Tag: terrorism

What Not to Learn from bin Laden’s Killing

The tendency to treat Osama bin Laden’s killing as national holiday akin to V-E day is both understandable and unfortunate. Everyone with a sense of justice appreciates the death of mass murderers, particularly the terrorist sort. But celebrating as if we killed Hitler or won a war plays into al Qaeda’s self-serving myth. Paul Pillar put it well:

An unfortunate irony of the huge reaction to the killing of Bin Ladin is that it continues to give him in death what he worked so hard to achieve in life: the status of arch foe of the most powerful nation on earth. It is a status that conforms with Bin Ladin’s narrative of himself as the leader of the Muslim world, protecting that world against the predations of the Judeo-Christian West, the leader of which is the United States.

We should also avoid drawing sweeping conclusions about our counterterrorism policies from Osama bin Laden’s death. We typically overgeneralize about important events. After the September 11 attacks, for example, even defense analysts tended to interpret al Qaeda’s capability largely through the purview of that plot, rather than treating it as a particularly important data point in al Qaeda’s history. The myopic take made al Qaeda seem far more capable than it was. With that in mind, here are several things that bin Laden’s death either cannot tell us much about or will not tell us much about until more information surfaces.

1. The war in Afghanistan. There are many reasons we should draw down in Afghanistan, but the bin Laden raid offers little intellectual ammunition for either side of the war debate. The intelligence that led to Abbottabad came years ago, from prisoners outside Afghanistan and operations in Pakistan. The helicopters flew from a base in Afghanistan, but it didn’t take a decade of war and a massive ground force to get that. The fact that bin Laden was living in an area of Pakistan where the state was relatively strong does nothing to support the idea that we should fight wars trying to build authority in ungoverned regions lest terrorists gain haven there.

But the fact that Sunday’s events do not serve pro-war arguments does not show logically, the correctness of the anti-war position, which is mine. The pro-war argument, flawed as it is, depends on other claims (i.e. terrorists will gain haven in Afghanistan if we draw down) that bin Laden’s death does not affect. That something is not an orange does little to tell you whether it’s a pear. Hopefully, however, bin Laden’s death may make it easier, politically to get out of Afghanistan.

2. Torture. Some intelligence used to find bin Laden came from prisoners, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that were subject to coercive interrogation methods like waterboarding, but it remains unclear whether any of that useful intelligence came via waterboarding. Either way, we can learn little about the efficacy of that and other coercive interrogation methods from this experience. Only the most hackish arguments against torture pretend that it never produces useful intelligence. The real argument against torture’s efficacy is that non-coercive techniques work as well or better. Because you do not know what these guys would have said under standard interrogation—in scientific terms, you have no control—it is hard to draw valid inferences about how well coercion worked.

3. Defense spending. Hawks are already arguing that this raid would not have succeeded given a smaller defense budget.  That is silly, obviously. The capability needed to conduct this raid would be intact after the deep defense cuts I favor, let alone the slowdown in defense spending growth that the president is pushing. The budgets of our intelligence agencies and special operations command together account for roughly fifteen percent of U.S. defense spending. Only a portion of that fraction concerns counterterrorism.

4. Bin Laden’s leadership of al Qaeda. The Washington Times insists that finding communication equipment among bin Laden’s effects shows that he was actually running not only al Qaeda central but also its affiliates. They offer little evidence for that conclusion. The fact that bin Laden communicated does not mean that he commanded. There is little reason to suppose that he could control the far flung and disparate entities that use the name al Qaeda, whatever his intent. The National Journal, meanwhile, makes similar assumptions about bin Laden’s operational control in reporting that American authorities expect “a treasure trove of intelligence” to come from bin Laden’s hideout, in the form of thumb drives, hard drives and papers. Even if bin Laden was still capable of providing substantial intelligence on his associates, it is unlikely that he left it sitting around to be gathered. A guy that survived for over a decade while being hunted by various enemies probably knows enough to regularly destroy documents and files. Maybe he got sloppy, but certainly we should not expect to quickly roll up much of the remaining al Qaeda central leadership based on this event.

5. Pakistan’s relationship with al Qaeda. Prior to bin Laden’s death we knew that Pakistan was not as dedicated to hunting al Qaeda as it could have been. It was reasonable to guess that elements of its security and intelligence apparatus either tolerated (if only by looking the other way) or actively supported al Qaeda members. Today the same is true. That bin Laden was living under the nose of the Pakistani military does not show that he was its official guest. And if bin Laden had the help of some Pakistani intelligence or military personnel, it does not follow that many higher-ups were complicit. Pakistan is a factionalized society with weak civilian control of security agencies. It is hard to know who knows what about what or where lies the line between active complicity and unwillingness to look for things one is not eager to find. To be clear, I am not arguing that no Pakistani official is guilty of harboring bin Laden. The point is rather than no new degree of guilt has become obvious since Sunday. Like number four, this issue should be become clearer as more information comes to light.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

Dead: ‘Al Qaeda’s Leader and Symbol’

What delightful news President Obama delivered last night! Osama bin Laden is dead—“al Qaeda’s leader and symbol,” as the president called him.

Bin Laden was the founder of the al Qaeda network, which executed the devastating 9/11 attacks just under a decade ago. Thousands of Americans lost their lives in those attacks, and Americans lost the sense of security and peace of mind that had taken root in the post-Cold-War era. The 9/11 attacks catalyzed two wars, costing tens of thousands of lives and well over a trillion dollars in U.S. expenditures. Personally, bin Laden gave me a darker decade than I would have had, both professionally and personally.

When I learned the news of bin Laden’s death, my first thought was of the implications for our policy. Before too long, I realized I was just plain happy about it. I took some champagne over to my neighbors, and we enjoyed watching the returns on TV.

My Cato colleagues will be parsing many details of this event over the days to come. Among the fascinating dimensions: the substantial Abottabad, Pakistan compound where bin Laden was apparently in hiding; the role of Pakistan’s security service, the ISI; the brilliant success of the intelligence effort and the attack on the compound; the near-term threat that al Qaeda affiliates may try to avenge the death of bin Laden.

Osama bin Laden failed to reach any of his geopolitical goals. He did not topple any Middle East dictator toward the end of establishing a Muslim caliphate. Indeed, the people of the Middle East have begun toppling their own dictators toward the end (we earnestly hope) of establishing more liberal societies. (We examined the role of the Internet in Middle Eastern freedom movements at a Cato on Campus event a few months ago.)

Few beyond the kids that made their way to the White House Sunday night believe that bin Laden’s death mean it’s “over” for al Qaeda and terrorism. Indeed, a key question is whether bin Laden’s death will give the U.S. and its allies an upper hand against terrorism, and for how long.

In this, the issues are the same as they have always been. As we noted in the introduction to the Cato book, Terrorizing Ourselves: “Terrorists have motivations, there is a strategic logic to their actions, and examining these things can reveal strategies that frustrate and dissipate their efforts.”

The killing of bin Laden begs the question: How, and how well, will his death signal to terrorists that they are better off desisting from attacks and choosing other behaviors?

There will be many opportunities in the days and months ahead for American political and media figures to signal to terrorists and potential terrorists that theirs is a lost cause. The death of bin Laden simply initiates that effort.

This week, watch the news around bin Laden’s death not only with your own apprecation, relief, or other feelings in mind. Consider how events will be perceived in the communities around the world from which terrorists have come. 

How various groups around the world interpret the death of “al Qaeda’s leader and symbol” will dictate our security from terrorism going forward.

You can review our two major conferences on counterterrorism policy here and here.

Intervention and Its Unintended Consequences

The killing of four Americans by Somali pirates earlier this month has brought the troubled African country into the news once again. With the White House’s response to unrest in the Middle East continuing to evolve, it is instructive to note how the United States has tried and failed multiple times to bring order to Somalia. The policies Washington has pursued and the unintended consequences they have produced should serve as a valuable lesson to any intervention that might be considered in Libya or elsewhere in the region.  Over at The Skeptics, I outline a number of these lessons after briefly examining the history of U.S. intervention in Somalia:

No doubt U.S. leaders had the best of intentions. But their noble attempts to rescue Somalia spawned a number of unintended consequences. Over the past two years, as many as 20 Somali-American men have disappeared from the Minneapolis area. Many fear these men were recruited to fight alongside al-Shabab, or “the youth,” the militant wing of the Islamist Somali government overthrown in 2006. In describing Shirwa Ahmed, a naturalized American of the Somali diaspora who is believed to be the first U.S. citizen to carry out a terrorist suicide bombing, FBI director Robert Mueller said, “It appears that this individual was radicalized in his hometown in Minnesota.”

…it is well past time for American leaders to thoroughly explore the notion that U.S. policies contribute directly to radicalization. Reigning in the West’s interventionist foreign policy will not eliminate the number of people and organizations that seek to commit terrorist attacks, but will certainly diminish it.

In this respect, terrorism can no longer be attributed to ignorance and poverty—conditions that exist in foreign conflict zones, but in and of themselves do not generate attacks against the West. Viewing poverty and underdevelopment as an underlying cause of extremism makes the mistake of stereotyping terrorists and their grievances.  It also commits the error of ignoring the unintended consequences of past actions and very real dangers right within our borders.

Click here to read the full post.

And Good Riddance…

The Department of Homeland Security is scrapping the color-coded terror alert system. The color-code system meant to serve as a way of keeping the public informed, but because it signaled some ambiguous sense of “threat” without providing a scintilla of information the public could use, it merely kept Americans ignorant and addled.

Scrapping the color-coded threat system is only the beginning. The next step is to begin informing the public fully about threats and risks known to the U.S. government. We’re adults. We can handle it. In fact, we can help.

Good News and Bad on PATRIOT Reform

Late last week, Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in which he agreed to implement an array of policies designed to check abuse of USA PATRIOT Act powers. These include more thorough record keeping and more disclosures to Congress, prompt notification of telecommunications companies when gag orders have expired, and updated retention and dissemination procedures to govern the vast quantities of information obtained using National Security Letters.

In itself, this is all to the good. But civil libertarians should pause before popping the champagne corks. Last year, the fight over the reauthorization of several expiring PATRIOT provisions opened the door to the comprehensive reform that sweeping legislation sorely needs to better balance the legitimate needs of intelligence and law enforcement against the privacy and freedom of Americans. Despite serious abuses of PATRIOT powers uncovered by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, no such major changes were made. Instead, Congress opted for a shorter-term renewal that will require another reauthorization this February—in theory allowing for the question of broader reform to be revisited in the coming months.

Many of the milder reforms proposed during the last reauthorization debate now appear to have been voluntarily adopted by Holder. Unfortunately, this may make it politically easier for legislators to push ahead with a straight reauthorization that avoids locking in those reforms via binding statutory language—and entirely bypasses the vital discussion we should be having about a more comprehensive overhaul. If that happens, it will serve to confirm the thesis of Chris Mooney’s 2004 piece in Legal Affairs, which persuasively argued that “sunset” provisions, far from serving as an effective check on expansion of government power, often make radical “temporary” measures more politically palatable, only to create a kind of policy inertia that makes it highly unlikely those measures will ever be allowed to expire.

With the loss of Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), who whatever his other faults has been the Senate’s most vocal opponent of our metastasizing surveillance state, the prospects for placing more than cosmetic limits on the sweeping powers granted since 2001 appear to have dimmed. If there’s any cause for optimism, it’s that the recent fuss over intrusive TSA screening procedures appear to have reminded some conservatives that they used to believe in limits on government power even when that power was deployed in the name of fighting terrorism.

Physician, Heal Thyself

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Commerce Department will soon come forth with a ”stepped-up approach to policing Internet privacy that calls for new laws and the creation of a new position to oversee the effort.”

Meanwhile, with nearly 22 months in office, President Obama has still not named a single candidate to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board that Congress established to review the government’s actions in response to terrorism. Had he appointed a board, it would have issued three public reports by now, and we would be awaiting a fourth.

Cutting the Fuse

I’m thrilled to be participating in a day-long conference on Capitol Hill next week to coincide with the release of a new book from the University of Chicago, Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It. Co-authored by Robert Pape and James Feldman, the book builds on Pape’s earlier pioneering work, including here and here, into the causes of terrorism. Drawing on data compiled by the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism (CPOST), the book includes chapters on Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, Chechnya and Sri Lanka.

The authors’ concluding observations offer some hope for those of us who have been calling for a new narrative pertaining to counterterrorism, one that begins with the presumption that fear is the terrorists’ true weapon. A strong, resilient society retains the ability to kill or capture those who would harm innocents to make a political point, as the United States has done since 9/11. But a country of more than 300 million people shouldn’t cower before a few hundred individuals with delusions of world domination, but who are too frightened and weak to show their faces for years.

I think that the book’s conclusions might be a bit too optimistic as far as the politics of counterterrorism goes. There are still ample incentives for people to hype the threat of terrorism, and not enough competing pressures to dial back the most extreme claims of impending doom. But perhaps we are approaching a “period of understanding” as Pape and Feldman claim?

I certainly hope so.