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.