Why Is Terrorism so Hard?

I don't know how I missed this great series from Slate in February. It's eight essays exploring why there have been no follow-on terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11 (not counting the anthrax mailings, I guess). Some excerpts:

Al-Qaida's successful elimination of the Twin Towers, part of the Pentagon, four jetliners, and nearly 3,000 innocent lives makes the terror group seem, in hindsight, diabolically brilliant. But when you review how close the terrorists came to being exposed by U.S. intelligence, 9/11 doesn't look like an ingenious plan that succeeded because of shrewd planning. It looks like a stupid plan that succeeded through sheer dumb luck.

[...]

Even when it isn't linked directly to terrorism, Muslim radicalism seems more prevalent—and certainly more visible—inside the United Kingdom, and in Western Europe generally, than it is inside the United States.

Why the difference? Economics may be one reason. American Muslims are better-educated and wealthier than the average American.

[...]

According to [one] theory, the 9/11 attacks were so stunning a success that they left al-Qaida's leadership struggling to conceive and carry out an even more fearsome and destructive plan against the United States. In his 2006 book The One Percent Doctrine, journalist Ron Suskind attributes to the U.S. intelligence community the suspicion that "Al Qaeda wouldn't want to act unless it could top the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with something even more devastating, creating an upward arc of rising and terrible expectation as to what, then, would follow."

[...]

From a broader policy viewpoint, the Bush administration's most significant accomplishment, terrorism experts tend to agree, was the 2001 defeat of Afghanistan's Taliban regime and the destruction of Bin Laden's training camps. As noted in "The Terrorists-Are-Dumb Theory" and "The Melting Pot Theory," two-thirds of al-Qaida's leadership was captured or killed. Journalist Lawrence Wright estimates that nearly 80 percent of al-Qaida's Afghanistan-based membership was killed in the U.S. invasion, and intelligence estimates suggest al-Qaida's current membership may be as low as 200 or 300.

[...]

The departing Bush administration's claim that deposing Saddam Hussein helped prevent acts of terror in the United States has virtually no adherents, except to the extent that it drew some jihadis into Iraq. The Iraq war reduced U.S. standing in the Muslim world, especially when evidence surfaced that U.S. military officials had tortured and humiliated prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison.

[...]

When Schelling, Abrams, and Sageman argue that terrorists are irrational, what they mean is that terror groups seldom realize their big-picture strategic goals. But Berrebi says you can't pronounce terrorists irrational until you know what they really want. "We don't know what are the real goals of each organization," he says. Any given terror organization is likely to have many competing and perhaps even contradictory goals. Given these groups' inherently secret nature, outsiders aren't likely to learn which of these goals is given priority.

Read the whole thing.

Posted on June 3, 2009 at 1:35 PM • 37 Comments

Comments

bethanJune 3, 2009 2:00 PM

i read a few of those -thank you for the reminder to read the rest.

Brandioch ConnerJune 3, 2009 3:06 PM

I still think that it is because there is a very limited pool of terrorists who would be able to operate in the USofA.

But there is a far larger pool that would have no trouble operating in the mid-East. Which is where most of them seem to be hanging out there, bombing the US military personnel that are stationed over there.

Davi OttenheimerJune 3, 2009 3:23 PM

Yes, I think they are right on track.

It was "a stupid plan that succeeded through sheer dumb luck."

My only quibble is that the newly elected administration of 2001 had elements of amazingly destructive hubris that devastated an already tenuous intelligence flow.

For example, Cheney walked off her post in protest from a bi-partisan security committee when its first report suggested the US might face decline as a world power. Another example was the new management style of dismissing input from anyone with ties to the former administration. The same blinding mistake was made in the critical and early weeks of invading Iraq. Another was how intelligence from certain countries like Greece (the infamous cartoon warning) was dismissed, even though "high-value" allies were not giving more reliable data.

We saw this executive hubris also highlighted at that time by the wake of SOX. Some kept saying all is good, and shot all the naysayer messengers, until the disaster was unavoidable.

The series is great, but I suspect disclosure of records will lead historians to explore more executive failure and the "sleeping policeman" theory rather than just settle on dumb luck.

HJohnJune 3, 2009 3:38 PM

@Davi: "Another example was the new management style of dismissing input from anyone with ties to the former administration. The same blinding mistake was made in the critical and early weeks of invading Iraq."
_________

I can see this threat getting off track really quick. Saying "dismissing input from anyone with ties to the former administration" could not be more false. It was George Tenet, appointed by Bill Clinton, who said the infamous quote "It's a slam dunk" with regards to Iraq (not to mention half of all democrats in Congress voted for the Iraq resolution).

We should dialogue to find mistakes and make improvements. Problem with anyting involving President Bush is he sparks irrationality from many who hate him.

There are many reasons things succeed and fail. I know it is politically expedient to point fingers and blame, but that does little to facilitate improvements.

anonJune 3, 2009 3:38 PM

"'We don't know what are the real goals of each organization,' he says. Any given terror organization is likely to have many competing and perhaps even contradictory goals. Given these groups' inherently secret nature, outsiders aren't likely to learn which of these goals is given priority."

Rarely are there a lack of demands made. To say that "we don't know what they want" is really not trying at all. There are often demands made from terrorist groups, they are often just not reported on so much because it's easier for the media to report on mindless killers with no objectives. That is not to say that their methods are valid at all, but if you really want to understand the motives and the demands, just pay more attention and do some more digging. For instance, Al-Qaida has released an FAQ of sorts outlining their demands, although something like this is quite easy to miss, especially in the U.S. media.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/nov/24/...

HJohnJune 3, 2009 3:38 PM

@Davi: "Another example was the new management style of dismissing input from anyone with ties to the former administration. The same blinding mistake was made in the critical and early weeks of invading Iraq."
_________

I can see this thread getting off track really quick. Saying "dismissing input from anyone with ties to the former administration" could not be more false. It was George Tenet, appointed by Bill Clinton, who said the infamous quote "It's a slam dunk" with regards to Iraq (not to mention half of all democrats in Congress voted for the Iraq resolution).

We should dialogue to find mistakes and make improvements. Problem with anyting involving President Bush is he sparks irrationality from many who hate him.

There are many reasons things succeed and fail. I know it is politically expedient to point fingers and blame, but that does little to facilitate improvements.

HJohnJune 3, 2009 3:40 PM

My apologies for the similar posts. As soon as I posted, I noticed a typo. Typing "threat" instead of "thread" in the first could make for quite a misunderstanding so I corrected.

Best,
HJohn

CurmudgeonJune 3, 2009 3:42 PM

There's no mystery about Osama bin Laden's goals. Anyone who wants to know need only read translations of his statements.

At the top of his list was the removal of American forces from Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon obliged after 11 September.

The lack of Al Quaeda activity against the United States /may/ have something to do with the fact that AQ has already met is main stated objective.

HJohnJune 3, 2009 3:51 PM

@Curmedgeon

Perhaps, but I'm not convinced. Terrorism is a very complex problem. I see merits to the arguments of both sides, which usually puts me getting hit by traffic going both ways. I don't subscribe to either side in full. But I think Al Queda's goals are more complex than what you state.

Best,
John

CurmudgeonJune 3, 2009 4:02 PM

@HJohn:

Sorry, but anyone who claims that the Cheney administration was subject to *irrational* hatred is too deluded, ignorant, or blinded by partisan ideology to be taken seriously.

The record is very clear that the Cheney administration ignored and belittled warnings from outgoing Clinton staff, and from the intelligence services, regarding the threat posed by al Quaeda. The right wing is entitled to invent an ideological justification for why Cheney wasn't interested in Al Quaeda, but no screaming 'BDS, BDS!' entitles the right wing to invent its own facts.

HJohnJune 3, 2009 4:22 PM

Curmedgeon,

First, only someone who is unfamiliar with my posts and positions would think I'm blinded by partisan ideology. So, you must believe I'm too deluded or ignorant to be taken seriously (while you so rationally call it the Cheney Admin and say no one who doesn't agree with you can be dialogued with...and you probably think you are open minded). Well, I don't disagree with all criticisms of the Bush administration (an administration that has done great harm), but I do take issue with how off the wall far out many of them go at times, which includes you.

I hope there is more fairness to the "biden administration." (your words)

KipJune 3, 2009 4:25 PM

You're overlooking the obvious reason why there hasn't been a repeat of 9/11: The TSA has greatly improved the effectiveness of airport screening! The next time you want to grumble about the liquids, the shoes, the inconsistent rules, and various inconveniences, just remember that it all adds up to an effective multi-layered shield PROVEN to prevent another 9/11!

defconJune 3, 2009 4:34 PM

@anon, just read http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/nov/24/... and am a bit enlightened to whats really going on and went on. We could have saved allot of lives and time/money if we just listened and tried to understand these people that terrorized us. Our country as opressed and terrorized their people for hundreds of years.... Pretty deep stuff...

HJohnJune 3, 2009 4:40 PM

@Kip: "You're overlooking the obvious reason why there hasn't been a repeat of 9/11: The TSA has greatly improved the effectiveness of airport screening! The next time you want to grumble about the liquids, the shoes, the inconsistent rules, and various inconveniences, just remember that it all adds up to an effective multi-layered shield PROVEN to prevent another 9/11!"
________

That's funny (Mr. Hawkley, that you?)

As most of us here understand, the TSA hasn't prevented the next 9/11, no more than building security prevented it after the 1993 truck bombing. All it has done, like building security after the 1993 attack, is deter one tactic, and attackers will just find another.

Craig HughesJune 3, 2009 5:19 PM

The forgotten post-9/11 anthrax mailings, and of course the recent assassination of the Dr Tiller in Kansas. The shoe bomber attack was also a terrorist attack which wasn't prevented: it just failed.

Scan the following for US flags to see more terrorist attacks in the US since 9/11. I count at least 13 in addition to anthrax, Tiller and shoe-bomber in 2002,2003,2004,2005,2006,2007,2008, and 2009, most involving people being shot or bombs exploding.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...

atJune 3, 2009 7:34 PM

I think Timothy Noah did not consider yet another reason: that America hasn't been attacked again [on our soil] because Al-Qaida does not NEED to attack.

The point of an attack like 9-11 is not just inflict harm, the point of such an attack is an invitation to war and they've definitely succeeded in that. The world is a more dangerous place. The "job" is not "done" neither in Iraq nor in Afghanistan. There is instability simmering all over the place. Perhaps, being as limited in resources as they are this is the best Al-Qaida can accomplish for now? Perhaps another massive attack of innocents on American soil would bring back the good-will America gained after 9-11 and be counter-productive to their goals?


PackagedBlueJune 3, 2009 9:04 PM

"They already won." From the movie, "The Siege." How true and scary.

Good discussion question/article, "Why is Terrorism so hard?" How about also asking, "Why is civilization so hard?" See the Wikipedia link of: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...

Terrorism is not hard, Civilization is! Technology and Stasi societies also are very problematic.

As to the wikipedia links of lists of terrorist incidents, good context to the article, and the war on terrorism, but what really would be more persuasive was the DHS pdf files of reporting security events in the USA. Sorry, I can not remember the names of the released files, but I have them, too lazy to find them!

Tools needed for civilization are important...

PackagedBlueJune 3, 2009 9:36 PM

Tenets "Slam dunk" as used by Bush, well read Calm Before the Storm, by Tenet. Claims otherwise.

Comments here sure could get hot and well ugly. Grr.

I will only note my disapproval with most of the reporting/books I have read, which is a decent amount.

And I think the 9/11 commission report is LAME.

Grr, modern media.

WinterJune 4, 2009 1:33 AM

There was a post on this very blog about a report on terrorist groups. It concluded that the aim of near all terrorist groups is recruitment and perpetuating the groups existence.

Next to ordinary organized crime, of course.

In that light, most terrorist actions do really make sense. Especially, if you remove real armies with real political responsibilities from the equation.

The likes of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Taliban all have regular armies with large popular support and (past) government duties. Comparing these to small dispersed bands like Al Qaida in Iraq, the Southern Philippines Muslim army, or Farc is not helpful.

Winter

Dimitris AndrakakisJune 4, 2009 3:06 AM

@Davi : "Another was how intelligence from certain countries like Greece (the infamous cartoon warning) was dismissed"
_________________________________

Please excuse my ignorance, but what is the "infamous cartoon warning" ?


ytJune 4, 2009 5:08 AM

I remember reading this. I thought I got the link from this blog, so I'm surprised Bruce had missed it.

HJohnJune 4, 2009 7:23 AM

@PackagedBlue

It's hard to get accurate versions of stories. People have agendas. They backpedal and start some CYA. I know I've had people tell me one thing and then tell someone else a different version of the conversation than I remember. I've told people things and, like playing telephone, it is different when it arrives at a destination.

My real concern is how quick people on both sides jump any chance to bash opponents or further an agenda, rather than dialogue. For the record, the last administration made a lot of mistakes, and the current administration is doing the same. I'd rather discuss what to do than who to blame in both situations.

I think we do too much in some areas, not enough in others. I also concede that sometimes, we do not have enough information to make the optimum choice.

Best,
HJohn

AnonymousJune 4, 2009 8:34 AM

This is armchair pontification to the highest.

There are a lot of very poor Muslim countries that have no terrorism and then there is the only "educated" islamic state; the only one to build a nuke that can't shake it off.

Terrorism is the easiest thing to do - not the hardest. Most of the attacks have been done with very little training and effort. You can try 1000 and if you success rate is even 10% you are a reputable terrorist. Conventional armies spend at least 1,000,000 more effort to defend and attack and not always succeed.

You should have kept it missed - but you had to find a "reputable" explanation why there are no more big attacks against US -- wow! we found it -- while Dick was shooting his friends and W learning his alphabet - terrorists realized that it's too hard to attack US and went into their caves! Brilliant.

AnonymousJune 4, 2009 8:39 AM

@Winter:
> The likes of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Taliban all have regular armies with large popular support and (past) government duties. Comparing these to small dispersed bands like Al Qaida in Iraq, the Southern Philippines Muslim army, or Farc is not helpful.

Err, okay, but ...
FARC (all caps, as it is an acronym) has 18,000 men under arms, while the Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines peaked at 30,000 (it's descendent, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, is much smaller mainly as a result of the prolonged campaign of attrition.)

Ana al Qaeda, of course, is not really a terrorist force at all, but an networking organisation for other terrorist groups.

DavidJune 4, 2009 8:52 AM

I figure we'll know what went on in the runup to 9-11, and I rather hope in my lifetime. Right now, it's too politically charged to tell for sure.

My opinion is that, while the Bush administration did not do well, the attacks would have come no matter what. It is not possible to protect against all possible threats, and that should be the main take-away lesson.

There is no such thing as perfect security. It is always possible that attackers will hit (and more likely when the security people are in CYA mode, defending against the last attack and preferring visible to effective measures).

AnonymousJune 4, 2009 8:52 AM

> ...Muslim radicalism seems more prevalent—and certainly more visible—inside the United Kingdom, and in Western Europe generally, than it is inside the United States. ... Why the difference? Economics ...

Rather missing the elephant in the room, aren't we? All those poor, radical Muslims in the UK and France are radical not because they are poor, but poor and radical because of the history of their arrival in the homelands of their former colonial masters.

In contrast, the wealthier, less radical Muslims in the US were mostly affluent migrants seeking professional opportunities; the US was their destination simply because it was a promising option at the time.

Of course there are also a lot of convert Muslims in the US -- mainly but not exclusively black.

[...]

> According to [one] theory, the 9/11 attacks were so stunning a success that they left al-Qaida's leadership struggling to conceive and carry out an even more fearsome and destructive plan against the United States.

Except that we know of other attacks they did conceive of, but failed to carry out because of the disruption of their central organisation. Which leads to a much simpler explanation of the mystery: there *have* been subsequent successful terrorist attacks against the US, but as they were all much smaller than 9/11, they don't get as much publicity nor figure so widely in the public consciousness. On the other hand, plans on the scale of 9/11 have withered on the vine because the organisation that could have supported them, has been largely destroyed.

In short, 9/11 inoculated America to terrorism, just as the British were long ago; far from being ruled by fear, in fact no-one much cares.

Noble_SerfJune 4, 2009 8:53 AM

I don't pretend to know more than anyone else, but hindsight is the 800 lb gorilla here. How would the world look today if we had simply done a quick blitz of AQ and Taliban forces THEN moved into a Gulf I style, 750K strong ground and naval operation in Iraq? We could simply overwhelm them quickly, set up shop guarding infrastructure and oil, and walked up to arrest Saddam.

I guess that post WWII occupation of Japan turned out sooooo poorly we decided to do Iraq on the cheap?

I'd much rather have us sitting in Iraq guarding their oil production and making them rich for a while. After all, when we went into this, our force structure was designed to take and hold land, but it seems we'll never do that again.

AppSecJune 4, 2009 9:34 AM

Here's another Elephant..

What would have happened if the 9/11 attacks had failed, but the media responded with how this plan was stopped due to excellent intelligence work......

Imagine how our money would have been spent..

HJohnJune 4, 2009 10:37 AM

@AppSec: "What would have happened if the 9/11 attacks had failed, but the media responded with how this plan was stopped due to excellent intelligence work...... "
_____________

That's pretty much impossible to answer accurately. Depends on how it would have been stopped.

...no one would know 9/11 and we would not have grasped the magnitude of what was prevented.

...possible accusations of oppressing minorities/immigrants whose "crimes" were taking flight classes.

...perhaps we would have a 9/1/2001 commission investigating why an unprovoked war was launch on poor little Afghanistan.

...accusations of privacy violations depending on how the plot was uncovered.

...leaders who said the WTC was saved would be accused of fear mongering over a Movie Plot Threat.

We really don't know what has been prevented or what it's impact would be. Had 9/11 been prevented, we would have the same cluelessness we do about other things intelligence thwarted.

Measuring what isn't done is near impossible.

But I agree, money has been wasted, not even considering other costs.

Petey BJune 4, 2009 10:52 AM

These comments should really have a reply feature, gets hard to follow some times.

John CampbellJune 4, 2009 11:28 AM

Terrorism is basically just "product tampering" against the best product for the widest group of people: Civilization.

I will grant that acting civilized is hard unless you work at regulating your selfish genes.

Fast EddieJune 4, 2009 1:23 PM

@Curmudgeon

Calling it the "Cheney Administration" kinda paints you as a partisan right from the start. It erodes your credibility.

el chubboJune 5, 2009 7:24 PM

lawsy, lawsy, lawsy.

why the waffling by everyone who should know better?

it seems like whenever intelligent people [those who agree with me, of course] discuss what really happened on 9/11, there is a large consensus that it almost certainly was not perpetrated by al qaida, or any other foreign terrorists. leaving the science out of it for the moment, since there are arguments on both sides, there is a wealth of circumstantial evidence of an inside job. how inside is difficult to determine, but i'll bet my sack that cheney, giuliani, and mr. larry what's-his-face that owned the towers knew what was going down beforehand. you know, larry who said on TV that they had to "pull" building 7 because it was on fire, but failed to elaborate on how that was done, and never mentioned it again? and don't forget el busho describing at a press conference how after he left the classroom he was watching a tape of the first tower get hit, when nobody supposedly had a tape except those french guys who turned up much later.

anyway, my point is this: why is it that when the kind of people who read this blog discuss these events, and so many agree that it was not merely a terrorist plot, we can suspend all that to switch to the topic of terrorism itself, and why al qaida hasn't "struck again." well, golly, mr. wizard, maybe it's because they never struck the first time. and maybe the cheney crew hasn't struck again because it's too hard to get people to swallow that much bullshit twice in one decade.

as i've said before, and i will say again until it becomes tedious, out of all the possible parties who have a motive to commit a crime, narrow your list down to those who have all the special abilities required to commit it, and narrow it further to those who could set the stage for it to happen with no interference, and suppress the evidence afterward. pretty small list, isn't it?

PolarWolfJune 8, 2009 8:14 AM

Maybe terrorists are just practical people. Why plan and execute a terrorist attack when people are already terrorized by their own respective governments? It costs money and resources (men and material) to do so, neither of which I think are readily available in obscene quantities despite what "they" like you to believe. Currently, terrorists' goals are being met daily. People are scared, fear reigns policy and execution. All it needs is a bit of maintenance. A bottle of water here, an unattended suitcase there. Maybe throw the law enforcers a bone every once in a while by sacrificing some henchmen with some handy plot du jour.

Start to worry when we don't let our lives be dictated by terrorists and our self imposed "counter measures" anymore. Then the world is ripe for a new, proper, "terror scare".

mooJune 9, 2009 1:32 AM

From my point of view, the 9/11 attacks were such a wild success for the bad guys (look at how fearful Americans got for the last 8 years, and how many trillions of dollars they spent in response) that it hardly matters that they haven't succeeded in a similarly noticable attack since then on U.S. soil.

I think Bin Laden knew right from the beginning that if he could shock the U.S. out of its coma, they were ripe to be terrorized. And that's exactly what happened.

When I woke up on September 11, 2001 and watched the television coverage, I knew that a large reaction from the U.S. was likely and I wondered a lot what shape it would take. I have to say now, that looking back, the administration handled it pretty poorly, the media and others ruthlessly used the fear of terrorism to push their own agendas (defense industry pork, curtailing of civil liberties, the TSA, renewed efforts to censor the internet, and all sorts of other inanities)... it's been a pretty disappointing 8 years, and I don't think this trend has been reversed yet. I'm not even sure the U.S. will be able to pull out of its current economic tailspin, and spending all that money on Iraq (then and now) is sure not going to make it any easier.

SkytaleJune 15, 2009 2:15 PM

There are too many debaters with strong bias and little knowledge. The public is poorly served when those who know from being observers inside a delivery system are not allowed to speak; and those outside of any definite knowledge system theorize and speak too much and confound the minds of the common population, the public who bear the brunt of the criminal acts of terrorists.

Only a few terrorists are at the cutting edge of any plan. Most terrorists never see the shredded flesh, much like the airmen of bomber aircraft, dropping bombs to explode fireworks on unseen faces, setting plans and processes in motion to a final end that they never will see, except on the news. Most terrorists are common people and have little or no knowledge of the higher aims of their masters. They diligently, oft-times inefficiently, carry out the tasks assigned them just as any factory worker does what they are told. There are rewards, such as money payment or the kudos of being a part of world shaking events, of no longer being an insignificant lone individual but a praised member of an exclusive group. Most terrorists are ordinary people in the street of life, only a small part of their daily actions and behaviors are not ordinary, perhaps they have a dream of a new world, one where their professed beliefs actually rule. As any religious person is aware in the depths of their mind, that their cherished philosophy commanded by the dominant God of the Universe, simply does not rule in this world as it 'should'. There is fear that maybe they are wrong and to avoid this terrifying possibility, they will allow the more radical amongst them to command them and they will, under the will of another be a true servant and lash out, to kill, to dominate all who do not assent to the believers' devout beliefs.

The Conspiracy Theorists are themselves a form of terrorist, fanning the flames, hoping to find favor and dominate the minds of the long suffering public. If born into another land or culture they would bow to the local almighty, don their dagger and rush out into the chanting crowd to excite and tear down the effigy of the not-like-minded government of the land. Fear is power, power generates fear.

Terrorists blew the towers of the World Trade Center to bits; they worked long and hard and did not hide their intentions and processes to those who observed them. Only the meaning of the intelligence reports were hidden from the understanding limitations of the minds of those entrusted to run the nations. We are all in such good hands, clawed by terrorists and back-handed by governments, is it any wonder that the self-appointed experts are muddled and don't know what is going on?
Follow-on terrorist attacks have been thwarted, but that won't last forever.

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