Tag: Audrey Kurth Cronin

‘The Dumbest Terrorist In the World’?

Businessweek has a story quoting a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, Michael Wildes, speculating that Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, made so many mistakes (leaving his house keys in the car, not knowing about the vehicle identification number, making calls from his cellphone, getting filmed, buying the car himself) that he may be the “dumbest terrorist in the world.” But Wildes can’t accept the idea that an al Qaeda type terrorist would be so incompetent and suggests that Shahzad was “purposefully hapless” to generate intelligence about the police reaction for the edification of his buddies back in Pakistan.

Give me a break. This incompetence is hardly unprecedented. Three years ago Bruce Schneier wrote an article titled “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot,” describing the incompetence of several would-be al Qaeda plots in the United States and castigating commentators for clinging to image of these guys as Bond-style villains that rarely err.  It’s been six or seven years since people, including me, started pointing out that al Qaeda was wildly overrated. Back then, most people used to say that the reason al Qaeda hadn’t managed a major attack here since September 11 was because they were biding their time and wouldn’t settle for conventional bombings after that success. We are always explaining away our enemies’ failure.

The point here is not that all terrorists are incompetent – no one would call Mohammed Atta that – or that we have nothing to worry about. Even if all terrorists were amateurs like Shahzad, vulnerability to terrorism is inescapable. There are too many propane tanks, cars, and would-be terrorists to be perfectly safe from this sort of attack. The same goes for Fort Hood.

The point is that we are fortunate to have such weak enemies. We are told to expect nuclear weapons attacks, but we get faulty car bombs. We should acknowledge that our enemies, while vicious, are scattered and weak. If we paint them as the globe-trotting super-villains that they dream of being, we give them power to terrorize us that they otherwise lack. As I must have said a thousand times now, they are called terrorists for a reason.  They kill as a means to frighten us into giving them something.

The guys in Waziristan who trained Shahzad are probably embarrassed to have failed in the eyes of the world and would be relieved if we concluded that they did so intentionally. Likewise, it must have heartened the al Qaeda group in Yemen when the failed underwear bomber that they sent west set off the frenzied reaction that he did.  Remember that in March, al Qaeda’s American-born spokesperson/groupie Adam Gadahn said this:

Even apparently unsuccessful attacks on Western mass transportation systems can bring major cities to a halt, cost the enemy billions and send his corporations into bankruptcy.

As our enemies realize, the bulk of harm from terrorism comes from our reaction to it.  Whatever role its remnants or fellow-travelers had in this attempt, al Qaeda (or whatever we want to call the loosely affiliated movement of internationally-oriented jihadists) is failing. They have a shrinking foothold in western Pakistan, maybe one in Yemen, and little more. Elsewhere they are hidden and hunted. Their popularity is waning worldwide. Their capability is limited. The predictions made after September 11 of waves of similar or worse attacks were wrong. This threat is persistent but not existential.

This attempt should also remind us of another old point: our best counterterrorism tools are not air strikes or army brigades but intelligence agents, FBI agents, and big city police.  It’s true that because nothing but bomber error stopped this attack, we cannot draw strong conclusions from it about what preventive measures work best. But the aftermath suggests that what is most likely to prevent the next attack is a criminal investigation conducted under normal laws and the intelligence leads it generates. Domestic counterterrorism is largely coincident with ordinary policing. The most important step in catching the would-be bomber here appears to have been getting the vehicle identification number off the engine and rapidly interviewing the person who sold it. Now we are seemingly gathering significant intelligence about bad actors in Pakistan under standard interrogation practices.

These are among the points explored in the volume Chris Preble, Jim Harper and I edited: Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix It – now hot off the presses. Contributors include Audrey Kurth Cronin, Paul Pillar, John Mueller, Mia Bloom, and a bunch of other smart people.

We’re discussing the book and counterterrorism policy at Cato on May 24th,  at 4 PM. Register to attend or watch online here.

The Third Strategic Actor

I agree with Chris Preble’s assessment of Steve Simon’s opinion piece in the New York Times Tuesday. Why We Should Put Jihad on Trial” is animated by a sound understanding of the strategic logic of terrorism. Simon knows that the proper response is outclassing terrorists in terms of ideology and legitimacy. Trying KSM transparently in New York is just, and doing justice is powerful counterterrorism. The procedural and security fears about it are poorly founded.

It’s useful to compare another opinion piece, written with welcome thought and care, but missing a key point about counterterrorism. In “Holder’s al Qaeda Incentive Plan,” Wall Street Journal “Main Street” columnist William McGurn assesses the incentive structure terrorists face if they are accorded the niceties of a trial should they attack civilians in the United States, compared to the rough treatment they would and should expect were they caught attacking U.S. troops on a foreign battlefield.

It’s a troublesome irony, and it’s very smart on McGurn’s part to game out the thinking of terrorists rather than indulging impulses to react as they would have us do. But terrorists are not the actors a trial in New York is most meant to influence.

In her book, How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns, U.S. National War College professor of strategy Audrey Kurth Cronin writes:

Most people think of terrorism as a dichotomous struggle between a group and a government. However, given their highly leveraged nature, terrorist campaigns involve three strategic actors—the group, the government, and the audience—arrayed in a kind of terrorist “triad.” More specifically, the three dimensions are the group that uses terrorism to achieve an objective, the government representing the direct target of their attacks, and the audiences who are influenced by the violence.

Similarly, at Cato’s counterterrorism conference, I argued that terrorism seeks to induce overreaction on the part of victim states, driving support to terrorists from their geographical and ideological neighbors. Declining to overreact, and having the discipline to meticulously accord terror suspects fair treatment, dissipates the gains terrorists want and expect: increased support from their neighbors.

This is why a public trial—for all its costs and complexities—is worth doing. It’s to gain advantage with the third strategic actor.

Fort Hood: Reaction, Response, and Rejoinder

Commentary on the Fort Hood incident can be categorized three ways: reaction, response, and rejoinder (commentary on the commentary).

Reactions generally consist of pundits pouring their preconceptions over what is known of the facts. These are the least worthy of our time, and rejoinders like this one from Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University in the Fort Hood section of The Politico’s Arena blog dispense with them well:

Of course [Fort Hood] is being politicized; there is no issue that is immune to exploitation by politicians and media commentators. The problem is that there are an infinite number of “lessons” one can draw from a tragic event like this — the strain on our troops from a foolish war, the impact of hateful ideas from the fringe of a great religion (and most religions have them), the individual demons that drove one individual to a violent and senseless act, etc., — and so no limits to the ways it can be used by irresponsible politicians (is that redundant?) and pundits.

My favorite response—by “response,” I mean careful, productive analysis—was written last year as a general admonition about events like this (which at least has terrorist connotations):

Above all else is the imperative to think beyond the passions of those who are hurt, frightened or angry. Policymakers who become caught up in the short-term goals and spectacle of terrorist attacks relinquish the broader historical perspective and phlegmatic approach that is crucial to the reassertion of state power. Their goal must be to think strategically and avoid falling into the trap of reacting narrowly and directly to the violent initiatives taken by these groups.

That’s Audrey Kurth Cronin, Professor of Strategy at the U.S. National War College in her monograph, Ending Terrorism: Lessons for Defeating al-Qaeda.

But I want to turn to a critique leveled against my recent post, ”The Search for Answers in Fort Hood,” which discussed how little Fort Hood positions us to prevent similar incidents in the future. (I hope it was response and not reaction, but readers can judge for themselves.)

A thoughtful Cato colleague emailed me suggesting that there may have been enough indication in Nidal Hasan’s behavior—in particular, correspondence with Anwar al-Awlaki—to stop him before his shooting spree.

There may have been. Current reporting has it that his communications with al-Awlaki were picked up and examined, but because they were about a research paper that he was in fact writing, he was deemed not to merit any further investigation.

This can only be called error with the benefit of hindsight. And it tells us nothing about what might prevent a future attack, which was my subject.

If humans were inert objects, investigators could simply tweak the filter that caused this false negative to occur. They could not only investigate the people who contact known terrorists as they did Nidal Hassan, they could know to disregard claimed academic interests. Poof! The next Nidal Hassan would be thwarted at a small cost to actual researchers.

But future attacks are not like past attacks. Tweaking the filter to eliminate this source of false negatives would simply increase false positives without homing in on the next attacker. Terrorists and terrorist wannabes will change their behavior based on known and imagined measures to thwart them. Nobody’s going to be emailing this al-Awlaki guy for a while.

In “Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining,” IBM distinguished engineer Jeff Jonas and I used examples from medicine to illustrate the problem of false positives when searching for terrorism in large data sets, concluding:

The question is not simply one of medical ethics or Fourth Amendment law but one of resources. The expenditure of resources needed to investigate 3,000,000, 15,000,000, or 30,000,000 fellow citizens is not practical from a budgetary point of view, to say nothing of the risk that millions of innocent people would likely be under the microscope of progressively more invasive surveillance as they were added to suspect lists by successive data-mining operations.

The same problems exist here, where tens of thousands of leads may present themselves to investigators each year. They must balance the likelihood of harm coming to U.S. interests against the rights of U.S. citizens and the costs of investigating all these potential suspects.

Armchair terror warriors may criticize these conclusions a variety of ways, believing that post hoc outrage or limitless grants of money and power to government can produce investigative perfection. (n.b. Getting victim states to dissipate their own money and power is how terrorism does its work.) But none can accurately say based on currently available facts that anyone made an error. Much less can anyone say that we know any better how to prevent essentially random violent incidents like this in the future.

Is the U.S. Government Behaving Strategically With Regard to Al Qaeda?

To its credit, the Department of Homeland Security distributes important documents via email. (Subscribe on their home page by scrolling down to find the “Subscribe to E-mail Updates:” box in the right column, then select your preferences.)

Yesterday DHS sent me a copy of the written testimony by Michael E. Leiter, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, for a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing titled: “Eight Years After 9/11: Confronting the Terrorist Threat to the Homeland.”

As I read Leiter’s (relatively brief) testimony, I wondered how well it squares with the strategic counsel offered by Audrey Kurth Cronin, Professor of Strategy at the U.S. National War College, Senior Research Associate in the Changing Character of War Programme at Oxford University, and a participant in Cato’s January counterterrorism strategy conference.

In her Institute for International Strategic Studies paper, “Ending Terrorism: Lessons for Defeating Al-Qaeda,” she offered several counterterrorism strategy pointers:

The first prong of a successful strategy to counter al-Qaeda’s terrorism is to clarify to audiences around the globe exactly what al-Qaeda is and what it is not. This is not just of academic interest. It is partly because there is so much vague use of the name ‘al-Qaeda’ that it seems superhuman and ubiquitious… . When politicians and experts employ the term ‘al-Qaeda’ loosely, they help its propagandists to construct and perpetuate their desired image and to mobilise support.

Violent internal cleavages and bickering are endemic to the al-Qaeda movement, and have been from the outset, and the second prong in a successful strategy against al-Qaeda is consciously to exploit them.


The third element in a successful strategy against al-Qaeda is to disaggregate the many elements of the movement and develop more sophisticated, targeted counter-terrorism policies tailored to its constituent parts. The aim must be to enlarge the movement’s internal inconsistencies and differences … .

At our counterterrorism conference, terrorism expert Marc Sageman similarly said, “We often unify our enemies needlessly… . Let’s not unify our enemy and give it strength that way.”  (If you don’t watch all of panel III, you can start at minute 66.)

Read Michael E. Leiter’s testimony for yourself and see how well it reflects the counsel of these experts.