September 10, 2007


Muddling militants (The Ottawa Citizen, September 10, 2007)

The absence of Islamist terror attacks in the West, post 9/11, is puzzling. True, we had the transit bombings in London and Madrid, but the body count has been lower than many expected, considering the countless number of "soft" targets available in North America and Europe.

One theory is that al-Qaeda and its affiliates are biding their time, waiting to score a spectacular mass-casualty attack rather than hitting lesser targets on a more frequent basis. A competing theory is that counterterrorism agents are in top form and thus have been able to avert many attacks. A third theory is that the radicals are tied up in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

The arrest last week in Germany of one Fritz Gelowicz, a 28-year-old convert to Islam, suggests another explanation: It could just be that would-be Islamists operating in the West are too socially and intellectually unstable to accomplish their violent goals.

It may seem an odd way to think about it, but consider the possibility that Ramzi Yousef and Mohammed Atta just happened to be, for lack of a better word, geniuses. If true, this would have a few implications. For one thing, it would seem unlikely that geniuses in the field of terrorism are any more common than in any of Man's various other areas of endeavor -- there's arguably reason to suppose them less common -- so it may be that the "success" of al Qaeda is largely dependent on a rather limited resource, Indeed, such geniuses are a vanishing resource, given that we caught the one and the other had to kill himself in order for his plan to work. This does not mean that terrorism isn't a threat, just that it could prove to be so inherently limited a threat that truly spectacular attacks, like those on the WTC, will be rare enough that we can learn to deal with them with some degree of equanimity.

The sorts of attacks that would be truly disruptive and terrorizing for American society would be something like a wave of individual suicide bombers as the Palestinians unleashed on Israel several years ago and the Tamils used in India. That al Qaeda has not been able to mount such attacks is suggestive too. The failure, for instance, jibes with the notion that the bombers in such cases are generally drawn from populations that consider themselves to be occupied by the target of the attacks and, to the extent that they have coherent political objectives, are attempting to get the neighboring power to withdraw its military forces. If this is accurate, both our lack of any Israel/Palestine-style territorial disputes and our physical distance from even the territories where we do have forces stationed appear to make it hard for terrorist organizations to recruit and launch such bombers.

Important as it is then to keep our guard up, a realistic assessment of how great a danger we face from al Qaeda going forward might return the unexpected answer: not particularly much.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 10, 2007 12:32 PM

The intellectual shock caused by the Pape article was almost painful for me. The thing blew my mind...

The geographical factor is interesting and one I haven't seen addressed.

Pape also never answered why some groups choose suicide bombing and others don't...

Posted by: Benny at September 10, 2007 1:53 PM

"We only have to be lucky once. You have to be lucky every time."

Pre-9/11, "we" was Al Qaeda, and "you" was the US. Their planners could hatch dozens of plans and send lackeys (mostly incompetent) to try to carry them all out. Finally they had a very competent team get lucky enough to mostly pull off a huge attack. Now that the roles are reversed, we've killed or captured pretty much all of their smart guys. Which is of course absolutely no reason to switch back to playing defense, but that's what we're going to do anyway, because that's the way we operate.

Posted by: b at September 10, 2007 1:53 PM

The major terrorist groups are ideological privateers working under license for a select few ME regimes. Those same regimes have called off the dogs for now cuzza the US troops on their borders.

Don't make me say "duh."

Posted by: ras at September 10, 2007 2:48 PM

ras is in the right track. The counter-measure to terror is superior terror. The fuel for the world Jihad is the ideology of the spiritual jailhouse, but those "select few middle eastern regimes" definitely provide bases of operation.

Thus it has been important to let them know what they must do ". . . when we come round with a few guns."

Hanoi John was on the other day still ranting about how we have failed becausre haven't nailed Obama bin Laden (so he says, but we know better). All wrong. We needed to make a point to all the jailhouse, and what better way to make it than by hanging Saddam?

Posted by: Lou Gots at September 10, 2007 3:30 PM

Explosives are hard, too. You keep losing your bomb "experts" to quality control problems. But why, I wonder, no school shootings or mall shootings or, I hesitate to ask today, no Rosh Hashana shootings.

Posted by: Ibid at September 10, 2007 4:37 PM

I agree with ras, using a proxy army works so long as the target doesn't say, publicly or privately, that an attack by a proxy does not gain the sponsor 'plausible deniability'. The Iraq campaign has provided some lessons - the USA can launch a sustained attack on the other side of the world, can do so without greatly increasing its post-Cold War military, other powers will not openly prevent the USA from doing so, the USA will not strain its domestic economy doing so.

My questions - does any state sponsor of a proxy group want to authorize attacks in the USA or have any connection to that despite the domestic political squabbles in the USA? Do any of them care to bet the regime on the USA's reaction to an attack on its civilians at home or abroad, to have the possibility that a mass-casualty attack on the USA may be brought home to them? Do any of them want to risk their necks on the USA's intelligence agencies getting the sponsoring nation right and only retaliating against the right party?

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 10, 2007 5:01 PM

They're notoriously bad shots.

Posted by: oj at September 10, 2007 5:33 PM


Additionally, we can note that AQ tried very hard to play the misdirection card: I.e., they could have staffed their 9-11 operation with AQ members of many nationalities, but they made of pt of using as many Saudis as they could, and of that fact being made very public.

They were trying to goad their far enemy into attacking their near enemy for them, so that they, AQ, could swoop in and rule the rubble. When the US correctly went after the real prob instead - AQ, based in Afg - a message went out loud and clear to any others who would consider such a bluff: you only get one chance; feel lucky, punk?

Posted by: ras at September 10, 2007 5:40 PM

False. The counter measure is giving them what they want. Israel's surrender has ended the suicide bombings and we haven't been attacked since we withdrew the troops from the Kingdom.

Posted by: oj at September 10, 2007 5:44 PM


The attacks stopped before the troops were removed, not after, and while they Saudis waited to see what the US response to the towers would be. The threat of being spider-holed is a powerful motivator.

Theirs is a traditional ME pattern of war: probe and escalate, a natural extension of raids as agriculture. They did it in Sicily and in Spain yonks ago, and tried it in France (till Martel beat them back). More recently, they continued it with the Cole and the embassies, and were continuing it further w/9-11.

Posted by: ras at September 10, 2007 8:06 PM

Upon which we withdrew from the Kingdom.

Posted by: oj at September 10, 2007 8:30 PM

A withdrawal that was a nice gesture, but does not represent the reason the attacks ceased. If it were, then either AQ no longer hates the US enough to attack, or the House Of Saud was willing to continue a spate of 9-11's, hell or highwater, confident in its strength to resist any counterstrikes.

Neither is a realistic appraisal ... but to instead postulate that a totalitarian dictatorship was afraid it might be toppled by an angry enemy on its borders? Now that makes sense.

Posted by: ras at September 10, 2007 8:57 PM

Terrorism is a means, not an ends. It may be that they're getting what they want without the need for additional attacks.

Posted by: Jorge Curioso at September 10, 2007 11:29 PM

If one is to assert that the attacks on Israel have stopped, there is no point in further discussion.

We may surrender here to appease one tiny faction of the spiritual jailhouse, somewhere else to buy off another, to no avail. The civilizational conflict is with Jihad itself; some other faction will always try to strike again.

Posted by: Lou Gots at September 11, 2007 3:58 AM

A means with an excellent record of achieving one of its ends, the withdrawal of foreign forces from territory that the terrorists are native to.

Posted by: oj at September 11, 2007 7:23 AM

Yet they don't strike.

Posted by: oj at September 11, 2007 7:27 AM

Exactly. AQ doesn't much care about the US, the far enemy. The Sa'uds, Shi'a, etc. are the near enemy.

Posted by: oj at September 11, 2007 7:39 AM

They don't attack the homeland because they know it would be fatal to them.

Posted by: erp at September 11, 2007 10:27 AM