Wednesday, November 26, 2003

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Fundamental attribution error and Al Qaeda's strategy

As I've said recently, Al-Qaeda's current strategy of killing large numbers of Muslims makes little strategic sense. Stephen Den Beste recently offered up his explanation: "bin Laden's strategy was to get God, or Allah, involved in the war against the infidel." A slightly longer excerpt:

This is not a war which they expect to win with guns or explosives. It is a spiritual struggle. The word "jihad" is sometimes claimed to have two meanings: one of holy crusade against the infidel, but another representing a struggle within to achieve moral purity and faith.

Those are not separate meanings to the zealots. They are the same thing; they're inextricably linked. If they triumph internally, and achieve purity of faith, they will win the holy crusade against the infidel, because God will aid them and there is no limit to God's power. Not even America's wizard weapons can defeat God. And they can only become pure internally if they are also dedicated to holy crusade.

And that's why al Qaeda's plans seem idiotic to rationalists like Donald and me. bin Laden could not create and follow the kind of plan which we'd think was essential. If bin Laden's plan had been based entirely on temporal power and cogent strategy and real resources, and if such a plan did not rely on miracles, it would have demonstrated lack of faith. If there were no place in the plan for God, it would prove that bin Laden didn't truly believe God would help.

This is certainly a plausible theory. However, part of me is also convinced that this kind of analysis suffers from fundamental attribution error -- a tendency to overemphasize motivational factors and undeemphasize situational or environmental factors when explaining an actor's actions.

It's possible that Al Qaeda's strategy is based on a fundamental constraint -- it can't hit the bigger targets. Maybe Al Qaeda will strike on American soil in the future. However, would anyone have predicted that, more than two years after 9/11, there would be no additional attacks?

Even in Iraq -- and bear in mind that I'm not claiming that the insurgent attacks there are coordinated or managed by Al Qaeda -- there's been a shift in tactics:

Guerrillas thought loyal to ousted dictator Saddam Hussein are shifting away from attacks against American troops in favor of killing and terrorizing Iraqi civilians who cooperate with the US-led coalition occupying the country, the chief of US Central Command said yesterday.

General John Abizaid said that the aggressive American anti-insurgency campaign underway in Baghdad and in the "Sunni Triangle" region to the north and west has resulted in a sharp decline in attacks on US soldiers, although the soldiers from four Army divisions are still very much under the gun.

"The offensive actions [by US troops] have driven down the attacks against coalition forces," he said in a Baghdad news conference. "Unfortunately, we have found attacks against Iraq civilians have increased."

Because the perception of the Al Qaeda's strength rests on its ability to wreak terror, better to attack somewhere than nowhere. Hence the bombings in Istanbul. And for those who believe that such attacks have a persuasive effect on Muslims, consider this report from the,12700,1092383,00.html: Radio 4 and the broadsheet comment pages reflected my pessimism. A bridge between east and west had been destroyed, said one. It was only a matter of time before the west pulled out entirely. I had heard all about the new draconian security measures: the truck now blocking the gate to the American-owned Robert College, where my brother-in-law teaches; the armed guards and sniffer dogs outside the malls, the banks, the supermarkets, and just about anything with a foreign-sounding name; the blockades around the building that was, until a few months ago, the US consulate, and has now become the temporary headquarters for the British. So I was expecting to find the streets empty and most of the city's 10 million residents cowering behind closed doors.

Indeed, there was a great hush in the arrivals lounge. For the first time ever, I did not have to queue for a visa. But once we had left the airport, it was hard to see any sign of a crisis. The streets were clogged with traffic and people shopping for the holiday that begins today. The shores of the Bosphorus were lined with fishermen and a procession of large, slow-moving families enjoying the unusually fine weather. The restaurants and cafes were doing a brisk business, and every few hundred metres there was a florist overflowing on to the pavement to meet the seasonal demand.

In my brother's neighbourhood, which was ankle deep in broken glass a week ago, the glaziers have been working so hard that there is a joke rumour going around that they were the masterminds behind the bomb. Now all but a few of the windows have been replaced, bar the ones on the mosque next door to the synagogue. The buildings across the street have lost their fronts and been condemned. But the lighting store next to them is open for business.

My brother says that the shopkeepers on the street were out with their brooms within minutes of the explosion. It was the residents who got the wounded to hospital. He saw no official presence for two hours.

They are very much in evidence now. Those with homes or businesses in the affected areas must leave their identity cards with the police manning the barricades. Anyone who stops to look at the damage can expect to be filmed by a man who may or may not be an innocent journalist. It is all very subtle, and very calm. The shopkeepers in the fish and flower markets near to where the entrance to the British consulate stood until last Thursday do not want to talk about the bomb any more. They would rather sell me a string of red peppers or talk me into a pair of wonky glasses and a monster mask. Like my friends, they see staying at home behind closed doors as a form of defeat. They are determined to get life back to normal as soon as possible, no matter what.

This was Istanbul's September 11. They thought they were safe from the war on terror because they thought all Muslims were brothers. Now they know otherwise, and are unified in their condemnation of the terrorists, who cannot be "true Muslims". The fact that the terrorists staged this attack in the last days of Ramadan has added to their outrage. But no one is in any doubt why the city has become a terrorist target.

Christopher Hitchens has some additional points on this subject (link via Andrew Sullivan).

I'm not claiming that my theory is more compelling than Den Beste's or anyone else's, for that matter. I'm just putting it out there for consideration.


posted by Dan on 11.26.03 at 10:14 AM


Perhaps there is no causative relationship say between the Administration's actions and the lack of terror attacks in the U.S. post 9/11. However, it is quite amazing that there hasn't been any additional attacks. I remember talking to people that day, and commenting how everything had changed. Strangely enough, it seems like very little did.

I know the Administration has increased spending and vastly increased the deficit, but at the same time, the lack of terror attacks will do far more to reduce the deficit (through greater economic activity) than most spending cuts or tax increases. (I tend to think we're near the apex of the Laffer Curve, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have more tax cuts either.)

Oddly enough, Al Qaeda's need to strike as you suggest may be what kills it. Striking in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iraq probably hurts their long-term capabilities far more than the uptick in morale may be as a result of the attack.

...Knock on Wood

posted by: Joel B. on 11.26.03 at 10:14 AM [permalink]

You wrote: "Because the perception of the Al Qaeda's strength rests on its ability to wreak terror, better to attack somewhere than nowhere."

But this is exactly the question. Why attack a somewhere where mostly Muslims will die? That's the puzzle of the recent bombings. I understand a situational shift in tactics to "softer" targets, but why those particular targets? And why are they targets at all? That's the big question your situational analysis leaves unaddressed.

Also, on the article on the Istanbul bombings, the author was clearly more shaken by the more recent pair of bombings than by the first against the synagogues. Killing Jews, even if Muslims die as a consequence, is tolerable and doesn't shake the image of the "Muslim brotherhood." The latter represents a more fundamental rethinking, what the author called Turkey's 9/11.

posted by: Norman on 11.26.03 at 10:14 AM [permalink]

Actually Joel, everything did. It just happens that that 'everything' is the 'policy of pre-emption'. Which all by itself is so mind-numbingly huge that no one even uttered the suggestion at the war college until about 10 years ago, let alone had college freshmen discuss it in POL1001.

It's just that it was such an obvious and long-suppressed 'tack', that it's successful implementation has been so thorough as to leave most people to conclude that very little has changed.

posted by: TommyG on 11.26.03 at 10:14 AM [permalink]

“But this is exactly the question. Why attack a somewhere where mostly Muslims will die? “

Al Quaeda considers many of these Muslims as mealy mouth, luke warm believers. They do not hold fast to the true Wahhabi style faith. The others should be elated to die for Allah. Dan Drezner was wrong in his earlier criticism of James Lileks, but he’s got the better argument compared to Stephen Den Beste. The radical Muslims rightfully sense that they are on the losing side of history. Our successful invasion of Iraq has humbled the reactionary Muslims. These recent terrorist attacks are merely signs of desperation. The civilized world will prove to be victorious as long as we persist in killing and jailing Al Quaeda and its fellow travelers.

I also believe that most of our current difficulties in Iraq will be resolved by the early part of next year. The Iraqis have something in common with the Turks: the majority want to embrace a more secular version of Islam. They will not freely volunteer comfort and support to our common enemy.

posted by: David Thomson on 11.26.03 at 10:14 AM [permalink]

I am not so sanguine about the situation in Iraq, but I agree with Drezner's basic analysis: al Qaeda's greatest weakness is their killing of good Muslims.

I've opposed the war in Iraq all along, because I feared that we would undercommit our forces, mismanage the occupation, and give al-Jazeera too many videos of poor discipline in our ranks once the situation turned sour. I freely admit I may be wrong about these factors, but I sometimes fear the administration hasn't thought much about them at all.

The worst case scenario: al Qaeda is following Hamas's playbook, which makes terrorist attacks to provoke violent retribution. The violent retribution is used to radicalize moderate Moslems.

I'm praying that al Qaeda's true colors become visible to the Moslem world. And I commend our troops for resisting the incredible psychological pressure to commit atrocities in a situation like this--a less professional army would have destroyed any hope of a successful rebuilding.

posted by: EK on 11.26.03 at 10:14 AM [permalink]

“...but I sometimes fear the administration hasn't thought much about them at all.”

Your fears are unfounded. The neo-conservatives within the administration avidly listen to the wisdom of Bernard Lewis---and reject the silliness of the late Edward Said. The regime change in Iraq is a signal to the radical Muslims (and socialist ideologues) that their days are numbered. Kicking their rear ends is the only way to get their attention. I will make it real simple for you: adhering to the insights of Professor Lewis is virtually the only way to devise viable Middle Eastern policies. Don’t waste your time with the losers.

And I hope you don’t say something like, “Who is Bernard Lewis? I’ve never heard of him?” If this might be the case---then you should sue your former college teachers for failing to do their job.

posted by: David Thomson on 11.26.03 at 10:14 AM [permalink]

"Would anyone have predicted that, more than two years after 9/11, there would be no additional attacks?"

I always viewed it as a tremendously lucky hit. There were not frequent attacks on U.S. soil before 9/11. Has Al Qaeda's pattern of successful attacks has changed all that much?

posted by: SamS on 11.26.03 at 10:14 AM [permalink]

It was stated above that the majority of Iraqis want to embrace a secular version of Islam. May I recommend the following link to an article by Juan Cole. It's a detailed analysis of who the various factions are that are vying for power in the new Iraq.

posted by: Mary C. on 11.26.03 at 10:14 AM [permalink]

“It was stated above that the majority of Iraqis want to embrace a secular version of Islam”

Yup, that’s right. The following is the from a collaboration of the Zogby polling organization and the American Enterprise magazine:

“• Our interviewers inquired whether Iraq should have an Islamic government, or instead let all people practice their own religion. Only 33% want an Islamic government; a solid 60% say no. A vital detail: Shiites (whom Western reporters frequently portray as self-flagellating maniacs) are least receptive to the idea of an Islamic government, saying no by 66% to 27%. It is only among the minority Sunnis that there is interest in a religious state, and they are split evenly on the question.

• Perhaps the strongest indication that an Islamic government won't be part of Iraq's future: The nation is thoroughly secularized. We asked how often our respondents had attended the Friday prayer over the previous month. Fully 43% said "never." It's time to scratch "Khomeini II" from the list of morbid fears.”

posted by: David Thomson on 11.26.03 at 10:14 AM [permalink]

Kudos for a nice analysis Dan. You've twigged onto the most dangerous aspect of both the Iraqi insurgency and the Turkey bombings. It isn't the "military significance". It is the divide and conquer idea. By attacking the links between cultures, the natural tensions and centrifugal (yes it's a fictional force) forces between the perspectives will alienate people of different cultures from each other. The first stage is to attack the institutions and personnel intermixing. When they've bunkered up or completely segregated and withdrawn, then the guerillas and terroists attack the collaborators. When all the collaborators are dead, the terroists attack more innocent targets in order to trigger reprisals that will alienate the population and generally kill moderates who are the most visible. This is a strategy pursued with great vigor by the Palestinian extremists, and if our goal is to win over the Iraqi people or understand the "strategy" of Al-queda then the West is already so far behind the curve that we may as well concede several strategic failures. And no ammount of optimism can change that.

posted by: Oldman on 11.26.03 at 10:14 AM [permalink]

No attacks on American soil since 9/11?

Well, it was 8 years from the 1993 bombing of the WTC until 9/11.

Besides, I still believe that John Muhamad was put up to his murder spree by AQ handlers.

As for picking between Dan's theory and Steve's. I do not think that we have enough facts. Is AQ really constrained from hitting western targets? How mad is Osama really? Your guess is as good as mine. I am not even sure which theory is more parsimonious. Steve's theory does not require me to believe that the US has taken effective measures against AQ, but Dan's theory doesn't require me to belive something that is probably unobservable.

I do note that anybody who places bets on middle eastern affairs based on the assumption that the actors adhere to mini-max rationality is likely to lose a lot of money.

posted by: Robert Schwartz on 11.26.03 at 10:14 AM [permalink]

Just to vaguely point out that presuming to suggest to Allah what he ought to be doing would be highly blasphemous in Islam.

posted by: dsquared on 11.26.03 at 10:14 AM [permalink]

The better question to ask would be what strategic interests would be served by al-Q attacking the US at this point in time?

This is also assuming that al-Q is in fact a vast hierarchical organization with a vision, a mission, a strategy, a CTO, CFO, and a CEO. More likely that a grand fuzzy ideology of radical Islam and shared loose networks of money and weapons conduit are what connect various mostly autonomous groups of Muslim radicals. Such groups sit and simmer, plan a lot of shit, cast around a bit for funding and access to hardware, work up some nerve, and finally blow up shit.

This means that stuff will get blown up in the US if and when some group of malcontents in the US gets enough cash to get a project going, and most importantly, a suitable target. These are middle-class boyo's, in Iraq malcontents may be willing to blow themselves to kingdom come in order to get a Marine seargeant, but this is the US, "where's my motivation" is key, you gotta give 'em a good target and whip up some murderous rage there because taking out a mall guard in a suicide attack just don't cut it motivationally.

I mean, if all al-Q wanted to do was attack the US whichever way, then shit, I can think of a million ways to do so on the cheapo. Chucking grenades into transformers, damaging power transmission lines, derailing trains, mining roads, spiking candybars with razor blades, that sort of stuff - guaranted to put a dip in any country's GDP growth spike. But al-Q types go more for the big show, the fireworks, the whole shebang, the attention-grabbers. And shit, yeah, for that you need opportunity - and motivation. That makes prediction difficult.

posted by: BP on 11.26.03 at 10:14 AM [permalink]

I vote for the "some Muslims are better than others" hypothesis, with some Arabism added for spice.

ie, Turkish Muslims are expendable because they're Turks, and they tolerate a secular state.

I'm sure Al Qaeda fighters and the Taliban killed plenty of Muslims in Afghanistan, when they were fighting the Northern Alliance or just "keeping order".

Plus, Tanzania, where they blew up the US embassy, is 35% Muslim, though not an officially Muslim state. They could have expected some Muslims to be killed or wounded by that blast.

I'm not sure how much support Al Qaeda will lose. They may lose the people who lean toward moderation, but there will be those who feel the Muslim losses are acceptable, and are encouraged by successful attacks.

posted by: Jon H on 11.26.03 at 10:14 AM [permalink]

Color me very skeptical that the two years since the WTC attack is meaningful. I smell an inductive fallacy, most obvious by asking, "What would you say were the chances of an Al Qaeda attack on the USA?" on 9/10/2001.

Even if it were true that we have degraded Al Qaeda's capabilities to such a great extent, the sad truth is that a guerrilla/terror campaign probably doesn't have to strike in America to thwart us from our goal. Killing the Iraqis whom they see as collaborators—which doesn't appear that difficult to date—is probably more effective for destabilizing Iraq than their roadside bombs. The bombs may come back, anyway. The Israeli experience is that tactical operations disrupt terrorist cells for several weeks or months, but they rebuild afresh and resume terror.

posted by: Andrew Lazarus on 11.26.03 at 10:14 AM [permalink]

“Killing the Iraqis whom they see as collaborators—which doesn't appear that difficult to date—is probably more effective for destabilizing Iraq than their roadside bombs. “

Nope, these murders will only slow down the inevitable progress towards a secular democratic government. Insurgents cannot ultimately win by intimidating the general population. That simply isn’t good enough. They must be able to convert the masses over to their way of thinking---and that’s not likely to happen. By no later than March, the situation will be close to normal. And please fell free to insult me if my prediction fails to materialize. Furthermore, the American public will become far more pro-war. The Democrats will be seen as on the wrong side of the issue.

posted by: David Thomson on 11.26.03 at 10:14 AM [permalink]

The attacks in Istanbul were against Jewish and British targets, yes? In Morocco, Jewish targets. In Saudi Arabia, living areas populated by foreigners and those who catered to them.

So I'm a little confused in the general sense about the notion that al Qaeda is going about "killing good Muslims," as it were. Part of bringing about a great Islamic caliphate is to detach westernized and proto-westernized states with majority Muslim populations from the dar al-Harb, presumably by making contact with the west too dangerous. Build a British bank in your major city? We will bring it down. And so on.

Al Qaeda has objectives relating to the "treasonous" Islamic states, just as it has objectives relating to the bad, bad West. These attacks make all the sense in the world -- especially, incidentally, since the U.S. has gone ahead and stuck its hand in the tar pit that is Iraq.

posted by: Mark S. on 11.26.03 at 10:14 AM [permalink]

David T. might want to check his Thankgiving brownie recipe. I don't think his March deadline is any more credible than the prewar deadlines (which have passed). If he's right, then sure the anti-war Democrats are going to have a rough election.

To tell you the truth, one of the attractions of the Dean campaign is that he seems willing to take this risk, and his rivals largely don't. Whatever nasty things you can say about Bush, he's certainly willing to take risks (especially when he has his family and the Supreme Court as backstops).

Actually, it isn't necessary to convert the masses, and it does work to sow terror in the population. Ex. 1: the American Revolutionist party was supported by only about one-third of the colonies. Ex. 2: The Viet Cong started by picking off tribal chiefs and RVN civil servants, as far back as the late 1950s.

posted by: Andrew Lazarus on 11.26.03 at 10:14 AM [permalink]

I think Mark S. (Nov. 28) makes a very good point. I'm not convinced this was simply Muslim vs. Muslim attacks as generally portrayed in the Western media or by some (internet and otherwise) pundits.

I think we should not discount the psychological effects of such attacks on people who have been oppressed by brutual regimes for decades. It is one thing for US to say "these are thugs and guerillas" -- I think it has a very different connotation for those who have been RULED by "thugs and guerillas" for generations.

I also tend to view "polls" very skeptically -- especially in a place such as the Middle East. Let alone the questionable methodologies of polls (i.e., how the questions were worded), I would be very surprised if the poll respondents represented "every man in the street." What you might be seeing is a poll of intellectuals and affluent peoples, and/or of certain metropolitan areas only. This would discount the "average joe" and their level of fear. I'm not saying that the intellectuals and metropolitan areas perforce won't be the movers and shakers, but it might portray a "rosier" picture -- and thus minimize the difficulties in wide scale cultural change. Which is what we're talking about here, right?

posted by: cj on 11.26.03 at 10:14 AM [permalink]

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