Tag: terrorism

Four Thoughts on the Anwar Al-Awlaki Assassination

As Bob Levy has already ably probed the legal issues surrounding the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, I’ll just append a few miscellaneous thoughts.

First, over the last decade we have been repeatedly told by foreign policy hawks that it is foolish, and even borderline offensive, to suggest that aggressive U.S. action abroad may have the counterproductive and unintended consequence of swelling the ranks of terror groups. When evaluating the wisdom of drone strikes or invasions of other countries, we need not even factor in the downside risk of “blowback” stemming from such actions, because “they hate us for our freedoms.” In other words, radical Islamist terrorists are fundamentally motivated by a vision of a global caliphate, not by any grievances stemming from real or perceived injuries inflicted by U.S. policy. I think of this as the “No Marginal Terrorist” Theory, because it posits that people are motivated to join terror groups strictly for reasons connected with either personal psychology or theology, such that reactions to specific U.S. actions never make the difference at the margin.

At the same time—and often by the same people—we are told that Anwar al-Awlaki posed a grave threat to the United States, not so much because of any particular logistical genius he possessed, but because he was so dangerously effective as a recruiter and propagandist who could inspire people already living in the West to jihad. Surely, then, it’s relevant to inquire into the nature of this lethally effective propaganda. Here is an excerpt from what The Guardian calls one of ”his most direct, English-language statements endorsing terror attacks on Americans”:

With the American invasion of Iraq and continued U.S. aggression against Muslims, I could not reconcile between living in the U.S. and being a Muslim, and I eventually came to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding on every other Muslim….

To the Muslims in America, I have this to say: How can your conscience allow you to live in peaceful coexistence with a nation that is responsible for the tyranny and crimes committed against your own brothers and sisters?

Possibly al-Awlaki is just a sort of Salafist James Earl Jones, and the sheer hypnotic beauty of his voice is what compels people to sacrifice their lives for him, without regard to the specific contents of his sermons. Still, it seems to be a problem for the No Marginal Terrorist Theory if a propagandist who was believed to be uniquely effective at motivating people to become terrorists used rhetoric like this to do it.

Second, a good deal of the coverage I’ve been seeing has treated the conclusions of U.S. intelligence analysts about al-Awlaki’s role and status within al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as ironclad facts rather than contestable inferences from necessarily patchy data—even though the past decade should have made it abundantly clear that analysts sometimes get it wrong. Certainly al-Awlaki is no “innocent” in any sense of the word, but on the crucial claim that he’d progressed from terrorist mascot to mastermind, it’s worth noticing how much of the case depends on plots that the cleric was “linked to” or “believed to have had a hand in planning.” At least one Yemen expert has argued that al-Awlaki’s status within AQAP has been wildly inflated, describing him as a “midlevel religious functionary.”

While there is some public evidence that certainly seems to support the conclusion that al-Awlaki had gone “operational”—that he did not merely advocate jihad in principle, but played a key role in planning and directing terrorist acts—the bulk of it remains classified. As we learned to our great cost after the invasion of Iraq, a top secret clearance does not actually grant omniscience, and sometimes a case that seems like a slam-dunk on the surface falls apart under impartial scrutiny. Paradoxically, the administration’s refusal to submit to that scrutiny seems to have given its determinations an aura of oracular certainty.

Third, the case for targeted killing here relies very heavily on the fact that al-Awlaki had put himself beyond the reach of feasible arrest. The most ardent hawk would recoil at the prospect of simply dropping a bomb on a citizen suspected of al Qaeda ties in New Jersey, or London. But as Robert Farley notes, what is “feasible” is at least in part a matter of judgments about the risks and benefits of attempting a capture. So we’re required to entrust to the executive branch to determine not just when a particular citizen has joined the enemy, but under what conditions it’s worth the risk of attempting to take them alive.

In al-Awlaki’s case, one can at least say—as the judge who rejected a lawsuit brought by his father did—that the target was plainly aware the government was after him, and in theory could have offered to surrender himself if he’d been interested in seeking his day in court. (I stress “in theory” because it’s hard to imagine AQAP looking favorably on such a decision in the wildly improbable event al-Awlaki had been inclined to make it.)

But remember that this was supposed to be a wholly covert operation, and would (according to the administration) imperil national security if discussed in any way—even though the national security risk appears to have diminished a great deal now that it’s a matter of taking credit rather than blocking litigation. There was an advance leak in this instance, but the next citizen on the list may have no idea there’s a Hellfire missile with his name on it. What we think about the specific instance of al-Awlaki, then, seems less important than how we feel about a case in which everything goes according to plan. That is, an American citizen is simply killed abroad with no advance warning, on the basis of an executive determination that he has joined an enemy power and poses an imminent threat, and no guarantee that the United States will acknowledge (let alone justify) the operation even after the fact.

Fourth and finally, the debate after the fact has been a reminder of how utterly useless conventional war metaphors are for grappling with the unique problems presented by the present conflict. Anyone who imagines the very thorny issues presented in the current case are somehow illuminated by analogies from World War II is just kidding themselves: if this conflict were not so plainly unlike World War II and other conventional conflicts between nation states, on so many salient dimensions—if we could straightforwardly treat an ever-shifting array of emerging terror groups as equivalent to a sovereign country’s uniformed military—everything would be a good deal simpler.

Abolish the Department of Homeland Security

We’re ten years past 9/11, and over the last decade we’ve shed a number of our liberties and spent wildly to counter a terrorist threat that, as the recent model airplane plot demonstrated, isn’t existential. The bureaucratic legacy of 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security, has proven an unwieldy and pork-laden nightmare. It’s time to abolish it.

My recent policy analysis, Abolish the Department of Homeland Security, makes the case for doing so. To begin with, DHS is a management disaster by its very nature:

In creating Homeland Security, Congress lumped together 22 previously unconnected federal agencies under a new Cabinet secretary. That’s a problem, not a solution. And while members of Congress routinely clamor for consolidating Homeland Security oversight in one committee, that seems unlikely: 108 congressional committees and subcommittees oversee the department’s operations. If aggregating disparate fields of government made any sense in the first place, we long ago would have consolidated all Cabinet responsibilities under one person — the secretary of government.

Apart from the structural handicaps that DHS faces, the whole notion of “homeland security” is problematic. The “odiously Teutono/Soviet” concept trends us ever closer to a police state and is particularly prone to pork-barrel spending. As I said in my recent op-ed on the topic:

It allows politicians to wrap pork in red, white and blue in a way not possible with defense spending. Not every town can host a military installation or build warships, but every town has a police force that can use counterterrorism funds to combat gangs or a fire department that needs recruits or a new fire station.

Congress must reform its grant programs and end this wasteful spending. While we’re at it, let’s end federal funding for fusion centers, local- and state-organized intelligence cells that duplicate FBI efforts in counterterrorism and end up labeling nearly anyone who expresses political dissent as a potential terrorist, a point I made at this Capitol Hill Briefing. I’ll be speaking at another Capitol Hill Briefing with Jim Harper today on abolishing the Transportation Security Administration. More information available here.

Wanna-be Mass. Terrorist Incompetent, Lacked Resources

The media has again provided us with a breathless report of a terror plot. This time it’s a 26 year-old Massachusetts man, Rezwan Ferdaus, who planned to fill three remote controlled airplanes with explosives and then fly them into the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol.

Ferdaus’s accomplices were FBI agents. As with many past cases, the FBI agents were crucial to his plot. Without the FBI’s men, money, and “explosives,” there is very little chance that Ferdaus could have successfully committed an act of terrorism.

Ferdaus, broke and living with his parents, had a plan that should make us question his mental competence. He planned to fly two remote-controlled airplanes, each packed with five pounds of explosives, into the Pentagon using GPS-guidance, and another similarly loaded plane into the U.S. Capitol’s dome, which he apparently thought would cave in. Following that, he would somehow destroy the bridges at the Pentagon complex and a six-man team armed with AK-47s would attack the complex. Whom he would recruit with the ability to launch such an audacious assault is not clear. The affidavit never identifies a non-FBI accomplice. At one point, Ferdaus says that he told a friend about his idea, but that his friend declined to participate and suggested that it would be easier to shoot up a military recruitment center. So, absent FBI assistance, Ferdaus’s plan would have been impossible until he had found several more willing participants.

Another impediment was money. Ferdaus purchased only one of the remote control planes for a total of $7,500, which was provided by the FBI. He needed several thousand dollars more to buy the other two. Ferdaus even needed the FBI’s help to pay the $450 fee for a rental facility where he planned to store his material and construct his bombs.

Even if Ferdaus had succeeded in finding others and buying the planes and other necessary electronics, he would still have needed to create a proper explosive that could be detonated at precisely the right time. He initially planned to use several grenades that would have had their pins pulled exactly three seconds before impact using a “detonation servo” device. He later decided to use “plastic explosives,” or C-4, as long as it was “obtainable.” As directed, the FBI undercover agents provided him with 25 pounds of C-4, only 1.25 pounds of which was real. They also delivered six fully-automatic AK-47s.

Wanna-be terrorists face numerous obstacles to success, starting with their own incompetence. We should applaud the FBI’s investigative zeal but keep in mind that without them, Ferdaus probably wouldn’t have launched an attack, let alone succeeded in it. Here we have a ”Darwin Award nominee,” not the hypercompetent home-grown terrorist the authorities keep telling us to expect. Saying so is a way to avoid being terrorized.

 

Make-Believe Defense Cuts

Earlier this week, the House Armed Services Committee Republican staff released a video using the anniversary of September 11 to argue for higher military spending while pretending that lately we have cut the defense budget. Chris Preble and I rebutted these outlandish claims, and Evan Banks made our comments into a cool video:

 

Hawks like HASC Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA)—who thinks that “power in benevolent hands is a virtue, not a vice,”—pretend that we are about to slash military spending thanks to the Budget Control Act, the deficit deal legislated early last month. Reporters abet them by repeating the White House PR myth that the bill’s security budget cap will cut Pentagon spending by $350 billion over ten years, and writing that the sequestration provision will probably cut another $500 billion. But as I explained here, the BCA will likely produce either a miniscule defense cut in the near term or no cuts at all. That is because I consider a “cut” to mean spending less than we do now, not less than plans say, because agencies other than defense can absorb the cuts required by the security cap, and because the bill encourages lawmakers to move capped base defense funds into the uncapped war bill.

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s proposed funding levels (302b allocations in budget speak) released earlier this week bear out those concerns. Because they come after the BCA, the Senate spending levels are likely to guide those set by the House. Compared to 2011, the committee would cut just under $3 billion from the base defense budget, which is less than one percent. That cut comes entirely from the military construction and family housing account, which was recently bloated by the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. The senators get another chunk of the $4.5 billion in security spending cuts required by the BCA from State, which would lose $3.5 billion, and Homeland Security, which loses a half billion. The National Nuclear Security Administration and the Veterans Administration get minor increases. For more on these allocations, see Stimson’s The Will and the Wallet blog, especially Matthew Leatherman and Russell Rumbaugh’s recent posts.

So that’s a minor defense cut, right? Maybe not. The Senate appropriators seem to have slipped a larger amount of base defense spending into the war bill (Overseas Contingency Operations funding). The committee’s markup press release brags that it fully funded the president’s war request of $117.8 billion, but then claims that they cut $6.6 billion from that request by trimming funding for U.S. and native forces in Afghanistan. What that most likely means is that the committee, probably in league with the Pentagon, cut the war bill by that amount and shifted the same amount over from the base, keeping the war bill flat and maintaining the fiction of a minor base defense cut. We won’t know for sure until the appropriations bills are published.

The longer term prospects for the BCA cutting defense spending are a story for another time. For now, suffice it to say that the prospects of the bill’s current spending limits staying in place for ten years are slim. Future Congresses easily free themselves from legislative bonds set by prior ones, and democracies with two-to-six-year election cycles can’t stick to ten-year plans.

Attack on U.S. Embassy Highlights Need to Exit Afghanistan

Political leaders and military commanders will dismiss the Taliban’s recent coordinated assault on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul as a “one-off” incident. But the attack is a vivid reminder of how poorly things are going, and why America needs to leave.

By every measure, violence is higher than ever. The coalition and civilian casualty rate for this year is on pace to break the record for last year, which in turn eclipsed the record for 2009, which in turn eclipsed the record for 2008. Spiraling violence came after significant increases in troops and resources. Defiant optimists have claimed that with more troops comes more combat and naturally, more casualties. But to accept that things will get worse before they get better is also a slippery slope: never giving up, no matter the cost, discourages a dispassionate assessment of whether a continued investment is justified. In turn, the longer we stay and the more money we spend, the more we feel compelled to remain to validate our investment. Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom, as expressed by President Obama in March 2009, is that “If Afghanistan falls to the Taliban…that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.” We are also told that if America and its allies fail to create a minimally functioning government in Afghanistan, then Pakistan will collapse and its nuclear weapons will fall to the Taliban.

These claims of falling dominoes are all wrong.

First, if Afghanistan were to fall to the Taliban, it is not clear that they would again host al Qaeda—the very organization whose protection led to the Taliban’s overthrow. Besides, targeted counterterrorism measures would be sufficient in the unlikely event that the Taliban were to provide shelter to al Qaeda. Moreover, to declare that Afghanistan can never again be a base for terrorists justifies indefinite war, which does less to serve the American public and more to benefit the private industries that profit from conflict and nation-building. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that after a decade of war, more than $450 billion spent, and over 1,600 American lives lost, the United States can still be attacked by terrorists. This creates a humiliating situation in which our Afghanistan policy weakens the U.S. militarily and economically and fails to advance its vital national interests.

Second, an endless war of whack-a-mole does far more to inspire terrorists “to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.” In this respect, our political leaders seem to have learned little from 9/11. The unintended consequence of U.S. intervention and meddling is that it serves as a radicalizing impetus. Regardless of what percentage of the Afghan population wants us to rebuild their country, our presence, however noble our intentions, can serve as both a method to combat insurgents and as the insurgents’ most effective recruiting tool. Aside from that “mobilizing militants” dilemma, our elimination of Taliban figures (including shadow governors, mid-level commanders, and weapons facilitators) may very well weaken the Taliban’s chain of command, but it hasn’t resulted in a decrease of Taliban activity. Indeed, the use of IEDs has reached record highs. Worse, the insurgents’ second-largest funding source is the U.S. taxpayer, with stabilization and reconstruction money often being diverted to insurgents to pay them to ensure security. Of course, they then use U.S. taxpayer money to buy bombs and explosives to kill American troops and Afghan civilians.

Finally, U.S. officials are playing with fire if they think these conditions help strengthen neighboring Pakistan. Certainly, Rawalpindi’s self-defeating support of Islamist proxies has not done its country any favors—but neither has the coalition’s presence next door. Continuing to stay the course in Afghanistan inspires the worst strategic tendencies among Pakistani military planners. It also encourages militants to attack NATO supply vehicles entering Afghanistan (nothing new), and has inadvertently contributed to the very instability that leaders in Washington ostensibly seek to forestall. As Karachi goes, so goes Pakistan, and current developments are doing more to push militants from Pakistan’s rural hinterland and into its major cities. Lastly, despite Washington’s nuclear obsessions, a large-scale foreign troop presence in Afghanistan does not resolve the ongoing rivalry between Pakistan and India. In fact, Pakistan has been accelerating its production of nuclear material for bombs and their ability to delivery them over the past several years.

In the end, the current scale and scope of the coalition’s mission in Afghanistan (over 100,000 troops and $120 billion per year from the U.S. alone) stems from overstated fears about what will follow if we fail. Luckily, America and its allies do not have to build a legitimate and stable Afghan government as an alternative to the Taliban. Al Qaeda is a manageable threat, and a conventional, definitive “victory” against them was never possible. Rather than drawing out our withdrawal and fighting an insurgency on behalf of an incompetent and illegitimate puppet regime in Kabul, American leaders should declare “mission accomplished.”

Bathtubs, Terrorists, and Overreaction

I dislike our national obsession with anniversaries and tendency to convert solemn occasions into maudlin ones; to fetishize perceived collective victimization rather than simply recognizing real victims. That kept me from joining in the outpouring of September 11 reflection, now mercifully receding. But I have reflections on the reflections.

The anniversary commentary has, happily, included widespread consideration of the notion that we overreacted to the attacks and did al Qaeda a favor by overestimating their power and making it easier for them to terrorize. Even the Wall Street Journal allowed some of the bigwigs they invited to answer their question of whether we overreacted to the attacks to say, “yes, sort of.”

Unsurprisingly, however, the Journal’s contributors, like almost every other commentator out there, did not define overreaction. It’s easy and correct to say we’ve wasted dollars and lives in response to September 11 but harder to answer the question of how much counterterrorism is too much. So this post explains how to do that, and then considers common objections to the answer.

That answer has to start with cost-benefit analysis. As I put it in my essay in Terrorizing Ourselves, a government overreaction to danger is a policy that fails cost-benefit analysis and thus does more harm than good. But when we speak of harm and good, we have to leave room for goods, like our sense of justice, that are harder to quantify.

Cost-benefit analysis of counterterrorism policies requires first knowing what a policy costs, then estimating how many people terrorists would kill absent that policy, which can involve historical and cross-national comparisons, and finally converting those costs and benefits into a common metric, usually money. Having done that analysis, you have a cost-per-life-saved-per-policy, which can be thought of as the value a policy assigns to a statistical life—the price we have decided to pay to save a life from the harm the policy aims to prevent.

Then you need to know if that price is too high. One way to do so, preferred by economists, is to compare the policy’s life value to the value that the target population uses in their life choices (insurance purchases, salary for hazardous work, and so on). These days, in the United States, a standard range for the value of a statistical life is four to eleven million dollars. If a policy costs more per life saved than that, the market value of a statistical life, then the government could probably produce more longevity by changing or ending the policy. A related concept is risk-risk or health-health analysis, which says that at some cost, a policy will cost more lives than it saves by destroying wealth used for health care and other welfare-enhancing activities. One calculation of that cost, from 2000, is $15 million.

In a new book, Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security,* John Mueller and Mark Stewart use this approach to analyze U.S. counterterrorism’s cost-effectiveness, generating a range of estimates for lives saved for various counterterrorism activities. I haven’t yet read the published book, but in articles that form its basis, they found that most counterterrorism policies, and overall homeland security spending, spend exponentially more per-life saved than what regulatory scholars consider cost-effective.

That is a strong indication that we are overreacting to terrorism. It is not the end of the necessary analysis however, since it leaves open the possibility that counterterrorism has benefits beyond safety that justify its costs. More on that below.

Objections to this mode of analysis have four varieties. First, people have a visceral objection to valuing human life in dollars. But as I just tried to explain, policies themselves make such valuations, trading lives lost in one way for lives lost in another. So this objection amounts to an unconvincing plea to keep such tradeoffs secret and make policy in the dark.

Second, people challenge the benefit side of the ledger by arguing that terrorists are actually far more dangerous than the data says. Analysts say that weapons of mass destruction mean that future terrorists will kill far more than past ones. One response is that you should be suspicious anytime someone tells you that history is no guide to the present. It tends to be the best guide we have, for terrorism and everything else. Our analysis of terrorists’ danger should acknowledge that the last ten years included no mass terrorism, contrary to so many predictions. Another response is that one can, as Mueller and Stewart have, include high-end guesses of possible lives saved to show the upwards bounds of what counterterrorism must accomplish to make it worthwhile. The results tend to be so far-fetched that they demonstrate how excessive these policies are.

A third objection is to claim that some counterterrorism costs are actually terrorism’s costs. Government should spend heavily to avoid terrorism, this logic says, because our reaction to the attacks we would otherwise fail to prevent will cost far more. In other words, if an expensive overreaction is inevitable, it helps justify the seemingly excessive up-front cost of defenses.

One problem with this objection is that it approaches tautology by treating a policy’s cost as its own justification. See, for example, Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent response to John Mueller’s observation in the Los Angeles Times that more people die annually worldwide from bathtub drowning than terrorism and the article’s suggestion that we might therefore be overreacting to the latter. Goldberg argues, essentially, that we have to overreact to terrorism lest we overreact to terrorism. Then, after his colleague James Fallows points out the logical trouble, Goldberg, without admitting error, switches to argument two above, while failing to acknowledge, let alone respond to, Mueller’s several books and small library of articles shooting that argument down.

Another problem with the inevitable overreaction argument is that overreaction might happen only following rare, shocking occasions like September 11. Future attacks might be accepted without strong demand for more expensive defenses. Moreover, the defenses might not significantly contribute to preventing attacks and overreaction.

The best objection to Mueller and Stewart’s brand of analysis is to point out counterterrorism’s non-safety benefits. The claim here is that terrorism is not just a source of mortality or economic harm, like carcinogens or storms, but political coercion that offends our values and implicates government’s most traditional function. Defenses against human, political dangers provide deterrence and a sense of justice. These benefits may be impossible to quantify. These considerations may justify otherwise excessive counterterrorism costs.

I suspect that Mueller and Stewart would agree that this argument is right except for the last sentence. Its logic serves any policy said to combat terrorism, no matter how expansive and misguided. We may want to pay a premium for our senses of justice and security, but we need cost-benefit analysis to tell us how large that premium now is. Nor should we assume that policies justified by moral or psychological ends actually deliver the goods. Were it the case that our counterterrorism policies greatly reduced public fear and blunted terrorists’ political strategy, they might indeed be worthwhile. But something closer to the opposite appears to be true. Al Qaeda wants overreaction—bragging of bankrupting the United States—and our counterterrorism policies seem as likely to cause alarm as to prevent it.

*Muller and Stewart will discuss their book at a Cato book forum on October 24. Stay tuned for signup information.

(Cross-posted from TNI’s The Skeptics.)

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.