As the War on Terror ensues, the terrorist organization al Qaeda remains America's greatest foe. But what exactly is al Qaeda? Is it an Osama bin Laden entity or can it and will it survive without him? What is the exact nature of the al Qaeda threat? What must the U.S. do to win the War on Terror against this organization, and how long will it take for America to emerge triumphant?
In focusing on this issue, Frontpage Symposium joined forces with RAND to produce this co-ordinated symposium. RAND will also run the transcript of this panel discussion on its website RAND.org.
To diagnose the al Qaeda threat, Frontpage Magazine's Jamie Glazov had the privilege of speaking with five distinguished RAND experts on terrorism: Brian Jenkins, a Senior Advisor to the President of the RAND Corporation, and one of the world's leading authorities on terrorism. He founded the RAND Corporation's terrorism research program 30 years ago, has written frequently on terrorism, and has served as an advisor to the federal government and the private sector on the subject. He is a former Army captain who served with Special Forces in Vietnam. He is also a former deputy chairman of Kroll Associates; Bruce Hoffman, an internationally recognized expert on terrorism, who has written extensively on terrorism in both academic and popular journals and who has frequently testified on terrorism before Congress. The author of Inside Terrorism (Columbia Univ. Press), he is the Vice President for External Affairs and Director of RAND’s Washington, D.C. Office; John Parachini, a Policy Analyst for the RAND Corporation and the editor of a forthcoming book titled Motives, Means, and Mayhem: Terrorist Acquisition and Use of Unconventional Weapons; William Rosenau, a political scientist in RAND's Washington Office, where he studies political violence, intelligence, and military special operations. He has also served as senior policy adviser in the State Department's counter-terrorism office; as a foreign policy aide in the U.S. Senate; and as special assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict; and Greg Treverton, a specialist on intelligence and terrorism, who most recently served as Vice Chair of the National Intelligence Council, overseeing preparation of America's National Intelligence Estimates. Associate Dean of the RAND Graduate School, he formerly directed RAND's International Security and Defense Policy Center, and was President of the Pacific Council on International Policy. His most recent book is Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information.
Interlocutor: Gentlemen, welcome to Frontpage Symposium. Let's begin with a general question: What is al Qaeda? Is it a monolithic entity or something different?
Hoffman: Al Qaeda is an ideology more than army; a transnational movement and umbrella-like organization, not a monolithic entity. Al Qaeda's strength has always been its ability to function on multiple operational levels. It uses professional terrorists, closely linked to the al Qaeda command and control nucleus, for spectacular, highly lucrative strikes such as 9/11, the 1998 embassy bombings, and the attack on the USS Cole, etc. in some instances. It uses affiliated or associated groups it has trained, armed or otherwise inspired such as the Jemmah Islamiya, the predominantly Indonesian/Malayan/Filipino group, responsible for the October 2002 Bali bombings or the Sudanese group al Ittihad al Islamiya, which committed the attacks against Israeli targets the following month in Kenya. And it uses the so-called "local walk-ins"-- individuals or groups with no previous direct, demonstrable al Qaeda connection, but who are inspired, motivated or animated by bin Laden and his implacable message of enmity against the West, the US and Zionism. Because al Qaeda is neither monolithic nor leaves a single, identifiable "footprint," nor has one set modus operandi, the movement itself is all the more formidable and resilient.
Rosenau: Al Qaeda is worldview, not an organization. Before 9/11, some parts of the US intelligence community described al Qaeda as a hierarchical, cellular terrorist group with bin Laden at the center, barking out orders to his "troops" in the field and plotting attacks around the world. This mistaken perception was a hangover from Cold-War era thinking about terrorism, in which groups like the Japanese Red Army, the Red Army Fraction, and Action Directe were organized into tight cells that received orders from their leadership. Al Qaeda is nothing like that, although as I mentioned there is certainly a "hardcore" around bin Laden involved in strategy, financing, and security.
Like the anti-globalization movement, al Qaeda is made up of a politically, nationally, and ethnically diverse group of militants, who don't agree on everything but subscribe in general terms to an ideology. Bin Laden's genius was in packaging and promoting an ideology that found enormous appeal among some elements of the Muslim world, and that allowed militants engaged in local struggles to reconceptualize their fights as part of a broader global struggle against Crusaders, Christendom, Jews, etc. Ironically, this Islamist/Salafist/fundamentalist ideology shares many features with Marxism-Leninism--an ideology that al Qaeda professes to despise (e.g., a belief in a revolutionary "vanguard," the goal of "liberation" from various economic and class oppressions, etc.). There is no question that this ideology appeals only to a fringe--but that fringe may have millions of members. Our failure to confront this ideology, and to work with those in the Muslim world who are promoting alternatives, is the biggest failure of our global campaign against terrorism. The State Department, the Pentagon, the National Security Council and other agencies are all trying to come to grips with this. With the exception of limited tactical psychological operations (e.g., dropping leaflets), we don't seem able to take action that can de-legitimize this ideology.
Parachini: Al Qaeda has evolved from a loosely aligned network of militant Islamic terrorists who shared the formative experience of expelling Soviet forces from Afghanistan to a movement with adherents around the world enabling a global reach. Al Qaeda has never been a monolithic entity, but a movement populated by Islamic militants from around the globe who answered the call to wage Jihad in Afghanistan. Different radical Islamic groups around the world now view their local struggles against national governments, rival ethnic or religious groups, in a broader context. Core followers of Osama bin Laden either originate from the countries with one of these local struggles or have developed contacts with them during and since the conflict with the Soviets. The core followers stimulate local actions with inspiration, money, planning, logistics, and sometimes personnel. The local or regional operatives build upon this contact. Thus, regional or local attacks are cast in a global context by their perpetrators and operatives functioning on a global basis have local targets that give purpose to the broader, almost cosmic struggle.
Jenkins: Al Qaeda is more than an organization. It is an ideology, a galaxy of extremists, and an enterprise for turning Islam's discontents into commitment for its brand of Jihad. The pre- 9-11 al Qaeda was chaired by Osama bin Laden, and comprised a consultative council, separate divisions devoted to specific functional areas--training, operations, education, etc. -- a global network of paid operatives, centralized training, an extensive recruiting network, and a large population of trained veterans. Al Qaeda maintained relations with and offered training and other forms of assistance to members of like-minded groups, although these groups have kept their own organizational structures. Since 9-11, al Qaeda appears to have adapted to a more hostile operating environment with greater clandestinity, a smaller physical infrastructure, and more decentralized operations relying on already dispersed Afghanistan veterans and affiliated groups.
Treverton: I share the view that al Qaeda is a loose network. It is worth remembering, for all its "virtual-ness," that it began with terrorists from around the world face-to-face in Afghanistan. Now, shards of that network remain, or local "affiliates" with overlapping agendas. We are, I think, sometimes misled by our notion of "network," which we think of as tightly coupled, something like old-fashioned holiday lights wired in series, so that if one went out, they all went out.
Interlocutor: Can al Qaeda survive bin Laden?
Hoffman: Yes. Osama bin Laden likely conceived and designed a movement that is deliberately designed to outlive him. An immense dedication has always attended all of the movement's most important operations. What bin Laden has repeatedly told his followers is the two watchwords of "patience and steadfastness." For example, bin Laden spent five years planning the 1998 East Africa embassy attacks; the attack on the USS Cole was more than two years in planning; the 9-11 attacks at least two and a half years in planning. Given bin Laden and al Qaeda's immense patience and dedication to planning, it is unlikely that bin Laden would not have considered the fate of the movement he created beyond his own mortal existence. Indeed, on several occasions, bin Laden has spoken openly of his martyrdom and of the fact that he does not fear death, but welcomes it, since it would, in his words, "create thousands more Osamas."
Considering that al Qaeda has already shown itself to have a deeper "bench" than was previously thought and that some form of "corporate succession" plan has appeared to function with both the mid-level and senior operational commanders, it is not unreasonable to think that a similar design is in place for the highest levels of the movement. Whether it will or can function as effectively as when bin Laden was at the helm, is the question that remains to be seen. But given that bin Laden and his followers see the war they started not in terms of a clash of arms that lasts for mere weeks or months, but as an epic struggle lasting years if not decades, al Qaeda's terrorist threat (or some manifestation of it) will not end with bin Laden's death.
Rosenau: Although enormously important to the movement, bin Laden's death or capture would not mean the end of al Qaeda, for the reasons I suggested earlier. Al Qaeda isn't like Peru's Shining Path, where the arrest of its leader, "Presidente Gonzalo," lead to the group's virtual collapse. I think President Bush is correct in downplaying the importance of bin Laden. After the August 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa, the Clinton administration began depicting bin Laden as the new Professor Moriarty--the sinister genius spinning a web of terror. In so doing, we probably added to his reputation in parts of the Muslim world.
Parachini: Al Qaeda can survive bin Laden, but it will be a different organization. How the organization operates in the near-term post-bin Laden will depend somewhat on how he is captured or killed. His conduct in the face of capture or death will further etch the bin Laden myth in either inflammatory or diminishing ways. In the immediate aftermath, his ardent followers will seek to avenge his capture or death. But over time, bin Laden’s demise will leave the al Qaeda movement in the hands of others. Even if he has a sophisticated succession plan, al Qaeda without bin Laden is like the Chicago Bulls without Michael Jordan; it’s a fundamentally different team. It remains to be seen whether any of the other key al Qaeda operatives can match his planning, money, and contacts.
Jenkins: Osama bin Laden has charisma and connections. It is hard to imagine any of his current lieutenants being able to inspire recruits or bring in the contributions as well as bin Laden. However, al Qaeda reflects a broader phenomenon. Al Qaeda itself is always changing; it may dissolve. The phenomenon will certainly continue.
Treverton: Alas, we have known for a long time that the number of people out their willing to die for almost any cause is disturbingly large, even in our own country. So the foot soldiers -- or suicide bombers -- are not in short supply. What is harder for the terrorists is the combination of money, organization and charisma that bin Laden represents. That is harder to replace.
Interlocutor: Is al Qaeda going to have WMDs in the near future? Does it already have them? Will it use them?
Hoffman: The evidence from Afghanistan and elsewhere suggests that if al Qaeda could acquire WMD, it would doubtless use such weapons. Certainly, its intentions in the chemical, biological, radiological and even nuclear realms were clearly revealed by information and documents seized by US and coalition forces in Afghanistan. The abortive efforts of an al Qaeda affiliated group of amateur terrorists to use the poison ricin, which were revealed in the arrests of a group of Algerians and others in London in January 2003, are fundamentally disquieting. Indeed, if this group of mostly amateurs and adolescents was considering using such a weapon, one can only shudder to think what their more professional confederates may be planning. However, with the loss of operational bases, command headquarters and R&D facilities in Afghanistan, al Qaeda's efforts to use such weapons will be more difficult. In this respect, an equally salient threat exists from attempts to use a "dual use" facility such as an industrial or chemical plant to create a Bhopal-like incident to compensate for al Qaeda's lack of access to true WMD.
Rosenau: I agree with Bruce that if al Qaeda could lay its hands on weapons of mass destruction, it would use them. An interesting question for analysts and policymakers who worry about such things is why al Qaeda apparently hasn't been able to do so. Ever since Aum Shinrikyo's sarin attack on the Tokyo subway in March 1995, we've been waiting for terrorists to use chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons in some serious way, but of course it hasn't happened. Groups like al Qaeda certainly have the motivation. My guess is that it's simply harder to do than we thought. Al Qaeda had resources, manpower, security, and time, yet to the best of our knowledge, it never built or bought a nuclear device, or indeed any other unconventional weapon of mass destruction.
During the past eight years, it has been widely claimed that WMD acquisition is "not a question of if, but when." I'm not sure that statement is true. Terrorists have limited resources to invest, and few are likely to allocate those resources to risky enterprises like WMD when perfectly effective cheap and deadly alternatives exist, namely, the 19th century technologies of the gun and the bomb. That said, we have to do everything we can to make sure that the hurdles on the acquisition path are high. As with the prospect of nuclear war during the Cold War, the possibility is remote, but the consequences are extremely grave.
Parachini: While Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda movement’s interest in weapons of mass destruction is clear, what is not clear is why they have not demonstrated any capabilities of much significance. The video tape of an al Qaeda operative poisoning a small dog and crude attempts by al Qaeda inspired and affiliated Algerians in London to produce the deadly toxin ricin are disquieting, but they hardly match the lethal and destructive potential al Qaeda demonstrated on September 11th or any number of other conventional attacks in Kenya, Tanzania, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Indonesia, Pakistan, or Tunisia.
It is possible that al Qaeda operatives are patiently waiting to use unconventional weapons at a time of their choosing. But it is also possible that despite their enduring interest in using unconventional weapons, they are unable to surmount the formidable technological hurdles entailed in acquiring, developing, and delivering these weapons. Despite these possibilities, al Qaeda operatives continue to demonstrate considerable skill with conventional explosives and unconventional modes of attack. The longer-term al Qaeda effort to acquire unconventional weapons capability is hard to gauge. Unless movement operatives get assistance from a state, which is not likely, or they recreate an Afghanistan-like sanctuary and have years to develop these capabilities, they are more likely to use explosives, perhaps in unusual ways and against unusual targets.
Jenkins: Al Qaeda's capabilities trail its ambitions. We know that it has some toxic chemicals, has made some attempts to produce ricin, and has expressed interest in nuclear and radiological weapons. It would be an overstatement to label these weapons of mass destruction. Al Qaeda used hijacked airliners as weapons of mass destruction. There is no evidence that it has chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear capabilities that give it that magnitude of destructive power. Nonetheless, the use of such weapons would inspire terror leading some analysts to call them "weapons of mass effect." Terrorism has escalated in violence. The worst incidents of terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s involved tens of fatalities; in the 1980s and 1990s, they involved hundreds of fatalities; 9-11 moved the bar to the thousands. We may have seen the use of chemicals, biological, and radiological substances in limited scenarios like the anthrax letter, but I don't foresee inexorable progress from truck bombs to nuclear bombs. I also remain unconvinced that states would offer or sell weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. They would have little control over their use and the risks would be enormous. Put me down as a prudent agnostic.
Treverton: In contrast to my colleagues, I incline toward a "no" on all the questions. Sure, if al Qaeda were handed a nuclear bomb, it might well use it. But the technology is not as easy as is sometimes portrayed. More to the point, as we wrote in a 1995 assessment when I was in the government, terrorists can do plenty of damage with "conventional" weapons, like 9-11's airplanes. So neither al Qaeda nor other terrorist organizations really need to go to the bother of trying to get nukes or biological weapons (chemical weapons are not a good terrorist weapon). The one reservation I have about my guess is that there is a kind of escalation in violence. 9-11 was shocking, but a repeat would be less so. So there may be an incentive for terrorists to look to the next level of "stun" value.
Interlocutor: What can we learn from al Qaeda's relationship with Taliban-led Afghanistan that may inform how we evaluate the relationship between states and terrorist groups? The relationship between al Qaeda and Taliban-led Afghanistan was significantly different from the relationship between Iraq and terrorist groups. What state-terrorist group relationships do we need to guard against in the future?
Rosenau: Al Qaeda's relationship with the Taliban was unique--the Afghan "state," such as it was, became a wholly owned subsidiary of Osama bin Laden and his hardcore inner circle. As Jason Burke observes in his excellent new study, Al Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, by late 2001, “bin Laden and the men around him had access to huge resources, both symbolic and material, which they could use to project their power and influence internationally. They even had a country they could virtually call their own. They were thus able to offer everything a state could offer to a militant group by way of support” [p. 16]. Preventing the bin Laden network from re-establishing a new symbiotic relationship with another state was the most urgent counter-terrorism priority for the United States in the months immediately after the destruction of the Taliban regime. Somalia seemed a likely candidate--lawless, wide open, and lacking a central government. "Maritime interdiction operations"--that is, bordering suspect ships--were intended to intercept fleeing al Qaeda cadres. A year and a half later, it doesn't look as though Somalia is becoming the "new Afghanistan," although affiliated groups like Al-Ittihad al-Islami are flourishing in the Horn of Africa.
This is a long-winded way of saying that I think that Afghanistan was sui generis with respect to terrorism, and I think its unlikely that the "network of networks" that is al Qaeda will enjoy a similar relationship with a state in the future. That is not to say that terrorists won't find places to organize, train, and rest--areas outside the control of a state, e.g., certain islands in the southern Philippines, for example, are likely candidates. It also seems certain that states will continue to "sponsor" terrorists by providing money, sanctuary, and intelligence. A central goal of the Bush administration's counter-terrorism policy has been to de-legitimatize terrorism. But absent a regime change, states like Iran are likely to continue to use terrorism as an instrument of statecraft. After all, terrorism is typically cheap, effective, and "plausibly deniable."
Parachini: Taliban-led Afghanistan was a weak state that became beholden to al Qaeda, a strong terrorist group. Al Qaeda operatives bankrolled several of the Taliban’s government ministries and provided the most formidable fighting force for its military. Thus, al Qaeda operated in the sanctuary of Afghanistan with the benefits states enjoy in the international system, but without assuming any of the expected responsibilities. In the case of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the relationship between the state and the terrorists was fundamentally different. Saddam’s Iraq was a centrally controlled strong state that provided $25,000 to the families of each Palestinian suicide bomber and sanctuary to a few old secular Palestinian groups like the Abu Nidal Organization. Even Secretary Powell’s description to the UN Security Council of Iraqi assistance to terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda entailed limited sanctuary and training for a few operatives. In Saddam’s Iraq the state exercised some control over the terrorists groups it supported. In the Taliban’s Afghanistan, in contrast, a strong terrorist group enjoyed the benefits of statehood and pursued its own nefarious agenda.
Jenkins: Al Qaeda was the guest who ate the host. By providing the Taliban with resources--manpower, money, and technical support, al Qaeda evolved from helpful to essential to dominant. It suggests a pattern. Groups affiliated with al Qaeda initially may be independent, but gradually al Qaeda will use its resources and training to improve local effectiveness while increasing its own control.
Hoffman: The situation and constellation of factors that gave rise to a terrorist group (al Qaeda) in essence sponsoring a state (the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan) were arguably idiosyncratic. This reflects the entire mujahadeen struggle against the Soviet occupation since the early 1980s, the chaos that followed the Red Army's withdrawal a decade later and the damage wrought to Afghanistan's infrastructure from the war with the Soviets, the civil war and intense fighting that followed, the lack of international concern, the rise of radical Islamist influence in Pakistan, etc. So there are few lessons to be gleaned that are more broadly relevant to conditions or the situation elsewhere today. The threat now and in the future is that al Qaeda or some other terrorist movement may seek to suborn or take over a country covertly and establish an entirely clandestine presence there, rather than the comparatively overt way al Qaeda became the dominant actor in Afghanistan and openly used it as a training base, staging area for attacks and operational command and control headquarters. Such an insidious consolidation of behind-the-scenes influence--leading to an invisible presence in some failed state is the more significant danger we face in the future, not a repeat of the al Qaeda-Taliban situation in Afghanistan.
Treverton: The term "wholly owned subsidiary" is right. In that sense, the Bush administration is exactly right in pinning responsibility on such states. Unfortunately, that means we will have to intervene in some of them, or engage in nation building, lest they become failures that might be wholly owned. We will also need to increase the price states pay for using terrorism as an instrument of statecraft.
Interlocutor: Gentlemen, I want to focus a little bit on the psychology of the al Qaeda terrorist. We are obviously not dealing with anything even close to something resembling a “normal” person. Even fascists and communists, despite their psychosis, evil and delusion, still had some traits that could be considered to be part of human civilization -- like the desire for self-preservation or to have some kind of joy in their lives or whatnot.
This is why I very much fear that the threat of militant Islam is greater than the threats we faced from Nazism and communism in the 20th century. The al Qaeda leader or member is not very worried about what life will look like in the future, let alone whether his own personal life will be part of it. So setting off a nuclear bomb would not be a very agonizing choice for these people - even if their own societies were extinguished right alongside their targeted enemies. More worrisome, the al Qaeda terrorist is convinced that his violence and mayhem are sanctioned by God and that, in turn, even his own suicide will be met with exhilarating other-wordly rewards.
Add to that the ingredient that every possible form of human entertainment and freedom that we can imagine as being enjoyable is denied to these individuals in their cultures. Is it really any wonder then, that for the typical al Qaeda member, the only real freedom that can be exercised is the freedom to blow yourself up?
What do you see as important to emphasize in terms of the psychology of our enemy? And in this context, how do you compare the threat of militant Islam to fascism and communism in the 20th century? Are we now facing a greater or lesser danger?
Rosenau: Although it might be comforting to believe that the terrorists who make up bin Laden's network are drooling, robotic psychopaths, I suspect that they're in fact more normal than we'd care to admit. Bin Laden, by all accounts, is perfectly pleasant, even charming--quite the opposite of the "mad bomber" stereotype. Press accounts of bin Laden's sojourn in Sudan (1991-1996), for example, portray him and his lieutenants relaxing at a comfortable farm, playing soccer and riding regularly. Terrorists, it seems, are people too. Our misperceptions stem from our belief that anyone who opposes the United States--and does so with violence--must at some level be demented. A central tenet of our civic religion is that the United States represents the apex of human civilization, and the highest stage of human development. Francis Fukuyama articulated this view in The End of History, but it's roots can be traced back to the 19th century, when we exported our worldview and institutions to what were considered “backward” peoples in the Caribbean and Asia.
I don't believe bin Laden or the 9/11 hijackers were demented. Characterizing them as such won't help us achieve our central task, which is to root out and destroy terrorists who threaten our interests, and to act that as a great power. We will never be loved, and we will sometimes face violent opposition in the form of "asymmetrical" threats like terrorism. This leads to another point. While we might have to make polite noises about addressing "root causes" when we seek to build international support for our counter-terrorism campaign, we have to be honest with ourselves: We don't know what the root causes are. Poverty? If it were, Haiti would be the godhead of international terror, and upper class Italians would never have joined the Brigate Rosse during the 1970s.
Finally, I couldn't disagree more with the assertion that al Qaeda somehow represents a graver threat to the United States than did Nazi Germany and international communism. From the late 1950s, when the Soviet Union developed the means to put a nuclear weapon atop an intercontinental ballistic missile, to the mid-1980s (give or take a few years), the Soviet Union posed an existential threat to the United States--and to the rest of the world. As late as the early 1980s, truly sinister people ran the USSR, hatching plots, tormenting dissidents (e.g., death threats against Solzenitsyn's children), all the while armed to the teeth with one of the planet's deadliest arsenals of nuclear and conventional weapons. Bin Laden doesn't even come close. We spent 50 years, and trillions of dollars, fighting 20th century totalitarianism, and lost hundreds of thousands of people in the process. While it may take decades to extirpate the terrorist networks bin Laden has nurtured, we will face nothing like what we faced in the previous century.
Hoffman: I am dubious that one can make any sweeping assertion about the "typical" al Qaeda terrorist given that, according to the recently published Joint Committee of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives Intelligence report, we are talking about an estimated 70,000 to 120,000 persons who were trained by al Qaeda during the past decade in Afghanistan, the Sudan and Yemen. Like any group that size, I am sure that one would find individuals with psychological abnormalities and associated instabilities. But, at least in medical terms, one would equally find many individuals who would clinically be classified as normal. Indeed, the 19 hijackers on 9-11 are precisely such a case in point. According to the painstakingly detailed biographies compiled for many of them, they were well-educated, came from comfortable middle-to-upper-middle class socio-economic backgrounds, and grew up in stable (or relatively stable) family situations. They appear in their individual histories to have had otherwise unremarkable childhoods and not to have evidenced, at least previously, any overt signs of mental instability, incompetence or abnormality. So, I think we have to be careful about making second-hand observations masquerading as judgments about so diverse a group--especially so amorphous and diffuse entity as al Qaeda.
I am also skeptical of your generalization about these individuals' inherent joylessness or incapacity to somehow to enjoy any form of "human entertainment." For instance, according to evidence presented in New York Federal District Court in 2000 during the trial of four men convicted of the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, while in Sudan during the mid-1990s bin Laden and his followers often had weekend cookouts and family-type events, complete with pick-up soccer games, horseback riding, socializing, etc. For me, therefore, the REALLY interesting question is not the one you pose--assuming abnormality--but the reverse. That is, how can people who appear clinically/medically psychologically normal justify and legitimize, and indeed not feel guilt over, the enormous death and destruction and unremitting pain and suffering that their violent acts cause to so many of their fellow human-beings? When and if we can ever authoritatively answer THAT question we will likely shed the greatest light both on understanding why persons become terrorists and what can be done to prevent them from becoming terrorists.
One thing, though: your point about al Qaeda's posited lack of remorse in detonating a nuclear bomb is very well taken. It is clear from evidence uncovered in Afghanistan that bin Laden and his followers had an active and genuine interest in either developing such a capability or acquiring such a weapon. No one should delude themselves into thinking, I believe, that if they had such a weapon that they would hesitate to use it.
Finally, I think the parallel drawn between radical Islam, much less al Qaeda and bin Laden specifically, with Nazism and communism is not only facile, but dangerous. To date, neither al Qaeda alone nor in combination with its many associated and affiliated organizations (e.g., Jemmah Islamiya, al Ittihad al Islamiya, etc.) has come even remotely close either to causing the untold millions of deaths or showing themselves capable of engaging in the systemic state genocide engineered by Hitler and Stalin. It is not only inappropriate to make such comparisons, but unproductive: since such parallels play precisely into the far-reaching and disquieting psychological repercussions that terrorists hope to achieve in their target audiences. Such assertions inadvertently inflate the terrorists' power and capabilities and play precisely to the fear and intimidation they hope to instill in their enemies. Beyond any doubt, al Qaeda and radical Islam are among the most serious threats to U.S. national security that we face today. But at the same time we have to keep that threat in perspective and think about our adversaries rationally and soberly if we are truly to be effective in ensuring their defeat.
Parachini: Militant Islam is not likely to match the threat that state fascism or state communism posed for the United States in the 20th century. Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union built huge militaries with formidable arsenals. The struggle with militant Jihadists will be asymmetric in character and will not threaten our national existence. These sub-national, sovereign-less and religiously inspired groups will pose a threat to the United States for decades to come for three main reasons. First, official estimates of the number of people trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan range from 20,000 to 70,000 people. Even the low end of the estimate will take years to kill, capture, or force into retirement. Second, the United States will remain the pre-eminent global power for the foreseeable future and any group struggling against modernity will see America as a target for its ire. Third, the militant Jihadists are motivated by a complex of a profound sense of grievance, a desire to resurrect the golden age of Islam, and a yearning to affirm their individual righteousness by participating in a movement they believe is sanctified. These three factors are not easily changed. Thus, while the asymmetrical struggle with militant Islam will not present the same scope and magnitude of threat as nation-states did in previous era, it will endure and bedevil the United States for quite some time.
Jenkins: We must keep in mind that 60 million people--soldiers and civilians--died in the two world wars that were fought during the first half of the last century. When it comes to sustained, organized slaughter, the "civilized" nations cannot easily be matched. These wars were driven by diverse ideologies--nationalism, fascism, and communism. Between 5 million and 10 million people have died in the wars of the past quarter century. Bin Laden and like-minded fanatics have killed thousands. Terrorists create spectacular tragedies, but they don't yet imperil the republic.
I have long subscribed to the notion that even those we label terrorists are subject to self-imposed constraints. Violence beyond a certain point is counterproductive. It threatens group cohesion, alienates the terrorists' perceived constituents, and provokes reactions that their organizations seldom survive. True, as my colleagues often remind me, these constraints are not universal or immutable. Believing they have the mandate of God, terrorists subscribing to ideologies drawn from religion are less constrained by conventional morality or assessments of personal risk. But al Qaeda and its affiliates are not monolithic institutions; they are complex systems depending on tolerance and support. Deterrence in its traditional form may not work very well against the committed core or the wild-eyed recruits of enterprises like al Qaeda, but even parts of the system may be amenable to influence. Overall, as I pointed out in a previous answer, terrorism's toll has increased by orders of magnitude and that is worrisome. Technology is putting unprecedented capacities to cause death into the hands of groups whose grievances--real or imaginary, secular or inspired by religion--it will not be possible to satisfy. How we deal this is one of the major challenges we face in this century.
Treverton: I think it is all too easy to demonize our enemies, especially when they are as different from us as bin Laden. We are not good, as a government or as a people, at getting inside the heads of our adversaries. They too often get treated as cardboard characters, either as buffoons or as the epitome of evil. We are moved by our own citizens who are prepared to die for causes we regard as noble, and, as I said earlier, we are all too aware of people in our own country who are prepared to die for causes we regard as foolish or misguided: remember Jonestown. So we need to be careful not to let our understandable revulsion at the attitudes and actions of a bin Laden get in the way of understanding him and other terrorists better.
For intelligence, that means much more "red-teaming," trying to look at the world as he might. It means many more efforts to assemble teams of people who understand not only regions and terrorism, but also cultures and Islam and psychology. It means including politicians in the brainstorming. For all the increase in religious belief in our country -- which distinguishes it from other industrial nations -- we are still a pretty secularized society, and so understanding the force of religious belief, however distorted Bin Laden's version of Islam may be, does not come easy to us. But we have to do better. And, finally, if we understand our enemies better, we will understand which instruments will and won't work against them. They may not be deterred by some of the threats we are used to making. But we will discover other vulnerabilities.
Interlocutor: What is the U.S. doing right and what is it doing wrong in the war against al Qaeda? What factors influence how long this war will last? Can this war be won in the conventionally understood sense of vanquishing an adversary, resolving mutual enmity and ending hostilities? Give your prognosis for the war. What has to be done? If it is done right, when will the war be over?
Rosenau: I'm not sure how useful it is to debate terminology and metaphors, but I'd begin my answer with the point that talking about a "war" against terrorism is not the right term. As many terrorism specialists have pointed out, terrorism is a tactic, and in the case of al Qaeda, part of a broader repertoire of violence, insurgency, and subversion. I'm afraid that a "war" on terror may have all the success of our earlier wars on drugs and poverty. I understand that the administration's language is rhetorical, and is intended to exhort, which is fine. Underlying this is I think a somewhat different agenda. During another anti-terrorism campaign--the British government's struggle against the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) in Northern Ireland--officials sometimes described their goal as reducing Irish terrorism to "an acceptable level of violence." When we talk about the "global war on terrorism" we really mean al Qaeda. Ultimately, our objective is to reduce al Qaeda to a law enforcement problem—like ordinary crime, a chronic feature of our environment, but not a major national security threat.
Here I think the Bush administration has it right. Although Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan understandably captured the imagination and attention of the press and the public, large-scale military operations are arguably the smallest aspect of the counter-terrorism campaign. That campaign resembles an iceberg, with the military component at the top, visible above the water. Below the surface are all those routine diplomatic activities that no one outside of government pays attention to, but that pay rich rewards--for example, continuously pressing other countries to deny terrorists sanctuary; become parties to international counter terrorism conventions; and to bring terrorists to justice. Sudan, which has gone from terrorism sponsor to participate in the global campaign against terror, is a good example of how routine, boring bilateral diplomacy can pay off.
Even less visible is police and intelligence cooperation between the United States and countries throughout the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Grubby, routine police work—stakeouts, foot patrols, forensic investigations--aided by intelligence analysis and information sharing is arguably our most effective tool against terror. We simply don't have the resources, or the inclination, to be everywhere the terrorists and their supporters are, so we have no choice but to cooperate with other countries and their security services. My sense is that the Bush administration is continuing to work hard to build and maintain these cooperative relationships abroad. Reducing terrorism with "global reach" to a law enforcement problem will take decades, so of course it will be essential for President Bush and his successors to avoid being distracted by other burning issues.
Jenkins: It is important to get the vocabulary right. Our current efforts to counter terrorism comprise several components. We are not at war with terrorism. We can say that we are at war with al Qaeda, because we are employing military force and using law enforcement techniques to disrupt its operations and destroy the enterprise. We have made progress, but this effort may take years and is not likely to end in any formal way. At the same time, we are engaged in various efforts to deal with other terrorist groups around the world, especially those that have attacked the U.S. in the past or may threaten us in the future. These efforts include diplomatic initiatives to resolve conflicts that give rise to terrorism, exchanging intelligence, providing various forms of assistance, and, on occasion, participating in military operations. We oppose terrorism, but are not at war with every terrorist group in the world. A third component of our efforts includes homeland security. This is not aimed at any specific group, but accepts that terrorists may try to carry out attacks in the United States. Another major terrorist attack here could have devastating impact on the economy, something that terrorists clearly know. We have spent the last quarter century removing friction from the economy. We have spent the last 23 months putting in back in. In order to prevent terrorism from becoming a means of waging economic warfare against the U.S., we need to develop security measures that are both effective and efficient.
For the past 35 years, we have been engaged in combating terrorism – the use of specific terrorist tactics as a mode of political expression of armed conflict. This is the fourth component. Current efforts are ensconced in the various international conventions that have been crafted to deal with specific terrorist targets or tactics and in UN Resolution 1373. Combating terrorism will be an enduring task. Since 9-11, counter-terrorist efforts have involved unprecedented international cooperation. We need now to institutionalize this cooperation without becoming bogged down in details of the architecture.
Parachini: The scorecard on the war against al Qaeda has had some notable successes as well as incomplete scores. Afghanistan is no longer a sanctuary for the group to hide, plan, train, and coordinate major attacks or to develop unconventional weapons. Similarly, the prospect of al Qaeda forming a robust and dangerous partnership with Iraq is no longer a threat. Also, the count of captured and killed al Qaeda operatives is impressive. But the record is incomplete. President Bush once said he wanted bin Laden’s head in a box and the prospects of finding him remain uncertain at best. Attacks since September 11th in Pakistan, Yemen, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Kenya underscore the ongoing nature of the global war against al Qaeda. This war is far from over. In the near-term, international cooperation on intelligence, border and aviation security, and law enforcement will be critical. Over the longer term, the U.S. faces a tough diplomatic challenge to gain and to sustain the cooperation of friendly and allied governments as well as governments that are unlikely partners like Iran, Syria, China, Libya, and Russia. Given the thousands of Jihadists trained in Afghanistan, the struggle with al Qaeda is liable to last for a decade or more.
Hoffman: The most important metric in the war against terrorism is our ability first to prevent al Qaeda from carrying out a repeat of the 9/11 attacks along the same scale and with the same consequences either in the United States or anywhere else in the world. On that count, the war against terrorism thus far has clearly been successful. The second is our ability to severely constrain al Qaeda's operational capabilities, to diminish its ability to mount terrorist attacks anywhere and to force them to pay as much attention to their personal security and survival than to planning and plotting attacks. In this respect too, the war against terrorism has been successful. However, that said, the threat is not ended and the war is not over.
In this respect, we must understand that if this is a "war" against terrorism, than it is unlike any other war that the U.S. has fought. This war did not have a distinct start (although some mistakenly see 9/11 as the opening salvo), nor will it have a definitive end. It will also not be fought in a specific theater of conflict as past wars the U.S. fought were and it will be long. Since al Qaeda is not an army, but an ideological transnational movement, there is no enemy military force physically to defeat. In fact, our enemies have defined this conflict, from their perspective, as a war of attrition designed eventually to wear down our resolve and will to resist.
In the past decade, we have gotten used to wars lasting week or months. Our enemies see this conflict as an epic struggle that will last years, if not decades. It may not always be at the same levels of intensity and frequency, but--as there has long been with terrorism generally--there will be periods of relative quiet punctuated by times of sharper, more febrile activity (and a succession of attacks). The challenge therefore for the U.S. and other countries enmeshed in this conflict is to maintain focus, and not to become complacent about security or our prowess. We can’t afford to rest on past laurels and successes, but need to realize that terrorism is like the archetypal shark in the water: constantly moving forward to survive. In terrorist terms, this means constantly seeking to identify and exploit vulnerabilities and gaps in their enemy's defenses and then to strike.
Al Qaeda, for example, like other terrorist groups, puts its faith in the enormous potential rejuvenating or regenerative power of even a single terrorist attack. For that reason, efforts to probe our defenses and repeatedly endeavor to marshal their resources for attack will continue at some level or another. The challenge for us is to ensure that our countermeasures and response capabilities are equally as dynamic and innovative: capable of adapting and adjusting to the changes we see and will see in terrorist modus operandi, tactics, and targeting.
Treverton: On the whole, I, too, think we are on the right track. Al Qaeda may eventually be contained, but new threats are likely to emerge. So the task is to contain terrorism; it cannot be rooted out. That task sometimes requires military instruments, as in Afghanistan, but most of the time it is a matter of patient, multilateral police and intelligence work. It was in that sense that I was concerned about the war on Iraq. All of us were happy to see Saddam go and Iraq given a chance for a better future. But the concern was that Iraq would distract us from the main challenge -- terrorism -- and that it would damage the impressive coalition we had put together for the war on terrorism. Those fears turned out, unhappily, to be founded, so now the nation's task is to reassemble the anti-terror coalition and sharpen the focus on terrorism.
Interlocutor: Thank you Brian Jenkins, Bruce Hoffman, John Parachini, William Rosenau and Greg Treverton. We are out of time. It was a fascinating discussion. I very much appreciate you taking the time to provide us with your wisdom and expertise on this vital subject. I would also like to thank David Egner, RAND's Director of External Communications, for generating the idea for this co-ordinated symposium and for his invaluable help in organizing it. It was a pleasure working with you David.
I also welcome all of our readers to get in touch with me if they have a good idea for a symposium. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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