March 26, 2010 2:05PM

Reactions to al Qaeda Terrorism Have Opened a Flank

Excellent recent posts by my colleague David Rittgers have covered the legal (and practical) issues involved in terrorist detention. Take a look at "The Case against Domestic Military Detention" and his follow-up, "Playing Chicken Again." He has also lectured on the Hill about terrorism strategy, relating themes I used to open our 2009 and 2010 counterterrorism conferences.

The gist is that terrorism seeks overreaction on the part of the victim state. Lacking power of their own, terrorists try to goad states into overzealous and misdirected responses that serve their aims.

A prominent aim among members of the al-Qaeda franchise is mobilization of others, one of five strategies that U.S. National War College professor of strategy Audrey Kurth Cronin lays out in a chapter of the forthcoming Cato book, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix it. Writes Cronin:

Mobilization has been al Qaeda's most effective strategy thus far. A global environment of democratized communications has increased public access to information and has sharply reduced the cost...  If a group is truly successful in mobilizing large numbers, this strategy can prolong the fight and may enable the threat to transition to other forms, including insurgency and conventional war.

Chances are extremely remote that al Qaeda will ever make this transition. But a recent AP story illustrates how groups in the weakened al Qaeda network may be stumbling onto a strategic option that our political leaders opened to them with their reactions to the Fort Hood shooting and the 12/25 bombing attempt:

For the first time, the group that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks and has prided itself on its ideological purism seems to be eyeing a more pragmatic and arguably more dangerous shift in tactics. The emerging message appears to be: Big successes are great, but sometimes simply trying can be just as good.

U.S. officials and counterterrorism experts say the airline attack and last November’s shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, prove that simple, well-played smaller attacks against the United States can be just as devastating to the democratic giant as complex and riskier ones.

In a recent Internet posting, U.S.-born al-Qaida spokesman Adam Gadahn made a public pitch for such smaller, single acts of jihad.

“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,” Gadahn said in a video released and translated by U.S.-based Site Intelligence Group, which monitors Islamic militant message traffic.

Al Qaeda is a franchise---not a single group or even necessarily a cohesive network---so Gadahn almost certainly speaks only for his own outfit.  But the progression of al Qaeda groups from coordinating attacks to encouraging lone wolves shows that their capabilities have been degraded. Lone wolf attacks are comparable to other terrorist threats that are always out there, including white supremacists, black separatists, eco terrorists, tax protesters with planes, random spree shooters, and so on.

But the "al Qaeda" label has a special power. U.S. politicians' response to Fort Hood and the 12/25 bombing attempt signaled to al Qaeda terrorists that small---even failed---attacks can help them achieve their aims. With rare exceptions, the political class and media have yet to recognize that cool, phlegmatic public reponses to terrorism are an essential part of dismantling the strategy.

Poorly considered reactions to al-Qaeda-branded terror attacks are part and parcel of making those attacks succeed. Our so-called leaders should not give 9/11- or 7/7-style publicity and panic to failed attacks.