November 27, 2004


Weaker Than We Think: Al-Qaeda may have already fired its best shot. (Russell Seitz, December 6, 2004, The American Conservative)

Salafist fanaticism is a worthy successor to Marxist zeal when it comes to malevolence, but policy must consider the capacity for action, not intent alone. To judge by action, terrorism indeed took advantage of our at best sporadic vigilance and summoned its resources in the ’90s much as the president’s speech observed. But how does its actual capacity for evildoing compare with the sum of our fears?

In a War on Terror, knowing the enemy’s numbers is vital. London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies reckons Osama bin Laden has recruited 18,000 since 9/11, while some DOD officials think he’s down to his last 3,000 men. [...]

However tall bin Laden may loom as a scourge of civilizations, it is increasingly clear that his arsenal is as phony as his army is small—its shelves are bare of expertise and materiel alike. But the War on Terror is anything but phony, and al-Qaeda is under withering attack by every means a hyperpower and its allies can devise. The cancer remains, but intrusive therapy is clearly taking its toll. As the attrition continues, the focus on what remains is intensifying. This concentration of fire to accelerate the enemy’s demise coincides with the contraction of the safe haven available to him to hide. A feedback loop has arisen from the intelligence that flexibility has gained. It is becoming a noose around Osama’s neck, and he has only himself to blame for the crumbling platform on which he stands.

Al-Qaeda means “foundation” in the sense of a base of operations rather than a Brookings Institution. In 2001, its host, Afghanistan’s Taliban, was on a war footing with the Northern Alliance, an American ally against the Soviet occupation. With the Twin Towers still standing, bin Laden ordered the assassination of the Alliance’s leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud. The blood feud this ignited bought al-Qaeda’s leadership breathing space, but eventually forced it to flee not just into the Pashtun no-man’s-land along the Pakistani border but beyond it, into Pakistan’s Northern Areas. It is a region whose lower passes are higher than the Rockies and whose winters make Tora Bora look like Palm Springs—a fine place to hide, but a ludicrous launch pad for a global revolution. On the lam and preoccupied with security and survival, not strategy, al-Qaeda is no longer a magnet for the best and brightest young jihadis. The average al-Qaeda grunt is no Atta, but a high-school dropout who lives at home.

However much the world changed on 9/11, the thousand days before and after it remain identical in one respect—Islamic terrorists killed no one on American soil. Whatever our future fears, in the here and now, al-Qaeda remains boxed. They can spike truck bombs with as much concentrated radwaste as they can steal or buy, but a frontier of plausibility still separates analytical pessimism from the hinterland of paranoia. Those who imprudently equate the modern ubiquity of high technology with terrorists becoming omniscient or infallible risk a rendezvous with cognitive dissonance.

Practitioners of urban terrorism, like those of strategic bombing on both sides in World War II, may find the psychological as well as the physical damage done disappointing. London’s civil society endured the Blitz, and cities of millions coexist with violent death today as well. On 9/11, 1 in 3,000 New Yorkers perished, but in the same year, over 1 in 1,000 urbanites were murdered in three major cities in the Western hemisphere alone.

He overstates the threat.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 27, 2004 6:35 AM

Rusty Seitz, who is one of the coolest people to ever spend an evening with because he comes very close to knowing everything about everything, leaves out an important possibility here however. What prevents al-Qaeda from purchasing a completed nuclear weapon from a North Korea or, more likely, a disgruntled, underpaid Russian general dealing through Mafiya intermediaries, then smuggling that weapon into the States in a marijuana shipment, then moving it up the coast in a truck, like a million other shipments of marijuana, and planting it somewhere in Manhattan?

Posted by: Bart at November 27, 2004 10:13 AM

Right now, the terrorists' best (and probably last) shot is trying to get their hands on a nuke and detonate it somewhere. It will be difficult to get it into desirable target (Riyadh, Tel Aviv, etc.) but a less harden target will still yield many hundreds of thousands of death. Afterall, it's death and what death symbolizes that mesmerizes them.

Posted by: BigFire at November 27, 2004 10:17 AM


Nothing specifically prevents it, but it's still a rather low probability event.

In the first place, does al Qaeda even still have the baksheesh required for such a scenario ?
It would take tens of millions of dollars.

Further, just one leak and the whole plot fails...
What prevents some underpaid Russian general from collecting from al Qaeda, and also from the US, telling where and when the bomb was delivered ?

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at November 27, 2004 1:02 PM


Tens of millions of dollars, they got.

They don't deal directly with the disgruntled general, but through a whole series of Mafiya intermediaries. The Chechen Mafia has extensive underworld contacts inside Russia, for example.

Posted by: Bart at November 27, 2004 1:54 PM

Bart's scenario is a real threat, but there's another problem for the bad guys: what prevents the Russian general or the Mafia from selling a fake nuke? What's al-Qaeda going to do, open it up and make sure it looks like a real nuclear bomb? Demand they set one off as a test before they buy? Why not take just the shell of a nuclear bomb, rig it with just enough radioactivity to set off a Geiger counter and some convincing-looking electronics and fake explosives, and get some Russian general to put word out that he's got one for sale? If we and the Russians are clever, we'd set up a sting.

Posted by: PapayaSF at November 27, 2004 6:20 PM

If they hit us again we will stop being nice, a message we should perhaps make a greater effort to convey to these people.

Posted by: carter at November 27, 2004 8:46 PM