Entries Tagged "al Qaeda"

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Jeffrey Rosen on the Department of Homeland Security

Excellent article:

The same elements of psychology lead people to exaggerate the likelihood of terrorist attacks: Images of terrifying but highly unusual catastrophes on television—such as the World Trade Center collapsing—are far more memorable than images of more mundane and more prevalent threats, like dying in car crashes. Psychologists call this the “availability heuristic,” in which people estimate the probability of something occurring based on how easy it is to bring examples of the event to mind.

As a result of this psychological bias, large numbers of Americans have overestimated the probability of future terrorist strikes: In a poll conducted a few weeks after September 11, respondents saw a 20 percent chance that they would be personally harmed in a terrorist attack within the next year and nearly a 50 percent chance that the average American would be harmed. Those alarmist predictions, thankfully, proved to be wrong; in fact, since September 11, international terrorism has killed only a few hundred people per year around the globe, as John Mueller points out in Overblown. At the current rates, Mueller argues, the lifetime probability of any resident of the globe being killed by terrorism is just one in 80,000.

This public anxiety is the central reason for both the creation of DHS and its subsequent emphasis on showy prevention measures, which Schneier calls a form of “security theater.” But that raises a question: Even if DHS doesn’t actually make us safer, could its existence still be justified if reducing the public’s fears leads to tangible economic benefits? “If the public’s response is based on irrational, emotional fears, it may be reasonable for the government to do things that make us feel better, even if those don’t make us safer in a rational sense, because if they feel better, people will fly on planes and behave in a way that’s good for the economy,” Tierney told me. But the psychological impact of DHS still has to be subject to cost-benefit analysis: On balance, is the government actually calming people rather than making them more nervous? Tierney argues convincingly that the same public fears that encourage government officials to spend money on flashy preventive measures also encourage them to exaggerate the terrorist threat. “It’s very difficult for a government official to come out and say anything like, ‘Let’s put this threat in perspective,'” he told me. “If they were to do so, and there isn’t a terrorist attack, they get no credit; and, if there is, that’s the end of their career.” Of course, no government official feels this pressure more acutely than the head of homeland security. And so, even as DHS seeks to tamp down public fears with expensive and often wasteful preventive measures, it may also be encouraging those fears—which, in turn, creates ever more public demand for spending on prevention.

Michael Chertoff’s public comments about terrorism embody this dilemma: Despite his laudable efforts to speak soberly and responsibly about terrorism—and to argue that there are many kinds of attacks we simply can’t prevent—the incentives associated with his job have led him at times to increase, rather than diminish, public anxiety. Last March he declared that, “if we don’t recognize the struggle we are in as a significant existential struggle, then it is going to be very hard to maintain the focus.” If nuclear attacks aren’t likely and smaller events aren’t existential threats, I asked, why did he say the war on terrorism is a “significant existential struggle”? “To me, existential is a threat that shakes the core of a society’s confidence and causes a significant and long-lasting line of damage to the country,” he replied. But it would take a series of weekly Virginia Tech-style shootings or London-style subway bombings to shake the core of American confidence; and Al Qaeda hasn’t come close to mustering that frequency of low-level attacks in any Western democracy since September 11. “Terrorism kills a certain number of people, and so do forest fires,” Mueller told me. “If terrorism is merely killing certain numbers of people, then it’s not an existential threat, and money is better spent on smoke alarms or forcing people to wear seat belts instead of chasing terrorists.”

Posted on January 30, 2009 at 11:38 AMView Comments

Matthew Alexander on Torture

Alexander is a former Special Operations interrogator who worked in Iraq in 2006. His op-ed is worth reading:

I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It’s no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me—unless you don’t count American soldiers as Americans.

Also, this interview from Harper’s:

In Iraq, we lived the “ticking time bomb” scenario every day. Numerous Al Qaeda members that we captured and interrogated were directly involved in coordinating suicide bombing attacks. I remember one distinct case of a Sunni imam who was caught just after having blessed suicide bombers to go on a mission. Had we gotten there just an hour earlier, we could have saved lives. Still, we knew that if we resorted to torture the short term gains would be outweighed by the long term losses. I listened time and time again to foreign fighters, and Sunni Iraqis, state that the number one reason they had decided to pick up arms and join Al Qaeda was the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the authorized torture and abuse at Guantanamo Bay. My team of interrogators knew that we would become Al Qaeda’s best recruiters if we resorted to torture. Torture is counterproductive to keeping America safe and it doesn’t matter if we do it or if we pass it off to another government. The result is the same. And morally, I believe, there is an even stronger argument. Torture is simply incompatible with American principles. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln both forbade their troops from torturing prisoners of war. They realized, as the recent bipartisan Senate report echoes, that this is about who we are. We cannot become our enemy in trying to defeat him.

EDITED TO ADD (1/13): Yet another interview.

Posted on December 30, 2008 at 6:37 AMView Comments

FBI Stoking Fear

Another unsubstantiated terrorist plot:

An internal memo obtained by The Associated Press says the FBI has received a “plausible but unsubstantiated” report that al-Qaida terrorists in late September may have discussed attacking the subway system.


The internal bulletin says al-Qaida terrorists “in late September may have discussed targeting transit systems in and around New York City. These discussions reportedly involved the use of suicide bombers or explosives placed on subway/passenger rail systems,” according to the document.

“We have no specific details to confirm that this plot has developed beyond aspirational planning, but we are issuing this warning out of concern that such an attack could possibly be conducted during the forthcoming holiday season,” according to the warning dated Tuesday.


Rep. Peter King, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, said authorities “have very real specifics as to who it is and where the conversation took place and who conducted it.”

“It certainly involves suicide bombing attacks on the mass transit system in and around New York and it’s plausible, but there’s no evidence yet that it’s in the process of being carried out,” King said.

Knocke, the DHS spokesman, said the warning was issued “out of an abundance of caution going into this holiday season.”

Got that: “plausible but unsubstantiated,” “may have discussed attacking the subway system,” “specific details to confirm that this plot has developed beyond aspirational planning,” “attack could possibly be conducted,” “it’s plausible, but there’s no evidence yet that it’s in the process of being carried out.”

I have no specific details, but I want to warn everybody today that fiery rain might fall from the sky. Terrorists may have discussed this sort of tactic, possibly at one of their tequila-fueled aspirational planning sessions. While there is no evidence yet that the plan is in the process of being carried out, I want to be extra-cautious this holiday season. Ho ho ho.

Posted on November 27, 2008 at 12:27 PMView Comments

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 PMView Comments

Mujahideen Secrets 2

Mujahideen Secrets 2 is a new version of an encryption tool, ostensibly written to help Al Qaeda members encrypt secrets as they communicate on the Internet.

A bunch of sites have covered this story, and a couple of security researchers are quoted in the various articles. But quotes like this make you wonder if they have any idea what they’re talking about:

Mujahideen Secrets 2 is a very compelling piece of software, from an encryption perspective, according to Henry. He said the new tool is easy to use and provides 2,048-bit encryption, an improvement over the 256-bit AES encryption supported in the original version.

No one has explained why a terrorist would use this instead of PGP—perhaps they simply don’t trust anything coming from a U.S. company. But honestly, this isn’t a big deal at all: strong encryption software has been around for over fifteen years now, either cheap or free. And the NSA probably breaks most of the stuff by guessing the password, anyway. Unless the whole program is an NSA plant, that is.

My question: the articles claim that the program uses several encryption algorithms, including RSA and AES. Does it use Blowfish or Twofish?

Posted on February 8, 2008 at 5:39 AMView Comments

Al Qaeda Recruiting Non-Muslims

This is an awful fear-mongering story about non-Muslims being recruited in the UK:

As many as 1,500 white Britons are believed to have converted to Islam for the purpose of funding, planning and carrying out surprise terror attacks inside the UK, according to one MI5 source.

This quote is particularly telling:

One British security source last night told Scotland on Sunday: “There could be anything up to 1,500 converts to the fundamentalist cause across Britain. They pose a real potential danger to our domestic security because, obviously, these people blend in and do not raise any flags.

Because the only “flag” that can possibly identify terrorists is that they’re Muslim, right?

Posted on January 24, 2008 at 8:55 AMView Comments

Fear Is Unhealthy

The New York Times writes about a plausible connection between fear and heart disease:

Which is more of a threat to your health: Al Qaeda or the Department of Homeland Security?

An intriguing new study suggests the answer is not so clear-cut. Although it’s impossible to calculate the pain that terrorist attacks inflict on victims and society, when statisticians look at cold numbers, they have variously estimated the chances of the average person dying in America at the hands of international terrorists to be comparable to the risk of dying from eating peanuts, being struck by an asteroid or drowning in a toilet.

But worrying about terrorism could be taking a toll on the hearts of millions of Americans. The evidence, published last week in the Archives of General Psychiatry, comes from researchers who began tracking the health of a representative sample of more than 2,700 Americans before September 2001. After the attacks of Sept. 11, the scientists monitored people’s fears of terrorism over the next several years and found that the most fearful people were three to five times more likely than the rest to receive diagnoses of new cardiovascular ailments.


After controlling for various factors (age, obesity, smoking, other ailments and stressful life events), the researchers found that the people who were acutely stressed after the 9/11 attacks and continued to worry about terrorism—about 6 percent of the sample—were at least three times more likely than the others in the study to be given diagnoses of new heart problems.

If you extrapolate that percentage to the adult population of America, it works out to more than 10 million people. No one knows what fraction of them might consequently die of a stroke or heart attack—plenty of other factors affect heart disease—but if it were merely 0.0003 percent, that would be higher than the 9/11 death toll.

Of course, statistics of any sort, even when the numbers are rock solid, don’t mean much to people when they’re assessing threats. Risk researchers have found that even when people know the numbers, they’re less worried about death tolls than about how the deaths occur. They have good reasons—called “rival rationalities”?—for fearing catastrophes that kill large numbers at once because these events affect the whole community and damage the social fabric.

It doesn’t surprise me that fear of terrorism is more harmful than actual terrorism. That’s the whole point of terrorism: an amplification of fear through the mass media.

Refuse to be terrorized:

The point of terrorism is to cause terror, sometimes to further a political goal and sometimes out of sheer hatred. The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics. The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act.

And we’re doing exactly what the terrorists want.


The surest defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to recognize that terrorism is just one of the risks we face, and not a particularly common one at that. And our job is to fight those politicians who use fear as an excuse to take away our liberties and promote security theater that wastes money and doesn’t make us any safer.

Posted on January 17, 2008 at 7:35 AMView Comments

Al Qaeda Hacker Attack to Begin Sunday

At least that’s what they said two weeks ago:

On Sunday, Nov. 11, al Qaeda’s electronic experts will start attacking Western, Jewish, Israeli, Muslim apostate and Shiite Web sites. On Day One, they will test their skills against 15 targeted sites expand the operation from day to day thereafter until hundreds of thousands of Islamist hackers are in action against untold numbers of anti-Muslim sites.

I think this is nonsense. We’ll see who’s right next week.

Posted on November 9, 2007 at 6:44 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.