Schneier on Security
A blog covering security and security technology.
« Threat Models Colliding at Movie-Theater Projectors |
| Court Ruling on "Reasonable" Electronic Banking Security »
June 17, 2011
The Decline of al Qaeda
EDITED TO ADD (7/13): A similar article from The Economist.
Posted on June 17, 2011 at 6:34 AM
• 18 Comments
To receive these entries once a month by e-mail, sign up for the Crypto-Gram Newsletter.
"but overall, the jihadist message urging Muslims to take up arms and conduct attacks simply does not appear to be gaining much traction among Muslims in the West"
I lived in Dubai during a 6 month period last year and occasionally travelled to Oman. Most of the muslims there were fine; actually I did not meet any that could have been termed "non-fine".
So I do not think Muslims in the east are that into killing westerners either (unless maybe if they are from some village where their relatives were bombed by some U.S./Nato weapons).
But America is also so far from all other countries that sometimes Americans can be told anything about the people in those other countries. Sort of like in 1500's when world maps had mythological monsters drawn as living in various places.
>But America is also so far from all other countries
>that sometimes Americans can be told anything
>about the people in those other countries.
It goes both ways. We can be told all sorts of things about people in other countries, I agree.
But people in other countries can be told all sorts of things about us. Through the memo there were many references to the tune that domestic US attacks would encourage voting against anti-Islamic politicians or discourage other anti-Islamic activities. From what I can see there is a generally rational feeling about the whole issue in the US toward Islam, echoing the generally rational feelings of Muslims that you've met.
But there also seems to be a strong wish among some people in the US to whip up strong anti-Islamic feelings here. I would tend to ascribe it to age-old political finagling to gain power. But I do believe that domestic attacks by Islamic militants would only serve to strengthen those anti-Islamic factions here. I also get the feeling that some on both sides would love to duke it out in a big Judeo-Christian vs Islamic war.
"According to [AQ spokesman] Gadahn, terrorist attacks also cause the people to object to leaders who want to attack Islam, and the people will not vote for those leaders."
Um, are these people stark raving delusional, or are then merely following an extremely convoluted and cynical plan?
I have a strong sense that the anti-islamic movements in Europe shares the same aims with Al Qaida. They both want to segregate, or even deport, all Muslims from the non-Muslim countries and vice versa.
The biggest threat to Al Qaida, and Salafist fundamentalists in general, are successful young Muslims in the West. They are role models for the young in the Muslim heartland.
Preventing Muslims from participating in democratic societies would be one outcome of "grassroots" jihadists on a homicide spree. Which is probably why Al Qaida advocate this policy.
@Winter I think you're right.
Extremists on both sides rely on hate to propagate their power... whilst it's tough to do it, it's probably best we all just ignore the ranting.
Funny that extremists always seem to consider themselves fundamentalists... I guess it's part of the delusion.
@Henning: To share an odd thought of mine, for whatever it's worth (and it's based on a serious lack of knowledge of the Arab world):
People in the US are subject to a steady stream of information from a very large variety of sources. They react in various ways, which often include narrowing their information sources, but it it's barely possible to function without at least being critical of advertising claims.
People in other places may not get the same bombardment, for whatever reason, and may get most of their information from a few places.
As something of an amateur historian, I've observed that rational and sophisticated people frequently accept what is told to them as long as nothing contradicts it. This is quite common in Ancient History, where we have one source on something that is almost certainly wrong, but historians will automatically accept it as the basis, and quibble about details. Consider the widespread acceptance of Herodotus's claim of 1.7 million Persians in the invading army, which doesn't stand up to any rational analysis.
So, in an environment where a person gets information from only a few sources that agree with each other, it gets really difficult to be all that critical, and the person is likely to accept whatever nonsense he or she is told.
After 9/11, I told the young 20-somethings I worked with
"Back in my day, we didn't have Osama bin Laden to terrorize us. We had to settle for being scared by Abu Nidal. And we liked it! Now get out of my cubicle!"
Not mentioned but something that should be of consideration is the "war on terror" in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The "boots on the ground" policy puts soldiers of the various Western nations on Middle East soil.
This means that local iregular forces are likley to absorb anyone who would wish "to get at" the West not just because they are local but even as irregulars they have a chain of command and supplies of weapons and training. Oh and inveriably they are not looking for "suicide combatants", so there is the chance of "career progression". Perhaps more importantly they are not viewd as being those who wage war on innocent women and children which is distinctly disaproved of.
Further those with pretentions to be terrorists in the West lack weapons of any form and have to source them or make them. Which as the artical author points out is an easy route to a jail cell without achiving anything (other than ridicule and a long long time to reflect on your failings). Thus they stand more chance of "making a mark" by going to the Middle East and joining one of the irregular forces. In the process they will get some training in using weapons and may also find out how to make IED's etc.
However the various terrorist brigades are nolonger fashionable, various Middle East nations are in the process of ridding themselves of quite unpleasant dictators. Thus they are very unlikley to want to replace them with those who are very likley to be considerably worse (ie look back at Afghanistan and what went on in the national football stadium).
The other thing is strict Muslim Law is actually not realy wanted by the majority of Muslims and they want a more moderate and less opressive and bloody thirsty way of achieving the social cohesion that gives rise to stable nation states.
Thus in many ways the time of AQ etc is past and does not fit in with those it needs to keep it alive and is thus an anachronism.
>It goes both ways. We can be told all sorts of things about people in other countries, I agree.
>But people in other countries can be told all sorts of things about us.
It isn't really that symmetric. When was the last time you watched a Middle Eastern film or soap opera? Whereas people in the ME are very likely to have seen Hollywood movies and some US TV.
I don't know how accurate this article is, or if is itself part of a larger information war, but I'm pretty sure of one thing: if the world continues on its current trajectory toward "Dark Ages II", no amount of wishful thinking, do-gooderism or military adventurism is going to stop fundamentalism from spreading like a virus across a collapsing world. When I look at what's going on in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan I feel like I am watching this new Dark Age descend before my eyes. The United States has its own immense problems with immigrant invasions, tribalism and religious radicalism, and nothing about human history gives me any confidence that rational heads will prevail over these incredibly powerful "forces of darkness". Am I the only one who feels like he's living in 4th century Rome?
>Whereas people in the ME are very likely to have
>seen Hollywood movies and some US TV.
Yes, and that certainly represents my life. I'm sure that Hollywood movies and TV are just as accurate about my life as US news is about theirs.
Misunderstanding goes both ways.
Then to counter my claim, I've enjoyed watching Bollywood whenever it comes around. What I've enjoyed most is not the central plot, but the cultural leakage around the edges. Then again, when I look at Hollywood I don't see a lot of cultural leakage, but maybe that's just because I'm too much in it. That makes me wonder about the relative "accuracy" of cultural leakage in Hollywodd vs Bollywood vs the news.
I do the same thing, including with old books written here (US), to see interesting things like what did factory workers wear then, what did their tools look like and so on -- things that the book never really intended to convey. You can get an interesting glimpse into real life (unlike Hollywood) that way.
I think a big part of the problems is the only way they know of us is Hollywood and its distortions.
What would you think of us if that was your main information conduit -- with bombs from the sky the main other one?
Stratfor's analyses tend to be simplistic and usually further some sort of agenda.
My thoughts on the Al Qaeda video:
1) They are correct that a strategy of having multiple people unconnected with their central organization conducting their own independent operations is an effective one.
2) They are correct that a swell of independent attacks would have an effect on Western populations.
3) They are incorrect that they will get a lot of such attacks due partly to the incompetence of the independent actors and partly due to the lack of enough independent actors who share their belief systems sufficiently to actually take up the mantle.
4) They are incorrect in believing that, without a sufficient number and effectiveness of attacks, that the result would be the Western electorate revolting against their government.
This is the Marighella Principle - and it's rarely worked in terrorist history. Usually what happens is the reverse: the electorate comes down against the terrorists, and the government overreacts and oppresses both terrorists and electorate (as is happening here in the US) - but it is the terrorists who suffer the worst. Most of the South American terrorist groups who championed the Marighella Principle went under. This is due to the fact that once you don't have the electorate's support your resources dry up (if you don't have a foreign sponsor).
The problem is that attacking civilians produces a backlash against the terrorist group. The original Russian terrorist group The People's Will advocated attacking the members of the ruling STATE, not civilians. Almost all terrorist groups since then have advocated attacking civilians, which is just counter-productive.
However, it IS possible for a relatively small group of well trained terrorists to have a major effect on a nation. It all depends on two things: 1) the training must be good, and 2) the strategy and tactics must be correct.
And there's the rub: Almost no terrorist groups can achieve either. The only group I can think of at this point which has anywhere near the capability is Hizballah in Lebanon. And they aren't a terrorist group (although they can operate in that mode if necessary); they're a national resistance organization.
If the US ever attacks Iran and at the same time Israel attacks Lebanon with US assistance, and the conflict drags on, it's possible that Hizballah might be persuaded to conduct "far" attacks against the US. Unlikely, but possible. If that ever happens, expect much more effective terrorist attacks in the US than ever before.
But it's true that an effective terrorist strategy could be designed around multiple, chronic attacks by random individuals and small groups. The key is that the attacks must be both CHRONIC and EFFECTIVE.
By "chronic", I mean daily or at least weekly. By "effective" I mean that double-digit casualties are involved, if not triple-digit, and in multiple locations.
Most terrorist attacks result in single digit casualties. Single digit attacks are only useful if the casualties are 1) important individuals, and 2) very frequent, as in daily. As an example, kill the mayors of the seven largest cities in the US in one week. Or the governors of the seven largest states in one week.
Most terrorist groups can't sustain both attributes. They don't have the manpower, the mobility or the tactical efficiency. The only historical examples of real value are the Gray Wolves in Turkey and the Red Brigades in Italy, and to a lesser degree the Red Army in Japan.
The Mumbai attack would be an excellent example - IF it recurred on a weekly basis.
Al Qaeda doesn't have the ability to mount that level of attack. And attacks like 9/11 which occur once every blue moon aren't effective in the long run - except in allowing the state to take advantage of them to clamp down on its own electorate. If Al Qaeda truly wants to be effective in disrupting US life, they need to run an equivalent operation every month or at most couple of months.
They can't do it.
@ Sean Strange:
Nope. Count me in.
"I also get the feeling that some on both sides would love to duke it out in a big Judeo-Christian vs Islamic war."
You mean, along the lines of previous wars against Jews by Christians? (Spanish Inquisition and many others)? Or the wars by Christians against Christians once they had taken the power in Rome, which killed far more Christians than the lions or gladiator battles did - by an order of magnitude, according to Gibbon's classic, "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." This included, at times, sexual torture of nuns. Or just look up "Arian Controversy" for an example of internecine warfare. But Gibbon is more explicit.
Odd that all three faiths claim the same progenitor - see footnote  in the paper linked below.
"The biggest threat to Al Qaida, and Salafist fundamentalists in general, are successful young Muslims in the West. They are role models for the young in the Muslim heartland."
Quoting from footnote  of the link below, published 9/10/2010, because 9/11 fell on a Saturday, and the site admin isn't available to moderate and approve submissions on weekends:
"... somewhat more than 370 self-identified Muslims died in the attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Muslims who presumably thought that life under capitalism in the USA, in the city that is the heart of capitalism and in the buildings that were among its most prominent monuments, was a good life, and not at all in conflict with their beliefs."
I felt sad and cheated when I finally learned how our own schools (US) conveniently omitted the immense contributions of the Persian world to science, techmology, math, etc., while the Western world was in its "Dark Ages":
Although the following is mostly a mockery of the quality of the teaching of history in US schools, see "Accidentally Omitted Footnote" regarding the Cyrus the Great, a role model from 2500 years ago for all rulers today, and the reply by Susanna Viljanen (a Finn, quite educated and erudite) about the tolerance of Islam's predecessor, Zoroastrianism or Zarathustranism, vs. the modern radicals.
When considering the possible affect of such things it's worth reading about the Washington Sniper(s). When that was happening some friends in the Washington area reported their observations to me, in addition to the reported restrictions on school kids, some people took time off work to take their children to another state.
What would happen if there was a similar sniper in every major US city? Would people learn to just deal with it? FBI statistics indicate that the US murder rate is probably around 15,000 cases a year nowadays and it seems unlikely that al Quaeda et al could compete with that (even 9-11 would have been only an 18% increase if it was counted along with the rest).
How many people would an ad-hoc network of Washington Sniper types have to kill before people would demand that the army get involved? It seems that any use of the US army on domestic terrorism issues would remove troops from the middle-east - which is the stated goal of al Quaeda.
Of course there are other ways of amplifying the effects. For example attacks aimed at people who visit the US for business and Americans who travel for business could affect commerce in the US. Another possibility is that targeted attacks against customers of US companies in other parts of the world could make a significant economic impact - imagine if terrorists started killing McDonalds customers in other countries.
Also I'm surprised that al Quaeda appear to not be considering non-fatal terrorist attacks. If al Quaeda affiliates were to start performing armed robbery+GBH and other violent crimes then it would scare people and lots of crimes would be falsely attributed to them (there is historical evidence of terrorist groups wanting to claim credit for crimes committed by other people).
Russell: You can't compare the number of murders in the US with terrorist attacks because people understand that murders are comparatively rare and that most murders are committed by acquaintances of the victims.
Being shot at random is much more scary. Remember the Zebra killings here in San Francisco? The town was in an uproar primarily because the killings were random. Any black man on the street could be one of the assassins.
If you could put one or two snipers in every major city, and if they followed proper sniper tactical doctrine of shooting one or two people - no more than one or two shots - then an immediate retreat, so that they could keep it up, and if they shot people of importance rather than at random, I'd say this would be a highly effective tactic.
Then add to that car bombings. The US is MADE for car bombings. Blow up one car in every major city every couple of days during rush hour with a body count in the dozens and it won't take long for the National Guard to be running checkpoints on every street.
Then add in the simple tactic of dropping a satchel charge on the local commuter rail lines during rush hour, so the train derails.
Then add in a few suicide bombers during rush hour on the light rail platform. Guy walks in, gets in a crowd of people, pulls out a couple hand grenades or a detonator for a bomb vest, says "Allahu Akbar", and blows up twenty people. A few weeks of this and no one takes the train any more.
Then follow that up with a few Stinger missile shots at airliners taking off. No need to go in the airport to knock down a few planes. That will shut down national air traffic.
By now the economy is dead in the water, there are National Guard troops on every street corner, and everyone is being searched on every street corner.
I can come up with a lot more scenarios that require only some motivation, the ability to stay unnoticed until the strike, some firearms, some suppressors, some grenades, maybe a M-70 grenade launcher, and a lot of explosives.
A few dozen men could wreak havoc. A hundred would be better, enough to put four men in the top 25 Major Metropolitan Areas. A thousand men could put 20 men in every one of the 50 Major Metro Areas, more than enough. And getting a thousand men together to do this would be trivial for a place like Iran or Hizballah or Iraq.
Mind you, neither Iran nor Hizballah would do this as a first strike because they would understand the military consequences. BUT if the US were ALREADY intent on regime change in Iran or destroying Hizballah in Lebanon, what have they got to lose?
@ Sean Strange
"Am I the only one who feels like he's living in 4th century Rome?"
Which is exactly the corner where authoritarianists want us to be so in fear we may all blindly submit to their rule. Failed states with failed economies like the ones you mention by definition are ideal breeding grounds for gangsters, war lords and religious fanaticism. Whether it be extremism or migration streams, bombs, tighter legislation and vast amounts of security theatre are not going to solve these problems. It's only jobs and economic prosperity that keep people where they are and prevent them from falling victim to fundamentalist and violent rhetoric by those that offer them bread whereas all others fail to do so.
The biggest blow to AQ sofar is not so much the death of OBL, but the Arab Spring where ordinary people now rise against oppressive dictatorships that have clung to power for decades, if not centuries. AQ will continue to be around for times to come, but their operational capabilities have been seriously weakened, and so have their support and legitimacy in most parts of the muslim world. They're well on their way to history books, full stop.
While we're at it, I don't see terrorism and religious fundamentalism as the biggest threats to society. Global warming, poverty and the limited reserves of tradional energy resources are much bigger challenges to our civilisation than men with turbans or Chinese hackers. It just totally defies logic that military-industrial complexes across the world keep spending billions of dollars a week waging wars on drugs, terror and cyber crime while in the process completely ignoring the real challenges ahead.
Much of what we are seeing today in the context of government policy does not support the safety, welfare and well-being of its people, but only that of an oligarchy desperately trying to perpetuate its power and fortune in a rapidly changing world in which the US and the west as a whole are no longer the sole measure of things. And what better way of achieving such goal than by making up all kinds of horrible adversaries hell-bent on crippling our economy and killing us. It's a proven recipe and people keep falling for it.
Schneier.com is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of BT.