Rare Rational Comment on al Qaeda's Capabilities

From “CNN national security analyst” Peter Bergen:

Few Americans harbor irrational fears about being killed by a lightning bolt. Abu Yahya al-Libi’s death on Monday should remind them that fear of al Qaeda in its present state is even more irrational.

Will anyone listen?

Posted on June 15, 2012 at 6:51 AM29 Comments


Reader June 15, 2012 7:09 AM

Why blame the victim now? The fear was intentionally and convincingly created within the population by the authorities and their agendas.

Alan Kaminsky June 15, 2012 7:25 AM

And yet, al-Libi himself was killed by a bolt out of the blue from a CIA drone.

Lord Yarlble June 15, 2012 9:05 AM

Lightning? Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tesla shocked one end of a victim while Edison shocked the other, using both AC and DC to kill them — that is, long before I’d expect any genuine al Qaeda around here. I think both are relatively low probabilities. What is not improbable, however, is an FBI-cultivated freak, but even the risks there are low; they (FBI) usually foil things before anyone loses an eye. But as we all know, ignorance, automobiles, transfats, smooth jazz, doctors, cannibals, bureaucrats, armed neurotics, solar flares, mad cows and a host of other grievous abominations lurk behind nearly any random inch of our beloved states. And we are very close to Canada, and you know what that means! Canadians.

Miles_B June 15, 2012 9:32 AM

I grew up not 13 miles from the Canadian border, and I always wondered why they never completed that minefield – we’ve had Canadians sneaking into our country for years. Mark my words, if they’re not stopped you will wake up one morning to find vinegar on your Freedom Fries.

Beware the Canadian Threat!

Clive Robinson June 15, 2012 9:40 AM

AQ might be nearly defunct because of US counter strikes, then again is it?

The US have a habit of lumping most acts under the AQ banner (which the US actually invented and thus creating a rallying point).

The question thus becomes, “Is the high attrition rate responsable for driving would be terrorists in other directions?” or perhaps “Has US boots on the ground and thus IED’s etc become the more honourable way to kill the Great Satan?”

If the former then the article is right, if the latter the withdrawal of coalition troops may will cause an increase in US soil attacks…

However since Arab Spring I suspect that few have any taste or wish for self immolation on foreign soil, thus AQ might just have been passed by history.

@ Lord Yarlble

On your list you forgot that “Pure White and Deadly” drug that gives more American’s early deaths than anything else you might call it sugar, but it’s certain death for many.

Figureitout June 15, 2012 10:39 AM

Short answer: No.

Long answer: Probably not. But now we have an “industrial complex” that isn’t going anywhere in the near future and is starting to see its source of nourishment drying up. We just need a new boogieman, maybe like what “Lord Yarlble” and “Miles_B” we’re getting at, Canadians…But not just any Canadians, eh? But the Gay-Porn-Star-Canadian-Psycho-Cannibalistic type, eh?

Regarding lightning, if you’ve ever had a bolt strike very near you (like me), you’ll be a little frightened, it’s so loud and it shakes the ground; it even triggered alarms in my residence. Probably the same with a terror attack (my dad was flying through NYC on 9/11). I don’t care how brave you think you are, getting caught out on a run in an insane lighting storm with huge bolts touching the ground on either side of you is absolutely terrifying. Heat lighting, however, is probably the coolest natural phenomenon to witness with just your eyes, as it snakes along the clouds. Plus it tends to stay up in the skies and thus not electrifying you 🙂

Stephen Smoogen June 15, 2012 11:29 AM

Well people respond differently to irrational fears depending on what it is based off of. Lightening is a non-human threats and don’t see to trigger anxiety. Make the threat connected to being a human being that you aren’t connected to and anxiety levels go up. [People, in general, get more anxious about man-made lightening experiments than they do about storms.. because it has now a face connected to it. ]

Too Much Success June 15, 2012 11:35 AM

I wonder if the AQ realized their terrorism could be so effective that the US would continue such a high level of attacks and expenditures for so long.

Tin Man June 15, 2012 12:41 PM


Could US cyberspies have moles inside Microsoft?

“US government officials could be working under cover at Microsoft to help the country’s cyber-espionage programme, according to one leading security expert.

The warning comes in the wake of the Flame virus that targeted key computers in the Middle East, and in part used confidential Microsoft certificates in order to access machines.

According to Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at security firm F-Secure, the claim is a logical conclusion to a series of recent discoveries and disclosures linking the US government to 2010’s Stuxnet attack on Iran and ties between Stuxnet and the recent Flame attack.

“The announcement that links Flame to Stuxnet and the conclusive proof that Stuxnet was a US tool means that Flame is also linked to the US government,” Hypponen said.”

““This makes you think that this breach of Microsoft’s update system was done by the Americans and most likely a US agency, someone like the NSA,” Hypponen said. “That must make Microsoft mad as hell that its most critical system, used by 900 million of its customers, was breached by fellow Americans.””



US Security Services May ‘Have Moles Within Microsoft,’ Says Researcher

Johnston June 15, 2012 1:07 PM

Some will.

Many, many more will watch 24, which shows the main character saving the nation by torturing people.

It’s a numbers game that rationality is losing.

Anon Y. Mouse June 15, 2012 1:09 PM


William Shatner, Neil Young, Celine Dion, Alex Trebek, Jim Carrey… the list goes on and on.
The Canadian invasion of the U.S. has been occuring for decades… even poutine has
penetrated our borders. Where is the DHS when it really matters?

John Macdonald June 15, 2012 1:35 PM

Decades? Remember Mary Pickford – “America’s sweetheart”? (Most of you probably don’t – she was before my time, from the silent movie era.) Raymond Burr (Perry Mason). Lorne Green (Pa Cartwright). Christopher Plummer.

BF SKinner June 15, 2012 1:41 PM

Just started Weiners Enemies: A History of the FBI. If you want to see terrifying parrallels to DHS and Al Kida read about Hoover the creation of the FBI and the Red Menance

Jenny Juno June 15, 2012 3:43 PM


I watched every episode of 24 and it seemed to me that almost every instance of Jack Bauer torturing someone backfired on him in one way or another. For example, he tortured his own brother who told him a true but not useful secret in order to stop the torture, letting him keep the really big tactical secret. Bauer also tortured one of his own employees who was totally innocent, and when they needed her help later on she told them to go screw. There were plenty more like that over the seasons.

Despite all the pro-torture hype about 24, I came away with the distinct impression that in the world of 24, torture was pretty unreliable. On the other hand, it might not seem that way to a casual viewer since the failings of torture were typically revealed in episodes seperate from the episode in which that actual torture occured.

Michael Brady June 16, 2012 12:31 AM

It’s too late to listen. Ten years and two trillion dollars later the AQ threat has become part of our narrative and the institutions spawned in the turbulence created by 9/11 have become self-sustaining entities that no politician will ever dare touch. Have a nice weekend, everyone.

Julien Couvreur June 16, 2012 10:50 AM

When you think about risk evaluation and related policy discussions you realize a fundamental difficulty: many risks cannot be quantified or predicted.

Clearly insurance businesses are able to quantify and predict some risks, otherwise they could not run a successful business. But can we really predict risks of terrorist attack, even on aggregate time periods?

Statistics do give us a historical measure. But why would that number still hold in the future?

If we can’t quantify such future risks, how do we debate comparative risks and impacts of alternative policies rationally?

Johnston June 16, 2012 1:14 PM

@Jenny Juno

Okay. I saw only one episode where Bauer was torturing a guy to gain “intelligence” to stop some Africans (what?) from committing a terrorist attack in DC. In that episode, the president of the USA said it was wrong that the torture victim was free and Bauer was in custody (for torturing someone), and seemed to support torture. Characters in that episode also asserted that although Bauer’s methods were deplorable, he always had the best results among them.

I think this has a more immediate, emotional, and longterm impact in people, than subsequent doubts raised in later episodes.

On another note… why is a serial torturer not in jail for crimes against humanity, and does the average viewer want Bauer arrested, tried, convicted, sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity, and kicked off the show? What message is thus emphasized?

I don’t think the average viewer saw the show quite like you did.

Speedball June 17, 2012 7:51 AM

@Michael Brady

Only until the next ‘threat’ comes along.  We hear a lot less these days about evil commie reds-under-the-bed (who were the previous excuse for wasting trillions of our dollars).  Have the commies and not-really-commies-any-more stopped being evil?  You judge.  But now they hold lots of our debt and we need their help over Syria and elsewhere.  So AQ is a wonderful, convenient alternative to scare the American people with.  You might almost think…  no, no, of course not.

Dirk Praet June 17, 2012 6:39 PM

Will anyone listen ?

I don’t think so. I wonder if either POTUS or anyone in the USG or Congress remembers the exit speech of a certain Dwight D. Eisenhower on January 17th, 1961. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8y06NSBBRtY ) . He too must be spinning in his grave faster than the centrifuges at Natanz after Stuxnet.

Steven June 18, 2012 9:31 AM

My benchmark for risks is auto accidents.

Auto accidents kill ~100 people/day in the U.S. (Latest stats are a bit lower than that, probably because the recession has reduced driving.)

Whenever I hear about a threat, I ask, “Is it killing 100 people/day, every day?” And if it isn’t, I fasten my seat belt and I don’t worry about it too much.

phred14 June 18, 2012 11:16 AM

There is an underlying assumption to much news on the “War on Terror”, and that is that AQ has an org chart. We seem to have crammed them into our corporate/military administrative models, and are attacking them based on those models. Maybe that’s true, maybe that’s a good model. But maybe it’s not, and/or maybe AQ will get smart enough to adopt a different command/control scheme, especially if they didn’t inform us, and left us fighting them using our current model.

Makes you wonder if the AQ rank-and-file grumble about H1b visas, or whatever their equivalent is.

mendl June 18, 2012 12:05 PM

I appreciate many of the insights provided by you Mr. Schneier, however I would take exception with the idea that a fear of AQ is irrational. In the first place it seems that PC has forced our leaders into the unenviable position of not being able to adequately identify the threat or where it comes from and secondly the inability of our leadership to educate us with respect to it. Any religious zealot deserves a healthy fear, how much more so those who espouse and act upon a murderous hatred of others.

Derkastan June 18, 2012 5:34 PM

Where was this guy circa 2001-now?
Probably ratcheting up the fear on some cable news network holding a gas mask in one hand and koran in the other

tensor June 18, 2012 11:09 PM

Interesting thoughts on “24”, not one minute of which I have ever seen. Keifer Sutherland had this observation:

“The use of torture in the show is simply used as a dramatic device to show the urgency of a situation. It was never meant as some kind of validating this kind of behavior in the real world. It’s a television show. So the results he gets help him move the plot forward.”

Also, as I understand it, Mr. Bauer failed to prevent a number of terrorist attacks.

BTW, this crowd is FAR more likely to remember Lorne Greene as the original Commander Adama of the Battlestar Galactica!

AC2 June 19, 2012 5:25 AM

“BTW, this crowd is FAR more likely to remember Lorne Greene as the original Commander Adama of the Battlestar Galactica!”

Nope, as Professor Whatsisname from Dexter Season 6…

Jonadab June 19, 2012 6:41 PM

Few Americans harbor irrational fears
about being killed by a lightning bolt.

You might be surprised at how widespread that fear is. There are a lot of irrational people. In my experience most Americans are afraid to go outside when there’s thunder, even in neighborhoods full of two-story houses with TV antenna towers.

I even have a coworker who is afraid to be in direct line-of-sight to a window during a thunderstorm. This is a closed window, of the type that doesn’t open, in a public building with the usual amount of grounding. She’s afraid to be across a large open room from it without an intervening wall. The lightning, don’t you know, might come in through the window then arc right across the room and “get” her.

Do I need to mention spiders?

I just wish we could get a few more people to be afraid of motor vehicle accidents.

Wael June 19, 2012 7:27 PM

@ jonadab

Then again, these irrational people maybe rational after all! These incidents get a lot of attention in the news. Spiders? Eeeeeeew, do you know what a brown recluse or a black widow can do to you? I know what a scorpion can do to you, first hand (hand and face). Spiders are worse. An ex-colleague once put a tarantula and a scorpion together to see who wins. The tarantula kicked the scorpions’ butt 🙂


me June 20, 2012 7:11 PM

Yeah, you could be the roughest tumble, most experienced outdoorsman ever to grace humanity and one teeny lil’ spider can bring you down.

You go to bed with a fever and you wake up dead.

Ticks can be similar. They may not bring you down overnight, but they can still make you pretty sick since they vomit into your blood stream if you disturb them too much.

Where’s the tick control for humans in all the defense money spent? I want answers, and I want ’em NOW!!


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