Tag: john mueller

Al Qaeda: Never an ‘Existential Threat’

My Washington Examiner column this week celebrates 10 years without a major follow-up attack on American soil, and argues that the main reason the United States has been terror-free for a decade isn’t the unparalleled competence of the federal government’s terror warriors—it’s the fact that al Qaeda was never an “existential threat.”

I’ve written a number of columns and blogposts making the same point over the years, and yet, every time I write something that says “al Qaeda’s not so terrifying,” I feel compelled to knock wood, genuflecting to the superstition that merely saying ”we’re pretty safe” out loud will jinx us, and the moment a piece is published, the terrorists will morph into villains worthy of TV’s 24, moving from ineffectual gas-can bombs to nukes.

So far, though, it seems there wasn’t much reason to worry.

Last week, the Washington Post ran a piece entitled, “Who got 9/11 right, and who got it wrong? A pundit score card.” The Post erred badly by not including the distinguished political scientist and friend of Cato, John Mueller, who started making the case that the al Qaeda threat was overblown back when duct tape alerts were the “new normal.” I can’t think of any other prominent figure who got it right as early and as often as Mueller did.

As long as we’re giving credit for prescience, though, I’d like to toot my own horn (sure, it’s graceless, but nobody else is volunteering for the job).

As a larval pundit pecking away in obscurity through the early aughties, I suspected, before I’d ever read Mueller, that the al Qaeda threat was overblown—and I made that case wherever I could.

In September 2002, I reviewed Peter Bergen’s Holy War, Inc. for Liberty magazine:  “Osama bin Laden: Not as Scary as You Think” (.pdf ). In it, I asked whether al Qaeda was “as dangerous as federal powergrabbers have led us to believe.”

After recounting what Bergen reported about Mohamed Odeh, an al Qaeda operative involved in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Tanzania—who botched his own escape by trying to convince Pakistani immigration officials that terrorism was “the right thing to do for Islam,”—I ventured that “a lot of these folks don’t sound all that bright.” (Since then, I’ve become even more convinced that these guys were never the sharpest scimitars in the shed.)

In December 2002, when my now-defunct blog was young and DC was waiting for the other shoe to drop after 9/11, I wondered “What if There Isn’t Another Shoe?”: “If the American Jihad/mullahs under the bed/the-country-is-riddled-with-sleeper-cells theory is correct, then why so quiet?” I suggested: “maybe there aren’t that many of them,” which turned out to be true. (Here’s a reference, and you can find the original if you go here and scroll down.)

Ten years later, it’s heartening to know that what was once a fringe position—and a marker of being “unserious” about terrorism—is fast becoming the conventional wisdom.

‘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.

Terrorism Is Not an Existential Threat, But Fear Doesn’t Care About That

Last week, coincidence brought together a pair of worthy articles attacking the political adage that terrorism is an “existential” threat.

Gene Healy debunked “existential” in his Examiner column. “Conservatives understand that exaggerated fears of environmental threats make government grow and liberty shrink,” he writes. “They’d do well to recognize that the same dynamic applies to homeland security.”

John Mueller and Mark Stewart, meanwhile, have an article on Foreign Affairs’ web site titled: “Hardly Existential: Thinking Rationally About Terrorism.” They show that conventional assessment methods place terrorism so low on the scale of risks that additional spending to further reduce its likelihood or consequences is probably not justified.

But some readers literally can’t absorb what appears in the two paragraphs above. You might be one of them.

Exquisitely rational arguments like these are “cognitively invisible” in the face of fear, as Priscilla Lewis puts it in the forthcoming Cato book Terrorizing Ourselves. I assume the arguments of Healy, Mueller, and Stewart will be dismissed out of hand by people who view terrorism through their personal lens of fear.

Mueller and Stewart touch on this problem briefly:

Because they are so blatantly intentional, deaths resulting from terrorism do, of course, arouse special emotions. And they often have wide political ramifications, as citizens demand that politicians “do something.” Many people therefore consider them more significant and more painful to endure than deaths by other causes. But quite a few dangers, particularly ones concerning pollution and nuclear power plants, also stir considerable political and emotional feelings, and these have been taken into account by regulators when devising their assessments of risk acceptability.

We know enough to be confident of our security. The questions remaining include: How do we convince others to join the ranks of the indomitable Americans? How do we undercut the political advantage taken of terror fears? And how do we rein in the massive government growth produced by terror politics?

The Art of Foreign Policy Punditry

Foreign Policy magazine performs an important public service, publishing a compendium of the “top 10 worst predictions for 2009.” My favorite?

If we do nothing, I can guarantee you that within a decade, a communist Chinese regime that hates democracy and sees America as its primary enemy will dominate the tiny country of Panama, and thus dominate the Panama Canal, one of the worlds most important strategic points.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Dec. 7, 1999

Rohrabacher made this alarming prediction during a debate on the U.S. handover of the Panama Canal. His fellow hawk, retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, even warned that China could sneak missiles into Panama and use the country as a staging ground for an attack on the United States. Well, Rohrabacher’s decade ran out this December, and all remains quiet on the Panamanian front. As for China, the United States is now its largest trading partner.

Flowers and Chocolates?Flowers and Chocolates?

The point here isn’t to poke fun at Rohrabacher, or any of the other predictors featured on the FP list.  Rather, it’s to point out that predicting the future is really hard.  And as Ben Friedman and I have harped on, you just can’t aspire to any predictive competence without sound theory to guide you.  In order to judge that if we do (or don’t do) X, Y will happen, you need a theory connecting X to Y.  So looking back at our predictions, and comparing them to the results of our policies, is a useful way to test the theories on which we based our policies in the first place.

Putting falsifiable predictions out there is a collective action problem, though: If I start offering nothing but precise point-predictions about what will or won’t happen if we start a war with Iran, or how big the defense budget will get, or anything else, I’m going to get a lot of things wrong.  And if everyone else keeps offering vapid, non-falsifiable rhetoric, I stand to look like a real jackass while everyone can hide behind the fog of common-use language.  As I wrote in the National Interest a while back:

Foreign-policy analysts have an incredibly difficult task: to make predictions about the future based on particular policy choices in Washington. These difficulties extend into the world of intelligence, as well. The CIA issues reports with impossibly ambitious titles like “Mapping the Global Future”, as if anyone could actually do that. The father of American strategic analysis, Sherman Kent, grappled with these difficulties in his days at OSS and CIA. When Kent finally grew tired of the vapid language used for making predictions, such as “good chance of”, “real likelihood that” and the like, he ordered his analysts to start putting odds on their assessments. When a colleague complained that Kent was “turning us into the biggest bookie shop in town”, Kent replied that he’d “rather be a bookie than a [expletive] poet.”

Actually, though, it’s worse than this.  As I wrote in the American Conservative, there’s basically no endogenous mechanism to hold irresponsible predictors accountable:

In 1992, the Los Angeles Times ran an article outlining the dynamics of the “predictions” segment of the popular “McLaughlin Group” TV program.  Michael Kinsley, who had been a panelist on the program, admitted

“When I was doing the show, I was much more interested in coming up with an interesting prediction than in coming up with one that was true.  There’s no penalty for being wrong, but there is a penalty for being boring.  …Prognosticators have known for centuries that people only remember what you got right.  They don’t remember what you got wrong.”

Foreign-policy analysis works in much the same way.  Errant predictions are quickly forgotten.  It is the interesting predictions that the media want, and unfortunately interesting predictions in the context of foreign policy often mean predictions of unprovoked foreign attacks, geopolitical chaos, and a long queue of bogeymen waiting to threaten us.  (By contrast, after a given policy is enacted, its proponents have to spin it in a positive light, as in Iraq.)  Meanwhile, it is the person with the quickest wit and the pithiest one-liner–not the deepest understanding–who winds up with the responsibility of informing the American electorate about foreign-policy decisions.

So it’s very good to see that Foreign Policy has interest in holding everyone’s feet to the fire.  John Mueller does a similar service in The Atomic Obsession, pointing out the many predictions of doom, apocalypse and general disaster that have characterized both the hawkish establishment and the leftish arms-control clique.

If this sort of exercise becomes common, though, watch for foreign-policy commentators not to develop a growing sense of modesty about their predictive power, but rather to take greater care in avoiding falsifiable statements altogether.

Mueller on Afghanistan

John Mueller, who has been helping out with Cato’s counterterrorism project, has a short essay in Foreign Affairs questioning the premise behind continuing the war in Afghanistan. That is: Al Qaeda would gain haven in Afghanistan absent a U.S. ground presence and use it to attack us here.

Mueller says that the Taliban would not be dumb enough to again offer aid and comfort to the wackos whose attacks brought the U.S. intervention that swept them from power before. I think this overstates the extent to which our enemy in Afghanistan is a singular entity with one way of thinking about its interests, rather than an amalgam of militias that view the utility of cooperation with foreign jihadists in varying ways. But the general point is mostly right.  Advances in UAV technology alone make a replay of the 1990’s impossible.

Mueller’s argument is badly needed in official places like Foreign Affairs where the “failed states are always terrorist havens” thesis is gospel. One can usefully export it to Somalia. The al-Shabab group’s loose ties to Al Qaeda are producing calls for U.S. intervention, despite the lack of evidence that international terrorists are using Somalia as a training ground or could.