Al Qaeda Threat Overrated

Seems obvious to me:

“I reject the notion that Al Qaeda is waiting for ‘the big one’ or holding back an attack,” Sheehan writes. “A terrorist cell capable of attacking doesn’t sit and wait for some more opportune moment. It’s not their style, nor is it in the best interest of their operational security. Delaying an attack gives law enforcement more time to detect a plot or penetrate the organization.”

Terrorism is not about standing armies, mass movements, riots in the streets or even palace coups. It’s about tiny groups that want to make a big bang. So you keep tracking cells and potential cells, and when you find them you destroy them. After Spanish police cornered leading members of the group that attacked trains in Madrid in 2004, they blew themselves up. The threat in Spain declined dramatically.

Indonesia is another case Sheehan and I talked about. Several high-profile associates of bin Laden were nailed there in the two years after 9/11, then sent off to secret CIA prisons for interrogation. The suspects are now at Guantánamo. But suicide bombings continued until police using forensic evidence—pieces of car bombs and pieces of the suicide bombers—tracked down Dr. Azahari bin Husin, “the Demolition Man,” and the little group around him. In a November 2005 shootout the cops killed Dr. Azahari and crushed his cell. After that such attacks in Indonesia stopped.

The drive to obliterate the remaining hives of Al Qaeda training activity along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier and those that developed in some corners of Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003 needs to continue, says Sheehan. It’s especially important to keep wanna-be jihadists in the West from joining with more experienced fighters who can give them hands-on weapons and explosives training. When left to their own devices, as it were, most homegrown terrorists can’t cut it. For example, on July 7, 2005, four bombers blew themselves up on public transport in London, killing 56 people. Two of those bombers had trained in Pakistan. Another cell tried to do the same thing two weeks later, but its members had less foreign training, or none. All the bombs were duds.


Sir David Omand, who used to head Britain’s version of the National Security Agency and oversaw its entire intelligence establishment from the Cabinet Office earlier this decade, described terrorism as “one corner” of the global security threat posed by weapons proliferation and political instability. That in turn is only one of three major dangers facing the world over the next few years. The others are the deteriorating environment and a meltdown of the global economy. Putting terrorism in perspective, said Sir David, “leads naturally to a risk management approach, which is very different from what we’ve heard from Washington these last few years, which is to ‘eliminate the threat’.”

Yet when I asked the panelists at the forum if Al Qaeda has been overrated, suggesting as Sheehan does that most of its recruits are bunglers, all shook their heads. Nobody wants to say such a thing on the record, in case there’s another attack tomorrow and their remarks get quoted back to them.

That’s part of what makes Sheehan so refreshing. He knows there’s a big risk that he’ll be misinterpreted; he’ll be called soft on terror by ass-covering bureaucrats, breathless reporters and fear-peddling politicians. And yet he charges ahead. He expects another attack sometime, somewhere. He hopes it won’t be made to seem more apocalyptic than it is. “Don’t overhype it, because that’s what Al Qaeda wants you to do. Terrorism is about psychology.” In the meantime, said Sheehan, finishing his fruit juice, “the relentless 24/7 job for people like me is to find and crush those guys.”

I’ve ordered Sheehan’s book, Crush the Cell: How to Defeat Terrorism Without Terrorizing Ourselves.

Posted on May 7, 2008 at 12:56 PM19 Comments


Nick Lancaster May 7, 2008 1:16 PM

I suspect this is going to end up on my bookshelf next to Beyond Fear (some guy named Schneier), Against All Enemies (Clarke), and The Utility of Force (Brig. Gen. Rupert Smith).

sooth_sayer May 7, 2008 2:04 PM

It’s sad to see such commentaries.

Generalizations of all issues is easy; 10 years ago (after the 1st trade center bombing) there were arm chair experts who dismissed that threat too.

In this world there are people with evil intentions and unlike the state sponsored evil i.e. Russian/chine’s style, this movement is currently stateless but quiet well organized. Anyone who thinks it’s not quiet so should just read news carefully not these bobble heads who call themselves security experts .. Bruce is likely to fall in that camp too.

CGomez May 7, 2008 2:09 PM

I have agreed for awhile that Al-Qaeda is either stupid, marginalized by military operations, dead, or was never that big to begin with. I guess there are probably other options, but none of them add up to terror.

The DC sniper illustrated how little it takes to really terrorize a region. You don’t need a 9/11. You only needed that once to magnify the little attacks that true terrorists would conduct on a daily basis. And smarter terrorists wouldn’t just go to NYC. They’d go everywhere. Make everyone feel unsafe. Start wildfires in CA and park car bombs in midwestern malls.

Instead, these supposed terrorists are waiting to pull off something big. I doubt it.

We can reasonably disagree, or admit we don’t really know, what happened to Al-Qaeda. But I think a reasonable conclusion is the threat from that particular group is small.

I also don’t think that means you just throw up your hands and stop thinking about security. But real security thinking is a far different thing from bureaucratic security thinking. Motivations are different and experts are not in place.

Randy May 7, 2008 2:22 PM

The World Trade Center truck bombing in 1993 was planned over several years. 9/11 was planned over several years. Are we forgetting that here? In many other third-world contries Al-Qaeda is using suicide bombers on the street with impunity. That isn’t likely to happen here in the US. That’s why they go for bigger hits, planned over a longer period of time. Just my opinion…

Tangerine Blue May 7, 2008 2:25 PM

only one of three major dangers
facing the world over the next few
years. The others are the
deteriorating environment and a
meltdown of the global economy.

Hooray! Somebody gets it!

Catastrophic climate change, scarcity of potable water, and toxic habitats are all urgent global security issues.

Millions starving – urgent global security issue.

Terrorism – definitely a security issue. From a Risk Management perspective, similar to earthquakes and tornados. We have a general sense of what damage might occur where, and we know that damage will be localized, not global.

Anon of Ibid May 7, 2008 2:56 PM

CGomez hit the nail on the head. If you had 20 motivated people, you could get weapons inside the U.S., modify them to semi-automatic or fully automatic rifles, maybe a few grenades, and place them in 20 different shopping malls all over the U.S. Make sure at least one or two are in Iowa or Kentucky, too, to make sure that everyone feels that “no place is safe”. Just make sure they all start their rampage(s) at the same time. Kill a few hundred people in Old Navy, and see what happens. You might be able to secure cockpit doors, but Mall food courts?

An America afraid to shop? That’ll be the day. Bonus points for all the “mall security” camera footage, getting looped on Fox News. Oh wait, did I just ruin someone’s October Surprise?

Brandioch Conner May 7, 2008 2:59 PM


I agree. There is a huge difference between convincing a guy to strap on a bomb in HIS HOME TOWN and finding a group of people who speak English well enough to live in the USofA without attracting attention.

There is a pool of over a million in the first category.

The pool for the second category seems to be exhausted. And right now there doesn’t seem to be any efforts to grow it.

The terrorists are not “waiting” for a “big” attack. They simply do not have the members with the skills to carry out the attacks in the USofA.

We have more to worry about from our home-grown threats. Such as the DC sniper that you mentioned.

Davi Ottenheimer May 7, 2008 6:10 PM

The “asleep at the wheel” argument is very compelling. I agree 100% with this analysis:

“What changed? The difference is purely and simply that intelligence agencies, law enforcement and the military have focused their attention on the threat, crushed the operational cells they could find—which were in fact the key ones plotting and executing major attacks—and put enormous pressure on all the rest.”

The Greek intelligence story (the cartoon) is perhaps the best example of what was sitting on the table.

Another example is when Cheney’s wife was so pissed off that people thought differently from her that she quit the co-chairman role of the Hart-Rudman Commission:

“‘Her name was Lynne Cheney,’ Hart said. ‘I am convinced that if it had not been for 9/11, we would be in a military showdown with China today.’ Not because of what China was doing, threatening, or intending, he made clear, but because of the assumptions the Administration brought with it when taking office.”

Yes, they had some arrogant assumptions, but they were also handicapped by an inability to accept and process analysis from experts.

I think some executives would sooner listen to a spiritual adviser, benefactor or close friend (golf buddy?) than have to deal with security issues raised by a professional.

Dave Aronson May 7, 2008 6:23 PM

@Anon of Ibid: No need to modify something into semi-auto, which seems to me to be absurdly difficult for a manual-action gun in the first place. Semi-autos (including handguns, rifles, and shotguns) are very common in the USA, with no extra fees or restrictions whatever. (Closest we had, at the federal level, is the now-gone “Assault Weapons” “Ban”, which froze manufacture of military-looking semi-auto rifles.) After all, the main difference is that you don’t have to jiggle a lever or bolt or whatever between shots. It will still only fire one shot per trigger-pull. The big leap is to full-auto, and (contrary to propaganda) most semi-autos are NOT easily convertable to (reliable and controllable) full-auto.

Scott May 7, 2008 10:53 PM

Wow! Until I clicked through to the article I was nervous. The first sentence quoted “Sheehan” – and for some reason I thought of Cindy Sheehan. Wrong Sheehan, I have a little more faith in this guy. 🙂

mashiara May 8, 2008 2:31 AM

While full-auto can cause panic in crowds (no need to be all that reliable or controlled for that purpose) and can be useful as supporting fire, in general semi-auto is the way to go.

bob May 8, 2008 6:51 AM

Cool! I’ve been saying for years that if a terrorist group COULD do something drastic, they already would be doing so.

I was all set to buy his book until I read the warning: “..a text as easy to read as a Power Point…”

Nick Lancaster May 8, 2008 7:59 AM

I’m curious as to why sooth_sayer wants us all to be afraid of the evil t3220r1$ts instead of realizing that Sheehan’s point is about resources rather than security theater.

Anonymous May 8, 2008 3:45 PM


I agree in general that semi-auto is the way to go, but you need the full-auto to be at least a little reliable. “Clickety-click-click-click” is not likely to cause a panic in a crowded mall…

(I know, it would be a single click, but wasn’t this more fun to think about?)

Anonymous May 8, 2008 5:02 PM

” After Spanish police cornered leading members of the group that attacked trains in Madrid in 2004, they blew themselves up. The threat in Spain declined dramatically.”

Errr…i thought the decline was due to Spain pulling out of the Gulf war.

Stephen Pollei May 8, 2008 6:08 PM

Theodore John Kaczynski aka the unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, Charles Witman, Eric Harris, and Seung-Hui Cho are other examples of small groups being able to do lots of damage. They also show that maybe lots of funding isn’t really that vital; Kaczynski made less than $5000.00USD a year and lived in a cabin without electricity and running water.

Also concerning semi-automatic Vs. automatic machine guns , I think they knowlege on how to build these types of weapons isn’t that great of a secret. Gattling was invented in 1862, Maxim in 1884, Browning in 1917 . Making cartridges with Nitrocellulose and an explosive primer might still be risky, but any terrorist organization with even a mere $10 million USD should be able to design and manufacture their own arms and ammunition from scratch if that was so required. Reminds me of the Ayalon Institute — a secret underground factory for 9 mm bullets. I think that with today’s cnc machining tools it is more feasible then ever.

Plus if it’s true that the problem is recruiting people that can fit in and not lack of money than they might want to build some customized weapons that fit their tactical situations better than simple off the shelf stuff might.

moo May 8, 2008 7:51 PM

@Dave Aronson: Glock 17’s are easily modified to be full-auto handguns similar to the Glock 18, which is not available to civilians here in Canada. You also can’t get large mags for handguns here, which I think is a good thing because no one besides police forces has a legitimate need for them. However, I’m sure sooner or later some nutjob with an illegally-modified weapon will take out a school bus or a bunch of people in a shopping mall or something equally horrific, and we can all predict the knee-jerk legislation that will result.

There’s no easy solution to this. Guns are a lot less popular in Canada than they are in the U.S., but there are still lots of people who have them and there will always be ways for criminals to get them. At least here, you have to take a safety course and get a permit before you can buy one (and handguns are more strictly controlled than that, you need a second safety course and a compelling reason. A member of a gun club can buy one, but his permit will specify exactly where it is allowed to be (locked up at home, at the gun club, or en-route from one to the other) and if the cops find you carrying it anywhere else, you are in for a world of legal trouble.

There are still plenty of crazy people with rifles in their closets, though. I try not to worry about it because I don’t know any of those people personally and my chances of getting shot by one are substantially lower than (say) my chances of getting run over by a drunk as I walk home from work. The bottom line is that life is not 100% safe, despite all our pretenses to the contrary.

Raek May 11, 2008 7:51 PM

I just read the book Crush The Cell and I have to say it was a good read. It answered some questions I had in my mind such as why has there not been another terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11. Some other good books on the subject are Ghost Wars which explains a lot up to 9/11. America’s Secret War is another good book with a different spin on things.

MrRobot May 12, 2008 11:48 AM

Hope one day people will learn to live together, and all terror groups like Al-Qaeda, who try to stop modern cultures grow, or PKK, Kurdish child killers, who try to divide, take over countries and name it Kurdistan will be history. Killing innocent civilians is a crime against humanity. We will never allow them succeed. God bless all those innocents murdered in terror attacks.

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