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The rumble of helicopters enveloped black fields, the earth vibrating to the beat of their rotors. “Bullets rattled every corner,” a neighbor said. “Helicopters were firing at nearby homes.”
That’s how French commandos arrived in a Somali village overnight on Jan. 11 to rescue a French intelligence agent held by al-Shabaab militants for over three years. The spy, Denis Allex, had survived though chained up, abused, and moved from one safe house to another. French authorities learned in December that he was in a house “accessible by the sea,” and they decided to move in—launching a rescue mission from a ship patrolling in the Indian Ocean. They received support from U.S. combat aircraft that “did not employ weapons during the operation,” according to President Barack Obama in a notice to Congress the day after the raid.
Despite the cover of darkness, the risk of entering Islamist-held territory, the advance surveillance, and the close coordination with U.S. forces, this was no Zero Dark Thirty. From the moment the militants returned fire, the raid went badly: Two French commandos were killed along with many villagers. French forces killed 17 al-Shabaab militants but failed to rescue Allex. He died in the raid.
Much press and congressional scrutiny has been spent on the brutal interrogation scenes that open Zero Dark Thirty, the film directed by Kathryn Bigelow depicting the May 2011 U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden. It apparently cost her an Oscar nomination, one she clearly deserves. And it overshadows some noteworthy themes threading through the movie: that the war goes on, that terror threats against the United States remain a constant since 9/11, and that it’s a war being fought by ordinary Americans with extraordinary dedication. As the French raid in Somalia shows, the degree of difficulty is unimaginably high and not every mission comes off successfully.
That’s needed backdrop to coming debates over Pentagon cuts and troop drawdowns. Many experts assert that forces from now dispersed but linked factions of al-Qaeda (al-Shabaab being its militant arm in Somalia) form a greater threat to the United States than they did leading up to 9/11. But you will have to connect the dots yourself because Washington continues to fail—perhaps deliberately—to do so. Attacks in Somalia, for example, can be linked to the mass kidnapping in Algeria that has left three Americans dead. Now we know the al-Qaeda militants in that attack sought to barter for the release of terrorists like U.S.-held World Trade Center bomber Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman.
Few but the real sleuths want to talk about this. After working on a story about Afghanistan, 60 Minutes’ Lara Logan vented her frustration in a speech to a Better Government Association luncheon in Chicago four months ago: “I knew that we were being lied to and the American people being misled,” she said of U.S. officials who insist “there are maybe 50 al-Qaeda left in Afghanistan and they are one drone strike away from obliteration.”
Logan told the audience, “Our way of life is under attack. If you think that’s government propaganda … you’re not listening to what the people who are fighting you say about this fight. In your arrogance you think that you write the script.”
Yet the topic of ongoing terrorism in Afghanistan, she learned from U.S. commanders, “was off the table.” To talk about al-Qaeda in Afghanistan undermines the U.S. rationale for leaving.
We all want to believe terrorist threats are in retreat. I came home after seeing Zero Dark Thirty and put together a shoe rack, one of those three-dimensional wonders that comes in a flat box guaranteeing assembly without tools. This is what Americans do. We keep life turning inside a bubble apart from threats that are evil and real. And we apparently prefer subsidized healthcare and retirement entitlements our government can no longer afford over any sort of guarantee of national security and safety.
As official Washington makes the case for vacating Central Asia and the Middle East, remember that threats aren’t simply from a few haggard men in detention plotting to kill a few Americans, but spawned by a transnational movement dedicated to bringing down Western civilization.