Citing reports that a Chicago man has been arrested for helping to plan the Mumbia terror attacks, Bernard Finel snarks, “I guess we need a surge in Chicago, too?”

More seriously, he remarks,

I really wish people would spent just a little time trying to understand how terrorist organization actually plan and execute attacks.  Instead, we get content-free assertions about safe havens.

This guy was living in CHICAGO, and seems to have been a major conspirator in the attacks.  He’d also been involved in planning an attack on a Danish newspaper.  He got training from Lashkar-e-Taiba in 2002 and 2003… so this was AFTER 9/11 when we might hope this would trigger alarm bells.  Then he traveled on scouting missions to Mumbai five times!

This gives you a sense of just how hard it is to eliminate the threat of terrorism.  We couldn’t stop Hasan.  We couldn’t stop this guy before Mumbai.  What is the world makes anyone think that Hamid Karzai’s government is going to be able to police Afghanistan better than we can police ourselves?

That’s a bit fatalistic.  Everyone from Don Rumsfeld to Michael Hayden to Jim Jones has acknowledged that we would never be able to stop every terrorist attack.  Indeed, it has become a mantra that we have to stop them one hundred percent of the time to be successful whereas the terrorists win if they get past our defenses once.   In a speech to the Atlantic Council,  Hayden  described this as a game of  “perpetual penalty kicks.”  We’ll eventually blow a save; it doesn’t mean we keep trying to block the shots.

But Finel’s larger point is quite right:  While we obviously want to prevent terrorist groups from having safe havens in which to plan and train for their operations, they nature of what they do requires very little in the way of infrastructure.  Destroying al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan just means that they have to set up shop elsewhere, which they’ve already done in Pakistan and Sudan.

Moreover, as the case of David Headley (the Chicago suspect) demonstrates, individual plots — including very deadly and spectacular ones — can be planned by disparate actors scattered throughout the world.  

Indeed, that was true of the 9/11 attacks, too.  While the top leaders were based in Afghanistan, aided and abetted by the Taliban government, the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Lebanon.   And operational actors were based in Hamburg, Germany and did most of their training in various cities in the United States.

So, yes, going after terrorists and their safe havens makes sense.  Doing so in Afghanistan has been quite successful, as Finel himself readily acknowledges, having dealt a serious if not permanent blow to al Qaeda’s operational capacity.   But it’s not going end the threat of terrorism, merely force the terrorists to adapt and operate in a more disaggregated fashion.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.