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Mike Sheehan On Counterterrorism

Mike Sheehan is a legend in counterterrorism.

As part of Richard Clarke’s anti-Al Qaeda squad in the 1990s, he fought Al Qaeda at the State Dept. before most people knew what Al Qaeda is. After 9/11, he quietly turned the New York Police Department into arguably a better counterterrorism organization than the FBI. He sent officers around the world to train with crack counterterrorism squads.

Now Sheehan’s here to talk about what additional counterterrorism measures are — and aren’t — necessary.

He talks about what to do before and after another attack “because there will be another attack.” There’s “room for nuance,” Sheehan says, “and I believe we are ready for that.”

He makes fun of those who say the war on terror is World War IV and those who say everything’s gone wrong. “It’s dangerous to overstate the threat and equally dangerous to underestimate it,” he says.

“Al Qaeda, if left alone, will kill you in large numbers. However, it’s collapsing” — the “strategic Al Qaeda that attacks and kills Americans,” that is.

In 37 months, they attacked us three times: the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania; the USS Cole, and 9/11.

“But the last seven years, they’re 0 for 7,” reminding everyone of Bill Parcells’ maxim that you are what your record is. (I’m resisting the urge to make a Tuna joke.)

“However, it’s an organization that shows signs of great resilience,” particularly in Afghanistan/Pakistan. So “pressure is necessary. “I believe we can marginalize them — not eliminate, but marginalize them — over the next 20 years.”

But how?

Sheehan doesn’t believe that eliminating global poverty, the Israeli-Arab conflict and the India-Pakistan conflict would get rid of Al Qaeda — those are goals he endorses for their own reasons.

The most significant thing in the war on terrorism is “getting rid of the sanctuary of impunity in Afghanistan… the pummelling of that Al Qaeda central apparatus.” You can’t get rid of every sanctuary, Sheehan says, but you have to get rid of the “sanctuaries of impunity… and we’re getting very close to that in the tribal areas on the border of Afghanistan-Pakistan now.”

Sheehan’s voice just raised, particularly when remembering in the 1990s all the “excuses” why the U.S. couldn’t take it out now.

Sheehan also credits the CIA with “dismantling Al Qaeda operations around the world” with its partner agencies. “That in my view is the second most important [thing], basic intelligence and law enforcement operations.”

Oh no, law enforcement!!! Doesn’t Sheehan know that law enforcement is for wimps?

Finally, Sheehan credits homeland-security improvements. “For a terrorist operative,” he says, “the post-9/11 security has made it very, very difficult to move.” All this has “crushed the Al Qaeda organization, and made it very very difficult for them to get the kind of track record they want… I believe they’re in Afghanistan-Pakistan because they can’t get here.”

So what to do in the wake of another attack?

“Don’t panic,” Sheehan says. “If you overreact to a terrorist attack, you’re playing into their hands.”

Instead, take a page “out of the lessons of the British and the Israelis… they get back to life right away… It sends a message to the terrorists, ‘Your attacks will not affect us.”’

You know what Ben Franklin said: we have a Republic, if we can keep it.

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