Forgotten Lessons From 9/11

As I write, the world’s security experts still have no idea which organization carried out this week’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and I have no idea myself. The Indian government suspects Pakistani groups, but some eyewitnesses have said the gunmen spoke Hindi, which could mean that they were of Indian origin. The attacks, carried out on several targets simultaneously, reminded some of al-Qaeda, but the gunmen were not suicide bombers and they did not use standard al-Qaeda technology. A group calling itself the “Deccan Mujaheddin” has claimed responsibility, but no one has heard this name before. One anonymous “U.S. counterterrorism official” mentioned a few other groups — Lashkar-i-Taiba, which means “Army of the Pious,” and Jaish-i-Muhammad, or “Soldiers of Muhammad” — but even off the record he refused to be drawn further. “It’s still too early for hard and fast conclusions.”

Other experts, both named and anonymous, used phrases such as “premature” and “I’m pretty sure” and “caution.” Without much to go on, analysts have been speculating about the consequences of a political rupture between India and Pakistan or the long and somewhat neglected history of domestic terrorism in India. Some think the apparent targeting of American, British and Jewish tourists is significant. Others reckon that the real target must have been the financial district of Mumbai, India’s commercial capital. All in all, it is a very unsatisfactory picture.

In the coming days, more will surely be learned about the gunmen, some of whom have been captured by the Indian police. Their weapons will be traced, their motives will become clearer, their methods better understood. Their leaders will acquire names, personalities. Still, it is worth underlining, emphasizing and remembering this initial moment of total ignorance: If nothing else, it’s a reminder of some things we learned on Sept. 11, 2001.

At that time, al-Qaeda was widely described as something new: Unlike terrorist groups of the past, many noted, it operated not as a single, secretive organization but more like a global franchise. Organizations and individuals with various agendas could go to al-Qaeda for weapons and training. Afterward, they could, in effect, set up their own local branches, whose goals and methods might reflect the original, Saudi-inspired al-Qaeda ideology — or might not. Some predicted that al-Qaeda would even inspire copycat movements, much as McDonald’s inspired Burger King. Groups with no connection to Osama bin Laden — and no interest in being connected to him — might imitate some of his methods and tactics. By definition, the members of such groups would be civilians, sometimes living ordinary lives. They would not be combatants in the ordinary sense of the word. They would not wear uniforms, follow rules or organize themselves into anything resembling a traditional army. And they could not, therefore, be fought only with traditional military methods.

Too often over the past seven years, it has been easy to forget this initial analysis. After all, most of our major military efforts since 2001 have, at least early on, involved rather more concrete enemies, whom we have fought in specific places, using traditional means. The initial assault on Afghanistan was, in fact, a proxy war, not a postmodern, post-globalization game of tricks and mirrors. The same was true in Iraq: We overthrew a dictator, toppled his statues and set up an occupation regime.

Only later, in both places, did we find ourselves contending with groups invariably described as “shadowy,” with enemies who melted in and out of the civilian population, with terrorist cells that might be connected to al-Qaeda, to Pakistan, to Iran — or might not be. It took some time before we understood that our opponents in Iraq were not merely disgruntled Baathists but in fact encompassed a range of both Sunni and Shiite groups with different agendas.

Only now, for that matter, do we comprehend the degree to which the very word “Taliban” is misleading: Though the term implies a definite group with clear goals, American commanders in Afghanistan understand very well that what they call the “Taliban” is an amalgamation of insurgents, some of whom fight for tribal interests, others for money and only some for a clear-cut ideological cause.

Perhaps the Mumbai gunmen will, like some of those in the Afghan Taliban, also turn out to be members of a homegrown, locally based, ad hoc organization with its own eccentric goals and training methods. Or perhaps they will turn out to belong to a definite group with a clear ideology, which would, of course, be easier all around. Surely the point, though, is that we should be well-prepared to deal with either — and wary of mistaking one for the other.

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