Al Qaeda

Counterinsurgency Math Revisited

When does 32,200 – 60,000 = 109,000? That seemingly inaccurate equation represents the estimated number of Islamist-inspired terrorists when the war on terror began, how many the U.S. has killed since 2015, and the number that fight today. And it begs the question of just how can the terror ranks grow so fast when they’re being depleted so rapidly.

As early as 2003, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld hinted at the potential mathematical problem when he asked, “Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?” In his memo, Mr. Rumsfeld correctly identified that both sides have a vote: the U.S. can deplete the terror ranks, while the terror groups and their supporters can replenish them.

What Rumsfeld had not yet imagined, however, was the possibility that military force might inadvertently benefit terror recruitment efforts. Specifically, he ignored the blowback a marauding U.S. military might engender among the Muslim world.

In 2009, General Stanley McChrystal pushed the conversation in that direction. He pointed to the counterintuitive aspects of terror recruiting. Calling it “COIN Mathematics,” he laid out his argument. “Let us say that there are 10 [insurgents] in a certain area. Following a military operation, two are killed.  How many insurgents are left?  Traditional mathematics would say that eight would be left, but there may only be two, because six of the living eight may have said, ‘This business of insurgency is becoming dangerous so I am going to do something else.’ There are more likely to be as many as 20, because each one you killed has a brother, father, son and friends, who do not necessarily think that they were killed because they were doing something wrong. It does not matter – you killed them.  Suddenly, then, there may be 20, making the calculus of military operations very different.” 

Though McChrystal did not explicitly connect U.S. military operations to the perceptions of the broader Muslim community, Osama bin Laden and his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, certainly did. Five years before 9/11, bin Laden railed against the presence of the U.S. military in Saudi Arabia, home to the two holiest sites of Islam. On other occasions he spoke of the “American crusader forces” and “American occupiers.” His recurring theme of grievance centered on the U.S. waging war with Islam. Later, in 2005, al-Zawahiri put an exclamation point on it. In a letter to the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, he reminded him, “The Muslim masses…do not rally except against an outside occupying enemy, especially if the enemy is firstly Jewish, and secondly American.”

Terrorism and the New Domino Theory

Several weeks ago the Defense Department revealed it is seriously considering drone strikes against Islamist terrorists in the Philippines, which would make it the eighth country the United States has bombed in the war on terror. Certainly the terrorists—who have operated in various forms there for over a hundred years—are a threat to Filipinos. They are not, however, a threat to the United States. Why, then, would the United States start bombing?

The answer may lie in the misguided theory driving American thinking about terrorism.

During the Cold War, America’s political leaders subscribed to the domino theory. The theory, whose name comes from a 1954 speech by President Eisenhower, held that if one country fell to communism, then its neighbors would fall next, toppling like dominoes. This fear encouraged U.S. officials to worry about the emergence of communism even in places of little strategic importance.

History reveals that the domino theory was a poor guide to international relations, but its power during the Cold War was real. The United States intervened repeatedly in the Third World, toppling governments and fueling civil conflicts, in order to prevent the spread of communism. Most importantly, the domino theory provided the primary justification for the Vietnam War, which cost the United States almost 60,000 lives and also strained the fabric of American society. Tragically, the irrelevance of the loss of the Vietnam War for American security was not enough to vanquish the domino theory. It continued to motivate American intervention in Central America and elsewhere until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The 9/11 attacks in turn spawned what we might call the pandemic theory. According to this theory, terrorism spreads as the terrorism “contagion” jumps from person to person, oblivious to distance or national borders. Thanks to its viral spread, which can occur via interpersonal contact or online through propaganda and chat rooms, terrorism anywhere in the world is a threat to reach the U.S eventually. As with infectious diseases, even a small outbreak of terrorism in a faraway land can be used to justify extreme responses. The best time to eradicate a disease, after all, is before it gets a foothold and infects a large number of people.

The pandemic theory looks compelling at first glance. But like many popular theories, it is dangerously inaccurate. 

Terrorism in Spain—What Is the Hazard?

Yesterday, two men drove a van into a crowd in Barcelona, Spain and killed more than a dozen people and injured many more in what Spanish authorities are claiming is a terror attack.  Spanish authorities may have also prevented another attack later in that day and believe these are linked to a recent explosion.  Not all of the facts are public yet and we will learn more in the coming days, but Spain’s experience with terrorism can at least put what happened into perspective.

According to data from the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland and the RAND Corporation, terrorists murdered 1,209 people in Spain from 1975 through the end of 2016 (Figure 1).  The spike in deaths in 2004 was the result of a major al Qaeda attack on the Madrid subway system that murdered 192 people.  Only the United Kingdom has suffered more from terrorism during that time with 2,359 total murders.  There were also 4,738 injuries in terror attack in Spain during this 42-year time span.

Figure 1

Murders in Spanish Terrorist Attacks by Year, 1975-2016

Sources: Global Terrorist Database and RAND Corporation.

Trump’s No Good Very Bad Arms Deal

Tomorrow Congress will vote on resolutions of disapproval in response to Trump’s recent arms deal with Saudi Arabia. If passed, Senate Resolution 42 and House Resolution 102 would effectively block the sale of precision guided munitions kits, which the Saudis want in order to upgrade their “dumb bombs” to “smart bombs.” A similar effort was defeated last year in the Senate. How should we feel about this vote?
 
Before the ink was dry President Trump was busy bragging about his arms deal with Saudi Arabia, a deal that he claimed would reach $350 billion and would create “hundreds of thousands of jobs.” The sale bore all the hallmarks of Trump’s operating style. It was huge. It was a family deal—brokered by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. It was signed with pomp and circumstance during the president’s first international trip. But most importantly, as with so many of his deals, the deal was all sizzle and no Trump Steak.™
 
Trump’s arms deal with the Saudis is in fact a terrible deal for the United States. It might generate or sustain some jobs in the U.S. It will certainly help the bottom line of a handful of defense companies. But from a foreign policy and national security perspective, the case against selling weapons to Saudi Arabia is a powerful one for many reasons.

Moving Beyond Self-Serving Myths: Acknowledging the Principal Cause of Radical Islamic Terrorism

There has been a recent surge of allegations that the underlying motive for outrages such as the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino is that radical Islamists hate Western values. Senator Marco Rubio is perhaps the most blatant in pushing that thesis. One of his campaign commercials asserts flatly that such violent extremists target us because we let women drive and girls attend school.

Bipartisan Wishful Thinking on Syria

Despite bitter partisan controversies on foreign policy issues such as the Iran nuclear agreement and the normalization of relations with Cuba, there is one issue where liberals and conservatives share a common delusion.  That issue is policy toward Syria.  The Obama administration persists in wanting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and at the same time crush the ISIS insurgents.  Washington continues to flirt with establishing a no-fly zone in northern Syria to protect supposedly moderate rebels, and it is moving forward with its much- mocked scheme to train a moderate insurgent force that would oppose both Assad and ISIS.  The latter plan is hopelessly behind schedule and has thus far produced only a handful of graduates from the training program.

Conservatives are no more realistic than the Obama foreign policy team.  Presidential candidates and conservative pundits alike routinely talk of escalating the fight against ISIS, but then, in almost the same breath, stress the need to defeat Assad and his principal ally, Iran.  I had the “pleasure” of witnessing such illogic in two major broadcasts within the past week.  The first occurred in a September 5 segment on CNBC, in which Larry Kudlow, a prominent economist and possible candidate for the U.S. Senate, raged against the Obama administration’s alleged unwillingness to conduct a concerted campaign against the twin evils of ISIS and Iran.  On Labor Day, the Fox News program “The Five” featured a discussion in which nearly all of the participants adopted arguments that echoed Kudlow’s rant.

What is striking about all of these episodes—and many others like them—is that the advocates of decisive, simultaneous U.S. action against both ISIS and the Assad-Iran alliance are in denial that those two goals are hopelessly contradictory.  Like it or not, the principal forces arrayed against ISIS are Assad’s “coalition of religious minorities” in Syria together with Iran and its Shiite allies in Iraq. The Syrian Kurds have their own agenda, seeking to create a de facto independent Kurdish state in northeastern Syria akin to the self-governing Kurdish region next door in Iraq.  

Event Monday: Is the FBI Creating Terrorist Plots to Stop Them?

This Monday at noon, Cato hosts “The Newburgh Sting and the FBI’s Production of the Domestic Terrorism Threat.” The event will consider how the FBI and others elements of our domestic security apparatus now generate a sense of the terrorist danger that they combat. David Heilbroner will show clips from his 2014 documentary on the Newburgh four terrorist case, which aired on HBO. Naureen Shah of Amnesty International and John Mueller of Cato and Ohio State will comment. RSVP here.

You can get a sense of the issue from this 2007 headline, from The Onion: “U.S. Counter-Counterterrorism Unit Successfully Destroys Washington Monument.” The counter-counterterrorism unit, the satirical article says, was “created in 2004 in response to the lack of terror activity since the Sept. 11 attacks,” and tasked with “raising awareness among the American public of the ‘myriad unknown threats’ that still face the country,” by demonstrating vulnerability to terrorism.

That’s make-believe, of course. No U.S. government agency has been bombing monuments, or anything else on U.S. soil. But still, like other good satire, the article gets at truth more effectively than conventional rendering of facts.

The standard view remains that the trauma of the September 11 attacks awakened Americans to their vulnerability to terrorism from without and within—terrorists groups overseas like al Qaeda and the “lone-wolf” self-starters they inspire. While our leaders, over the last decade, have become less prone to warn of imminent apocalyptic attacks, they still mostly contend that skilled terrorists lurk among us, evaluating our vulnerabilities, exploiting technologies and always growing more diabolical. That view, of course, is what justifies several of our ongoing military campaigns, various curtailments of civil liberties, and vast expenditures of our wealth for domestic security. Its proponents cite as evidence the terrorist plots found in the country since 2001.

What Sort of Problem Is ISIS?

The quality of the discussion about what sort of problem ISIS poses to the United States has been unsurprisingly poor, given who is framing it. All Americans have been appalled by the grotesque killings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two American hostages held by the Islamic State. The justness of vengeance against their killers is something everyone agrees on.

But beyond that, the debate is stunning by its internal contradictions. Take, for example, the fact that the outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center recently announced that while ISIS “poses a direct and significant threat to us,” there is “no credible information [it] is planning to attack the US.” This echoed the judgment of both the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, which issued similar judgments last month.

At the same time as those charged with threat assessment are stating ISIS does not at present pose a threat to US territory, our political leaders are unanimous in judging that the United States needs to involve itself more deeply in the war taking place across the Syria-Iraq border. Shouldn’t we worry at least a bit that taking sides against it in that war makes the Islamic State more likely to target the United States at home, not less? (For their part, the barbarian murderers of Foley and Sotloff stated that their actions were intended to avenge prior US airstrikes on ISIS.) One could argue that trying to destroy ISIS is worth raising the risk they will target US territory, but shouldn’t the marginal impact of its likelihood of an attack on us here at least show up on the ledger?

Or take the recent statements of our politicians. President Obama famously remarked that he didn’t have a strategy for what to do about ISIS, even though his administration was already bombing them. On Meet the Press, Obama added his voice to those claiming there’s been no “immediate intelligence about threats to the homeland from ISIL.” Rather, according to Obama, “ISIL poses a broader threat because of its territorial ambitions in Iraq and Syria.”

Secretary of State Kerry offered some thoughts on ISIS last week, in which he made clear the administration’s desired end-state: “destroy ISIL”:

these guys are not 10 feet tall. They’re not as disciplined as everybody thinks. They’re not as organized as everybody thinks. And we have the technology, we have the know-how. What we need is obviously the willpower to make certain that we are steady and stay at this.

There is no contain policy for ISIL. They’re an ambitious, avowed genocidal, territorial-grabbing, Caliphate-desiring, quasi state within a regular army. And leaving them in some capacity intact anywhere would leave a cancer in place that will ultimately come back to haunt us…

Two points here. First, if ISIS is in fact as Kerry describes it—a group that isn’t 10 feet tall, a group that isn’t as disciplined or organized as everybody thinks, and a group that is really a quasi state with grandiose objectives—then why isn’t containment a viable option? Grandiose objectives are hard to obtain even for actors who are disciplined and well-organized, even those that are 10 feet tall. So why isn’t ISIS—which Kerry says isn’t so powerful but has ambitious objectives—likely to burn out like so many of its predecessor groups have?

More Terrorism Isn’t Necessarily More Danger

Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Mike Rogers (R-Mich) made news Sunday when they both insisted on CNN that the terrorist threat to Americans has grown in the last couple of years. Feinstein’s evidence: “The statistics indicate that, the fatalities are way up.” Rogers agrees and argues that al Qaeda has been “metastasizing” into more groups that engage in smaller attacks.

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