What Canada's captures show the world
The world can be grateful on two counts after last week's arrest in Canada of 17 Muslim men and boys on charges of conspiring to commit terrorist attacks. One, the alleged plot was stopped; two, it hints at the weakness of global Islamist militants.
The fact that the suspects were Canadian citizens or legal residents with no apparent orders from Al Qaeda only highlights once again that Osama bin Laden's once-powerful band looks to be limited to being a clandestine purveyor of bad ideas.
The destruction of Al Qaeda's training camps in Afghanistan and the capture of many of its leaders since 9/11 seem to have left the movement mainly relegated to inspiring local terrorist cells.
Canada's astute security officials were able to easily locate the 17 suspects who appeared to have trained in the open among farmers of rural Ontario, left themselves vulnerable to detection on the Internet, and fell into a police sting when buying bombmaking material. If other local cells worldwide act with such clumsiness - unlike the 19 hijackers who pulled off the 9/11 attack - that would make it easier to catch them.
That kind of success wasn't the case, however, for officials who failed to stop the terrorist cells behind the bomb attacks in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. As in Canada, those attacks have served as a wake-up call for Western societies to better enlist local law-abiding Muslims in battling local Islamic militants.
One of the ideologues in Islamic terrorism, a Syrian-Spaniard named Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, laid out a decentralized strategy in recent writings that have been circulating on the Web. He was captured in Pakistan last October, but not before his "The Call for a Global Islamic Resistance" tract (written under the pseudonym Abu Musab al-Suri) became popular.
He calls for self-sustaining cells of terrorists to carry on Al Qaeda's work of attacking Western nations and admits the global effort has problems. "The enemy is strong and powerful, we are weak and poor, the war duration is going to be long and the best way to fight it is in a revolutionary jihad way," he wrote.
Capturing local cells will require better coordination between security officials and local Muslims. Strong voices are needed in local Islamic communities against all terrorist attacks, including those against citizens in Israel. That will be easier if non-Muslims don't discriminate against Muslims in daily life and if they hold interfaith dialogues that reduce fears and concerns.
Like many nations in Europe that have recently seen Islam-inspired violence, Canada is now forced to re-energize its thinking about enlisting the Muslim community to help prevent attacks. Last July, leading Islamic clerics in Canada did condemn terrorism strongly. Such groups must also call for better cooperation with police, support Canada's military role in Afghanistan, and apply the same tolerance toward other religions that other faiths in Canada do.
Canada's success in preventing an attack on national buildings and federal officials brings hope that other Western nations can do the same. But stopping these local cells also requires local action by all citizens who are committed to the principles of a free and democratic society.