Hey, remember Al Qaeda? I wonder if the group responsible for that extra-special pat-down* I got at Logan earlier this week is still capable of serious power projection.
Peter Bergen in Vanity Fair provides one answer:
[I]t is not the West that faces an existential threat, but al Qaeda. About two months after 9/11, bin Laden boasted to a group of supporters, "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse." The weak horse turned out to be bin Laden's own. During the past decade, misguided actions taken in the name of the War on Terror -- notably the invasion of Iraq, the bungled war in Afghanistan, and the heavy-handed approach to the treatment of prisoners -- have bought bin Laden and his allies some time. These actions have won a certain amount of sympathy among Muslims for the Islamist cause. But they have not changed the underlying reality: al Qaeda and groups that share its ideology are on the wrong side of history…
Before 9/11, the group had acted freely in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda conducted its own foreign policy independent from the Taliban, taking the form, beginning in 1998, of multiple strikes on American government, military, and civilian targets. Before 9/11, al Qaeda was an organization of global reach. The 9/11 attack itself played out around the world, with planning meetings in Malaysia, operatives taking flight lessons in the United States, coordination by plot leaders based in Hamburg, and money transfers from Dubai -- activities overseen by al Qaeda's senior command from secure bases in Afghanistan. Almost all of this infrastructure was smashed after 9/11.
One of bin Laden's key goals is to bring about regime change in the Middle East and to replace the House of Saud and the Mubarak family of Egypt with Taliban-style rule. He believes that the way to accomplish this is to attack the "far enemy" (the United States and its Western allies), then watch as America recoils and the U.S.-backed Muslim regimes regarded as the "near enemy" collapse. The attacks on Washington and New York resulted in the direct opposite of his hopes. After 9/11, American troops occupied two Muslim countries and established new bases in several others. Relations between the United States and the authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes became stronger than ever, based on a shared goal of defeating violent Islamists…
[C]itizens in the West must come to understand -- and their leaders must drive the point home -- that although terrorist attacks, including attacks by al Qaeda, will continue to happen, the real damage is done by the panic and lashing out that follows. This is the reaction that al Qaeda craves -- and it is why terrorism works. It's easy to understand the emergence of a culture of paranoia coupled with rhetoric of vengeance. Prudence, calmness, and patience seem almost pusillanimous by comparison. But they work. Rare is the threat that can be defeated in large measure simply by deciding that we will not unduly fear it. Terrorism is one such threat (emphasis added).
Above all, we need to keep al Qaeda in perspective, remembering that its assets are few, and shrinking. After 9/11, bin Laden employed the imagery of a strong horse and a weak horse, but the reality of his situation was better described by Sitting Bull. The Sioux leader, at the Little Bighorn, is said to have observed: We have won a great battle but lost a great war.
Well, even if the U.S. and Arab governments are more closely allied now, surely Al Qaeda has more sympathizers on the Arab street, yes? Oh, wait, what's this Pew poll saying here?
While views of Hamas and Hezbollah are mixed, al Qaeda -- as well as its leader, Osama bin Laden -- receives overwhelmingly negative ratings in nearly all countries where the question was asked. More than nine-in-ten (94 percent) Muslims in Lebanon express negative opinions of al Qaeda, as do majorities of Muslims in Turkey (74 percent), Egypt (72 percent), Jordan (62 percent) and Indonesia (56 percent). Only in Nigeria do Muslims express positive views of al Qaeda; 49 percent have a favorable view and just 34 percent have an unfavorable view of bin Laden's organization.
Hmm… well, I'm sure that U.S. government officials aren't this equanimous about the threat posed by Al Qaeda. Oh, hey, look, Wired's Spencer Ackerman has a write-up of this speech by the director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC):
"We aim for perfection," Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Center for Strategic and International Studies yesterday, but "perfection will not be achieved." That's perilous for a senior counterterrorism official to say, since, like terrorism, it's easily demagogued. Leiter repeatedly stated that there's no excuse for terrorism; that any successful attack is a tragedy; and that he'd welcome due oversight and criticism of his efforts if a terrorist pulls something off, just in case his admission seemed self-serving.
But in order not to make terrorists seem "ten feet tall" -- in other words, inadvertently support their narrative that they're world-historical forces on par with the U.S. -- it might be time to publicly de-emphasize terrorism in the public discourse. "Sometimes we ought to just talk about this a lot less," Leiter said....
Ultimately, Leiter said, it'll be the "quiet, confident resilience" of Americans after a terrorist attack that will "illustrate ultimately the futility of terrorism." That doesn't mean not to hit back: Leiter quickly added that "we will hold those accountable [and] we will be ready to respond to those attacks." But it does mean recognizing, he said, that "we help define the success of an attack by our reaction to that attack."
I know that assessing the capabilities of terrorist networks is sometimes a no-win exercise, but isn't it about time to acknowledge that Al Qaeda is no longer in the first tier of national security threats? And that maybe, just maybe, really expensive incursions related to Al Qaeda should be reassessed?
Am I missing anything?
[So how extra-special was that pat-down? -- ed. I was hurt that the TSA guy didn't tell me his first name afterwards. Seriously, I'm stunned that the porn industry has yet to exploit this new scenario for "intimate contact."]
Stephen Colbert's Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's attempt to rally fear in the hearts of Americans through its foiled toner cartridge gambit continues to reverberate in homeland security circles. Clearly, there are still a few bugs in the system. That said, here are my quick takeaways:
1) Al Qaeda failed… again. Seriously, if al Qaeda is ostensibly the New York Yankees of terrorism, the Steinbrenners would have fired the GM and coach years ago.
2) As this New York Times round-up suggests, al Qaeda has had to adopt new tactics because its preferred tactics have been thwarted:
[It was] a rare attack aimed at the air cargo system -- one of the foundations of the global economy -- rather than the passenger system, which has received the most attention from governments working to avoid a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The Times story goes on to bemoan the failure to ratchet up security in the cargo system, which is a fair point. An implicit conclusion to draw from this switch in tactics, however, is that al Qaeda-affiliated groups are being frustrated on the passenger front.
3) Will Juan Williams now be fearful every time he sees a toner cartridge, even though most toner cartridges are not evil?
4) A common mantra about combating terrorism is that homeland security officials have to aim for a 1.000 batting average, while terrorists just need to get lucky once. I wonder if this is really true, however. Each time a new type of attack is thwarted, government officials learn a great deal about new tactics and methods, and a treasure trove of intelligence can be quickly generated. Failed attacks are likely to discourage some al Qaeda sympathizers, leading to more informants.
No, al Qaeda doesn't need a perfect track record, but failure after failure does carry strategic and operational costs.
5) The Saudi counterintelligence effort is getting an awful lot of good press.
Am I missing anything?
Over at Wired, Spencer Ackerman assesses how low al Qaeda has fallen:
Nine years ago, al Qaeda crashed a plane into the Pentagon and came dangerously close to taking out the White House. Now it wants to hit places like Cosi and Potbelly during the lunch rush in the hope of taking out "a few government employees," writes an extremist using the name Yahya Ibrahim, who also wrote for the launch issue.
That’s not the only idea Inspire floats for al Qaeda wannabes. Got a pickup truck? Why not create the "ultimate mowing machine" by welding steel blades to the grill and driving up on crowded sidewalks to "mow down the enemies of Allah?"
But it’s "paramount" to target government workers, Ibrahim boasts, "and the location would also give the operation additional media attention," according to our friend James Gordon Meek of the New York Daily News. In other words, killing a lot of people all at once is less important than letting Americans -- and government workers in particular -- know they aren’t safe in their capitol city.
Two thoughts. First, this will be an interesting test of homeland security priorities. If al Qaeda is relying on disaffected Americans to do their dirty work for them on U.S. soil, then we will soon see just how many AQ sympathizers there really are in the United States. If nothing happens on this front before the midterms, however, then I'm going to conclude that al Qaeda's latest tactics are a big flop.
Second, even if AQ's latest gambit succeeds in fomenting one or two attacks, this is really and truly small beer. Al Qaeda is now following the narrative arc of VH1's Behind the Music franchise:
ANNOUNCER: Al Qaeda had burst onto the global scene with an array of pyrotechnic successes. After the 9/11 attacks, they seemed unstoppable. Even after losing their base in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden's escape from Tora Bora seemed the stuff of legend. It looked like the supergroup created by a construction magnate from Saudi Arabia and a surgeon from Egypt would never fade away.
As the years passed, however, al Qaeda found it difficult to top their greatest hits. For a few years they coasted on prior successes, along with minor hits in Bali, Madrid, London, and parts of the Middle East. By 2009, however, their lack of success was becoming noticeable.
FORMER AQ MEMBER: Oh, yeah, it drove Osama crazy. He'd keep saying, "we need to top 9/11." It started to drive al-Zawahiri nuts. Why do you think he made that stupid "house Negro" tape?
ANNOUNCER: By 2010, al Qaeda was a shell of their former selves, and in a strange reversal of fortune, relied on their groupies to help them out.
TERRORIST ANALYST: You knew they were desperate when they started calling on their tribute bands to perform for them. "Bomb this for us, shoot that for us." That's the last act of a desperate group.
FORMER AQ SYMPATHIZER: That English-language Inspire magazine was the last straw for me. I mean, seriously, it was clear that they had sold out by then. I only think about their earlier work when I think of them now. Seriously, did Tucker Carlson design that thing?
ANNOUNCER: By late 2010, the Mexican drug cartels were all the rage. Al Qaeda's time… had come and gone.
Hopefully, there will be no third act in which al Qaeda bounces back with a comeback hit only to fall prey to a shame spiral.
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images
Over at Shadow Government, Mary Habeck argues that al Qaeda's capabilities are on the rise, as evidenced by the recent effort to launch a trans-European Mumbai-style bombing. This is akin to a CNN headline I just saw: "Europe plot reveals al Qaeda adapting."
I would have assumed that these analyses argue that recent events demonstrate al Qaeda's abilities to find ways to overcome current counter-terrorism tactics.
But then I read the actual CNN story:
With al Qaeda struggling to replicate attacks on the scale of the devastation witnessed on September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, security experts believe the Mumbai attack, which gained worldwide publicity, may provide the template for its future operations.
"This new plot is perhaps an indication that al Qaeda is trying to change its strategy," said CNN's Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson. "The high-profile attacks that it has always liked using explosives are clearly getting harder and harder to perpetrate.
"The cells are being spotted and it's harder to keep undercover when you're making bombs. Even buying the material to make bombs is getting harder, so many analysts believe al Qaeda would be unable to mount a 9/11-style attack in the current climate.
"Therefore Mumbai would have been viewed as successful by the al Qaeda leadership as it killed a large number of people. This type of attack is just as deadly but harder to stop."
In the last year, a number of plots targeting the West have been foiled, including the failed Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. airliner; the failed car bomb attempt in New York City's Times Square and an alleged plan to attack shopping malls in Manchester, England over one holiday weekend in 2009.
This strikes me as defining adaptation down. Technically, events suggest that al Qaeda is adapting, which is a bad thing from the perspective of everyone preferring, you know, civilization. But the nut of this analysis is that al Qaeda's preferred tactics are being thwarted, and that they therefore have no choice but to switch tactics. This switch might lead to a greater likelihood of actual attacks, but their lethality seems lower. [But the CNN story suggests that this kind of attack is "just as deadly" as a 9/11-type attack?!- -ed. Yeah, that's wrong. The Mumbai attacks led to 173 deaths and 308 wounded. These are appalling numbers, but they are not as appalling as the loss of life on 9/11].
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.