1.0 level indefinitely. They never imagined it would mutate and they would have to take the very roads that they proscribed.

Kitfield’s sources think that something’s up, though nobody is sure what it is. “As a number of ascendant terrorist groups jockey for primacy, U.S. intelligence experts also fear they will compete for legitimacy by launching spectacular attacks on the West, the coin of the realm when Islamic extremists compete for followers and funds. Given the number of European jihadists now fighting in Syria and their proximity to the continent, the first blow may well fall in Europe, but no one can be sure. What the U.S. and Western intelligence agencies share is a vague foreboding that they are about to be blindsided.”

So where’s the attack?

If a major terrorist offensive begins against the West, the response will be hampered by the politics of preclusion. It has been the political strategy of the left since 2001 to denounce certain measures as ipso facto illegitimate. Conventional military operations, profiling, immigration controls, coercive interrogation, etc. were characterized as war crimes and/or politically unacceptable because of the widespread belief that the al-Qaeda version 1.0 could be handled by intelligence and police action, or the threat was confined to countries like Israel or the United States. Israel faced a much higher threat level and responded with higher intensity measures that were branded as apartheid or warlike.

This has created ready-made sanctuaries. But such sanctuaries will stand only if the political balance in the West remains fundamentally unchanged. An al-Qaeda 2.0 onset turning Europe into Israel would vastly reduce the zone of preclusion.

The challenge in deciding whether to attack Europe and the U.S. either separately or together is how to preserve preclusion for as long as possible. Attacking simultaneously in both places may collapse preclusion globally. The fundamental problem in jihadi grand strategy is managing the Western political response. Since the West can be overcome only if it is defeated in detail or brought down all at once, it is important to keep the sanctuaries open until the very last. In every scenario where the West cannot be conquered outright, it is vital to prevent unmanageable political blowback.

The major reason for the absence of large-scale attacks despite the growing jihadi capability is they are not yet sure what the response will be. Ironically, it may be the fear of Europe that is holding terror back. European politics can be far more volatile than American politics. The flip side of the soft left in Europe can be the very hard right.

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