Sunday, August 15, 2004

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The shifting threat from Al Qaeda

The Economist has a good rundown of the latest intelligence about Al Qaeda and its altered post-9/11 state, reaffirming some points that Daniel Byman made a few weeks ago. The good parts version:

With most of its leaders probably now lurking in the wilder parts of South Asia, deprived of their radios and telephones by fear of detection, the group's organisational function has shrivelled. Although Mr Khan's activities suggest that al-Qaeda is still more cohesive and active than has often been said, its card-carrying members represent nothing like the threat they did when Mr al-Hindi allegedly cased the New York Stock Exchange in late 2000....

But in its second coming, as the battle-standard and the ideology for a generation of militant Muslim youth, al-Qaeda is scoring a nightmarish success. Witness the case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian believed to be leading hundreds of Islamist militants in Iraq. While running terrorist training camps in Afghanistan ten years ago, Mr Zarqawi was Mr bin Laden's rival of sorts. Now, wanted for the same $25m bounty as Mr bin Laden, he is routinely described as the head of al-Qaeda operations in Iraq.

Noting this shifting role, Jason Burke, a writer on al-Qaeda, says: “Since 9/11, there's been a rampant dissemination of al-Qaeda's ideology, which, even if its capability has diminished, has made it far easier for the group to recruit individuals.” The result, Mr Burke predicts, will be fewer spectacular strikes, such as those of September 11th, and many more small-scale, more randomly directed attacks, such as this year's bombings in Madrid. As in Madrid, these attacks will often be carried out by individuals who have only a passing contact with the al-Qaeda organisation, even if they claim to be members of it.

For any American president hoping to claim victory in the war on terror, such an analysis brings both good news and bad. Massive, potentially election-wrecking attacks look less likely, though not impossible. On the other hand, it would no longer be possible to claim—as Mr Bush would doubtless like to be able to claim—that by knocking out Mr bin Laden, the war had been taken to its final round.

Ironically, perhaps, a happier prospect for America is that if al-Qaeda should increasingly become the label of choice for all Islamic militants, its ire would be redirected towards an increasing number of local enemies, giving America some much-wanted allies. This process can already be tracked in Pakistan....

A very tentative conclusion is that while America is practising for another September 11th, the threat of Islamic militancy is becoming less spectacular, more general and more unpredictable. In short, it may be becoming more like the sort of insurgencies that Britain has fought during many decades.

Accordingly, says Rand's Mr Jenkins, Americans must learn not only to minimise the threat of al-Qaeda, but also to live with it. “Americans can't be phlegmatic,” he laments, “there's no question we've cranked up the threat. Whereas the Brits are capable of taking the long view, of seeing that this is a long-term problem, Americans look to do everything for short-term gain.” He argues that the American public needs to get risk-savvy, and the authorities need to find ways to handle the intelligence better, so that they can alert the nation to the threat of terrorism in a way that does not alarm people unduly.

Such lessons will probably take another terrorist threat or two to master, but mastered they may eventually have to be. Because, as most al-Qaeda watchers agree, a quick end to the war on terror is very hard to envisage.

posted by Dan on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM


“Because, as most al-Qaeda watchers agree, a quick end to the war on terror is very hard to envisage.”

Just do the math. There are supposedly a billion Muslims throughout the world. If only a mere 5% are inclined toward a nihilistic interpretation---this totals out to 50,000, 000 radicals dedicated to destroying the West. Many of these individuals are rather young and will likely still be alive some fifty years into the future. Sadly, it will increasingly be technologically easier to murder large numbers of human beings. We will, at best, be able to minimize the danger of terrorism but not entirely eradicate it.

posted by: David Thomson on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

"The result, Mr Burke predicts, will be fewer spectacular strikes, such as those of September 11th, and many more small-scale, more randomly directed attacks, such as this year's bombings in Madrid"

Hmmm... Didn't we see, in the six years prior to the start of the Iraq War, a great number of "small-scale, randomly directed attacks"? I can think of at least four such attacks, plus several other AQ-directed "small-scale" attacks:

-- the slaughter of a dozen or so French engineers in Karachi

-- the killing of German and other tourists in, I believe, Tunisia

-- the Bali bombing

-- Danny Pearl's murder

-- Khobar, USS Cole, Kenya embassy bombing...

It would be nice if the experts on terror could get their story straight. We're told, OTOH, that a massve 10-kiloton nuke attack on NYC or DC or London or Paris in the next ten years has a p=+.5, ie, a big strike by, presumably, AQ still is the big threat. But The Economist's boys and girls, quoting a few other experts, tell us that small attacks by non-AQ forces are the big threat.

Two better explanations are possible: a) either BOTH large and small attacks are likely, or else b) the "experts" have no real clue as to what's likely to happen regarding terrorist strikes' location, provenance, intensity, or frequency.

Given my memory of multiple "expert" predictions prior to the Iraq War that "the middle east will go up in flames" as soon as the US invaded Iraq, and earlier predictions, prior to the Kosovo bombing campaign, that Russia and China would retaliate, setting off World War III, I think the correct answer to the above is likely b).

posted by: lex on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

"a quick end to the war on terror is very hard to envisage."

It is impossible to envisage, since we cannot win against an abstract noun (e.g. see poverty).

Al-Qaeda can obviously hurt us, but its capabilities are over-rated. We need to narrow our objectives.

posted by: Carl on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

I see no reason to think that Al Qaeda isn't capable of planning a monster attack while sympathetic groups are picking off soft targets. After all, the September 11th attacks didn't take that many resources.

posted by: praktike on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

Isn't this just the persistence theory? I.e. the idea that since it didn't rain yesterday, it won't rain today?

Question: on September 10, 2001 how many al Qaeda experts believed that they could mount an attack like the one on September 11? Yeah, I thought so.

posted by: Dave Schuler on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

Of course, they're planning major attacks and have been for years.

Khalid Muhammed talks about plotting to blow up 12 airliners over the Pacific (does the number twelve have some special significance in the Koran?) and AQ have for many years now been casing Wall Street, the IMF, energy facilities in a variety of locations, any number of targets.

posted by: lex on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

No, it's not the "persistence theory." AQ's intentions are unchanged, but their capabilities have been seriously degraded. Perhaps the probability of a major N-B-or-C attack in the next ten years on US soil is indeed 50%, but I seriously doubt that the risk models we have today, and the data that one would have to put into those models, are even remotely accurate. Our current risk models are incapable of assigning appropriate risk to even natural diasters like hurricanes (note how Fla. insurance rates have swung all over the map in recent years), let alone hedge fund debacles like LTCM in 1999, let alone terror strikes from an enemy that no one in the west has effectively penetrated.

All we can say with any certainty is the range of potential targets, which certainly includes nations such as Spain and France. This argues against facile and in my view foolish attempts to conclude that the Iraq war or any other tactical military or political move can "increase the terror threat." AQ's recruiting and coordination were at least as robust during the heady, for the jihadists, days of the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

posted by: lex on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

AQ's intentions are unchanged, but their capabilities have been seriously degraded.

Degraded to the point where they can't cobble together a few hundred thousand dollars and find somewhere to train 20 or so harcore jihadis? I'm not sure. We know there are still training camps in Sudan, we know that wealthy Gulf donors still have a lot of money and have been able to funnel cash to various groups in Iraq. These donors probably have a lot more cash due to high oil prices.

I don't think we're out of the woods at all.

posted by: praktike on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

It's equally clear, though, that not being active would also have greatly facilitated Al Qaeda recruiting and disseminated their philosophy. Nothing succeeds like success when trying to recruit, obviously. And Al Qaeda did use tepid responses by the US as successful recruiting tools.

Certainly one needs both a short-term (kill terrorists) and long-term strategy. To slightly disagree with the article quoted, I think that the US does have a long-term strategy. It's just one that is much more ambitious that the "strategy" of merely learning to live with terrorism. It's the highly ambitious strategy of democratization. Risky, ambitious, even arrogant-- but possibly the only ultimately successful one. Of course, one can always question exactly what is possible, and exactly how much to push for it.

posted by: John Thacker on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

I didn't say we were out of the woods because nobody can possibly have any idea where in the woods we stand. I specifically said that no one really has any idea what the probability of a major AQ or other strike on us is.

If you want an analogy, it's early 1947 in the Cold War. We've barely figured out that we are at war (Kerry seems to be still debating this in his mind, or perhaps his advisers are). Some think it's a phony war and that we should retreat a la the Taftite republicans into the great American homeland; some think a la Wallaceite Democrats that the muslims, like Stalin's Russia, are essentially good guys who need our help, rather than "encirclement". And some a la Nixon and his charges of Cowardly College of Containment are gripped so tightly by a hatred of a fumblemouthed heartland president that they float all kinds of opportunistic and wild charges against him.

In the midst of this heated domestic political environment, our understanding of this threat and of the changed, Asia-centric international system is still taking shape. Our security institutions and intel assets are poorly geared to this new environment.

IMHO, at this point, there's no way that we can even remotely anticipate the course of this struggle except to assume that it will be global and will be of many years', probably decades', duration. All the theories and conclusions about the effects of our strategic and tactical moves on Al Qaeda are, at this point in the struggle, so much noise. We won't know for years what worked and what failed. Our grasp of AQ and islamist terror is about as deep at this point as our grasp of Stalin's Kremlin, his intentions and capabilities, was in 1947.

posted by: lex on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

I'd dearly like to see the two parties sharply tone down the rhetoric and start to get serious about understanding this new threat and this new Aisa-centered world on their own terms. We need a sea-change in our intellectual orientation similar to what occurred in this country in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Dems and Republicans gradually came together in a rough consensus about agressively challenging the Soviets around the world.

Nixon and MacArthur initially stressed rollback; Acheson and Truman stressed "containment"; but in fact the differences between the two were trivial. The Dems effectively quashed the pro-Soviet Wallaceite faction in their party in 1948, and the Repubs effectively quashed the Taftites in theirs when they nominated Ike in 1952.

Would that we could see the same kind of intelligent mix of sober realism and idealistic interventionism from the parties today.

posted by: lex on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

Here is a sobering stat for those who think that Al Qaeda can be easily eliminated. England has not been able to eliminiate the IRA
-- despite trying for nearly a century (although there have been several periods of peace in between)
-- Despite freeing 3/4ths of Ireland from the Empire.
-- Despite striking all sorts of political deals in Northern Ireland with the IRA's political wing, including freeing IRA terrorists like Gerry Adams
-- Despite the fact that the IRA, despite its brutatlities, does not come close in scope, brutality and nihilism to *any* wing of the IRA
-- Despite the IRA being drawn from a much smaller population base

What examples of large-scale terrorist movements being completely suppressed without a major poliitcal settlemment exist in modern history ? Groups such as the Baader Meinhoff and the Italian and Japanese Red groups were suppressed, but they were very small groups with little political backing (and even then, the Red Brigades killed an Italian PM). Not narco-terrorists in Colombia. Not Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

India was able to suppress Sikh Terrorists, but they had to strike a succession of political deals (and one PM was assasinated too).

posted by: erg on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]


This terrorist threat is different. What, other than perhaps a certain tract of land north of Marbella, could conceivably be negotiated with the apocalyptic jihadists?

Even the most pacifistic Euros can see that AQ and their ilk have no coherent political agenda. Their vision does not encompass even a crude theory of interstate or economic relations, and their territorial demands, on the rare occasions when they spell them out, are totally unserious. (Wonder what happened to that demand, already quietly accomodated by the shift of Central Command to Qatar, that US troops leave Saudi? In exchange for...?)

The threat posed by the jihadists is not, properly speaking, political. It's existential.

It relies for its force on a blood-soaked vision of apocalyptic war, next to which the fevered visions of a Jimmy Swaggert look like Jimmy Carter's daydreams. As all the non-Spaniard Euros said, instantly and uniformly, to AQ when they offered recently to sit down to talks, there's nothing whatsoever to discuss with the apocalyptic jihadists.

It would be nice if there were-- perhaps our removal of troops from Saudi and our aid to the Kosovar muslims would have spared us further attacks-- but it doesn't work that way with them. It's a fight to the death.

posted by: lex on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

The best defense England has against IRA terrorists is the rise of Ireland to Celtic Tiger status. Here is a scenario where 55 yr old Paddy, IRA operative for the last 40 yrs, attempts to get the younger generation involved. "Paddy, friend, I'd love to help ye with the bomb deliveries but the market for me product is so hot right now, I dare not leave town for even a day." "Same here, Paddy. I've got people from Belgium and Germany coming to look over my production plant."

posted by: polk on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

TO clarify my previous message -- I meant that "Al Qaeda is far more brutal and nihilsitic" than any wing of the IRA, including the so-called Real IRA.

My point in mentioning the IRA is simply to confirm that the economist says -- this is an unbelievably long-drawn out battle. If England could not suppress the IRA completely after 100 years, how do we suppress Al Qaeda ?

About Ireland as Celtic Tiger as a defense against IRA -- the IRA problem is largely in Ulster, which is still part of the UK, and is not that much of a Tiger, economically. Terrorist activities against Protestants in Ireland proper are almost unheard of.

posted by: erg on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

Agree with all of the above points, erg. The only real long-term suppression of AQ must come from within the muslim world itself. Probably take a couple of generations.

posted by: lex on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

"Wonder what happened to that demand, already quietly accomodated by the shift of Central Command to Qatar, that US troops leave Saudi? In exchange for...?"

We negotiated that leave-taking with the *saudi government*. The saudis wanted out troops out and they wanted a peaceful resolution to israel/palestine, because those two issues were upsetting their (nonterrorist) citizens. Bush agreed to the first and also agreed to the second -- he said he had a vision of two nations living in peace. But he then decided that peace in israel could come after peace in iraq so he hasn't done anything to encourage peace in israel yet.

I don't know precisely what the saudis did in exchange. I read somewhere that they promised to give us low gasoline prices before the november elections. But given how well Bush has handled his side of calming saudi citizens, I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't do that.

posted by: J Thomas on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

"they can alert the nation to the threat of terrorism in a way that does not alarm people unduly
" ....

This is just defeatism wrapped in a veneer of realism.

We in American have warehouses filled with both tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. We've paid for these over the years in tax-blood.

I want my money's worth.

Call me crazy for saying rash things such as "nuke Mecca". OK, start with somewhere else a couple of times before moving to the Big Fig. But, we should be ready to annihilate enough wogs to make the price way beyond something they're willing to pay.

Now, if not Mecca, how about Tehran?

posted by: paul a'barge on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

Not for nothing, but one obvious reason the IRA was so persistent a problem for England is that Ireland is so close to England. There is no real way to keep English and Irish separate, hasn't been for centuries. This situation has many benefits but also makes it difficult for those few Irish intent on terrorism to be kept from their targets.

This is Europe's situation today with respect to Muslim and especially Arab extremists. It is not ours. A given in discussions of American vulnerability to Islamic terrorism is that we will never make distinctions between Arabs and other people with respect to letting them into the United States. There are many reasons not to make such distinctions -- most Arabs are not terrorists -- but most terrorists are Arabs, or nationals of a very small number of other countries. We could substantially reduce our vulnerability to terrorism here in the United States simply by keeping the relevant groups out of the country.

I'd prefer not to contemplate this step. Ask me again after another 9/11 and I might have a different answer. I doubt I'd be alone.

posted by: Zathras on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

I think there is a basic error in the comments on this post. You are talking about a spectacular strike and many smaller ones. I don't think that the 9/11 attacks, with the exception of the one that would have been aimed at the White House or Capital, were actually intended to be as spectacular as they were. If the planes had just crashed into the twin towers, lives would have been lost, but I believe it could well have been in the hundreds, not the thousands. I may be wrong. However, it seems to me that many of the deaths, from what I remember, occurred with the collapse of the buildings. Wasn't that a property of the towers' architecture and construction rather than a deliberate part of the plot? I'm not saying the crashing of the planes was not spectacular, yet would we have reacted quite so strongly if the buildings had not fallen? And would we be so quick to separate the routine terrorist action from the spectacular? Does not viewing it this way, give us a, perhaps, scarier view of the potential power of terrorists? Will they ever get that lucky again? And would not a series of smaller strikes throughout the country have more impact on the views of U.S. citizens, particularly those in the heretofore invulnerable heartland?

posted by: chuck rightmire on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

" I'm not saying the crashing of the planes was not spectacular, yet would we have reacted quite so strongly if the buildings had not fallen?"

You have some very good points in your post. But, I think what affected some of us the most was the feeling of helplessness. The feeling of powerlessness after the second tower was hit, when we kept receiving news bulletins about other planes being unaccounted for, was truly a new feeling for Americans on the mainland. We've never had to quake in our boots like that. Then, to receive the news that the Pentagon was hit...and the Capitol was being evacuated...and to watch people running out of the White House....
Watching the towers fall was horrid, tragic, but one could begin to think in concrete terms about it. Beams in the center of the building, extreme heat of the jet fuel, so many miles per hour. I think some of us were more affected by the earlier feeling of powerlessness and helplessness - of being sitting ducks.

posted by: lansing on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

Lansing, I agree with your comments on powerlessness. But I think what I was trying to say was not its affect on us so much at the time but that we are giving the terrorists much more credit for an act they did not foresee to be that spectacular overall. I'm thinking that we cannot overlook the affect of smaller attacks which don't have the "luck" the terrorists did with this one.

posted by: chuck rightmire on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

I might have missed something very surprising on the news, but as far as I was aware (as a Brit) the IRA terrorist campaign is dead. The organisation isn't, but it now just plays the role of the Mafia in the poorest, Catholic-est bits of NI.

As Polk says, a big factor driving this was Ireland's move away from being backward, poor and theocratic towards being none of these things. Other big factors were the UK's success at infiltrating and negotiating with the organisations. The 'murdering and interning without trial' options were rather less successful.

This doesn't fill me with hope for a rapid end to Al Qaida.

posted by: john b on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

I think the terrorists were hoping to bring the buildings down, as they had previously tried to do in the 1993 WTC attack. It probably was luck to some degree, but not totally. I don't really understand how you can say crashing planes into two skyscrapers would not have been "spectacular" even if the buildings hadn't come down.

It seems to me that the threat is both more and less dangerous than is portrayed. More dangerous in the sense that the longer we go without a major attack, the more complacent we are likely to get and the less likely we are to take steps to safeguard planes, seaports, etc. Less dangerous in the sense that I think we have tended to inflate the terrorists into some kind of supervillains that cannot be stopped. They have limitations and it is not as easy to mount these attacks (at least a major attack) as some seem to think. I think we should certainly be concerned with the threat--and some attacks are probably inevitable--but there is no reason to assume that Al Quaida or its splinter groups have superhuman capabilities.

With respect to the ability to predict what terrorists can or will do, I agree that it's largely guesswork. When DOD tried to set up a "market" for people to predict terrorist attacks, it was widely derided, but it may well have been on the right track.

I agree with the previous comment that the US needs to take a calm, reasoned approach to the problem. Unfortunately, that's about as likely as having money fall from the sky. Politicians know that the public needs someone to scapegoat so the 9/11 Commission debate has been largely about assigning blame for the 9/11 attacks and I read some of the survivors talking about "who can I blame?" I have an idea--blame Osama bin Laden. It makes as much sense to "blame" the US intelligence community for the attacks as it does to blame a local police department for crime. The terrorists took advantage of bureaucratic holes in our intelligence that are probably inevitable in a democracy. These can be remedied but not to a point where we are invulnerable.

posted by: MWS on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

MWS, I agree to a great extent with what you say. I think we have panicked and I think that's why we need to take a very good look at the impact 9/11 would have had if the buildings hadn't come down. The Empire State Building took a similar hit during WWII but it didn't come down. Perhaps the B17 wasn't as powerfully gassed up. But according to the 9/11 Commission report nobody at the scene thought the buildings would collapse until they did. And I would suggest that rather than holes in the bureaucracy, the attackers gained an advantage from the walls in the bureaucracy that kept workers from sharing information.

posted by: chuck rightmire on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

"I think we have panicked and I think that's why we need to take a very good look at the impact 9/11 would have had if the buildings hadn't come down."

Actually, I think the impact would have been the same even if the buildings hadn't come down. You still would have had several hundred deaths and it would still have been by far the largest terrorist attack on US soil. The buildings coming down made it even more horrible and inflated the death toll, but I think flying planes into buildings would have produced a great impact regardless. My point is people were going to look for someone to blame because Americans can't accept the fact that bad things can happen; the fact is that, while sure there were clues the CIA and FBI missed and things that could have been done, who the hell would have expected someone to fly planes into buildings? Perhaps the government can be faulted for not taking sufficient precautions, but let's not forget who did the deeds.

posted by: MWS on 08.15.04 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

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