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September 22, 2010 9:32 AM   Subscribe

Assessing the Terrorist Threat -- Bruce Hoffman and Peter Bergen describe how Al Qaida has evolved since the attacks in 2001, including the development of domestic USA networks and the increasingly diverse and decentralized nature of terrorism. Homeland Security and local law enforcement are not keeping up with the changes.

In a nutshell, AQ is less able to launch mass casualty attacks, but is instead developing a capability of recruiting domestic terrorists for numerous small attacks. The probability of success of any individual attack is low, but the payoff for a successful one is very high. AQ is being successfully attacked and is evolving as a result.

The trajectory is similar to the change in domestic white supremacist terrorism over the last thirty years to the point where most of the threat is from isolated "lone wolf" attacks. Similarly, AQ is becoming more of a leaderless resistance organization and less of an elite paramilitary. This trajectory is typical of failing terrorist movements.

The major force multiplier for AQ in the US is the strategic cooperation of domestic extremists and Islamophobes. Terrorism is mostly about appearances, so the appearance of the US in Moslem eyes as a nation of haters is a major asset to jihadists.
posted by warbaby (33 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Appearance"?
Pakistan’s remote tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan are in a state of virtual panic tonight as US drones continue to loom in the air and three attacks against separate towns across the region killed at least 28 people and wounded an unknown number of others.

Officials have so far failed to identify any of the targets of the attacks, but reports from the ground suggest that one of the US drones attacked a funeral procession that was carried out for people killed in a previous attack.

Reports suggested that the targets hit were related to one of the militant factions which has an existing ceasefire with the Pakistani government, and it does not appear that any of the victims of the attacks were “high value” targets.

The Obama Administration has dramatically escalated the number of attacks in recent weeks, and has launched an average of about an attack every day so far this month. None of those prior attacks killed any confirmed militants, but a number of children were confirmed killed in several recent strikes.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:42 AM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


Al-Qaeda or its allies continue to have the capacity to kill dozens, or even hundreds, of Americans in a single attack.

Al-Qaeda, Schmall-Qaeda. Teenagers with easy access to guns have the capacity to kill dozens of Americans in a single attack. Driving to work is, by far, the most risky thing Americans do - and this threat is hardly given a second thought. Poor access to medical care kills more Americans than Al-Qaeda could ever imagine. If the American government is gonna set priorities for "protecting" Americans, Al Qaeda should be way down at the bottom of the list.

The greatest threat to America posed by "Al Qaeda" is the continued use by the American government of terrorism as a propaganda tool.

"The current threat level is orange."
posted by three blind mice at 10:07 AM on September 22, 2010 [23 favorites]


but is instead developing a capability of recruiting domestic terrorists for numerous small attacks
Like the Undie bomber and The Time-square "Wrong type of fertilizer" guy?

Enough of this fear mongering bullshit. Al Qaida is over. These "loan wolf" attacks happen from depressed people every few years regardless of what radical islamists are going to do.

People hyping AQ are doing it because they benefit from public fear somehow.
posted by delmoi at 10:08 AM on September 22, 2010 [8 favorites]


This is the same tired bullshit it's always been: we don't have enough capabilities to keep up with the terrorist threat! Keep throwing money at us! I'm not going to take time to dig up the same exact reports from 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009, but you can be my guest.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 10:09 AM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


As an American I'm way more afraid of other Americans than I am of foreign terrorists.
posted by ghharr at 10:10 AM on September 22, 2010 [7 favorites]


Excuse me. Can anybody identify any ACTUAL Al Queda-related terrorist attacks in the United States in the last few years? The Security Theater Agencies don't even bother reporting 'thwarted conspiracies' they break up anymore (or its that the whole 'lone wolf' thing?)

Reports like this just seem to be encouraging "domestic extremists and Islamaphobes" and making it more likely that 99% of future terrorism will be from that direction. Good show!
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:12 AM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


As an American I'm way more afraid of other Americans than I am of foreign terrorists.

Wise stance, as I believe they have a higher success rate.
posted by Dark Messiah at 10:14 AM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


Clearly we have to invade Iran. It's the only answer.
posted by T.D. Strange at 10:17 AM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


Mumble mumble, Pyrrhic victory, mumble mumble.
posted by milarepa at 10:18 AM on September 22, 2010


The trajectory is similar to the change in domestic white supremacist terrorism over the last thirty 60 years to the point where most of the threat is from isolated "lone wolf" attacks. it's gone from a powerful, feared, social institution to a few redneck wankers who haven't been told the war's over and they lost.

Yeah, this wasn't the most powerful analogy they could make if they're trying to keep me stirred up.

/lived in the south all my life
/just sayin'
posted by randomkeystrike at 10:19 AM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Will we ever be free from the threat of policy wonks?
posted by kuatto at 10:22 AM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


Will we ever be free from the threat of policy wonks?

First against wall when the Palin revolution comes?
posted by ghharr at 10:30 AM on September 22, 2010


As an American I'm way more afraid of other Americans than I am of foreign terrorists.

As an American, I'm way more afraid I'm going to eat one of those pieces of chocolate cake left in the break room.
posted by marxchivist at 10:35 AM on September 22, 2010 [8 favorites]


This report comes out of something called the "Bipartisan Policy Center". That means that both sides are gobbling up advantages from AQ-phobia. So don't think your vote for either Republicans or Democrats is going to make a difference in November. Right and left, they are all of them, vile beyond belief.
posted by Faze at 10:54 AM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


As an American, I'm way more afraid I'm going to eat one of those pieces of chocolate cake left in the break room.

Just to be on the safe side, if they have been in there a while and look a little iffy, you may want to post an AskMe about it.
posted by TedW at 10:55 AM on September 22, 2010


Admittedly, it's a bit of a slog at 35 pgs, plus appendices and note. If you read the report, you'll see by pg. 28-29 that it's pretty critical of current policy, even characterizes it as "stumbling blindly." If you get that far, you'll see that the authors anticipated and addressed most of the comments in this thread.
posted by warbaby at 10:59 AM on September 22, 2010


The cake has only been there since 11AM EST. I am pleased to report the chocolate cake has been completely neutralized and is no longer a threat to our freedoms.

*burp*
posted by marxchivist at 11:08 AM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


It's hard for me to take "terrorist experts" like Hoffman and Bergen seriously, given that without the amorphous (and often bogus) threat of perpetual terror they're out of jobs, and also given that Al Qaeda never existed.
posted by existential hobo at 11:29 AM on September 22, 2010


If you get that far, you'll see that the authors anticipated and addressed most of the comments in this thread.

It's simple cost-benefit. If we want to reduce the "terrorist threat" to zero, or effectively to zero, there are means to do so. But they come at the expense of other things, like education, basic human services, freedom from government surveillance, etc. Security organizations will always favor the former over the latter, because it's their job. So we, as citizens who have other priorities and who recognize that there are more important things than reducing the threat to zero, should develop the wherewithal to tell them to fuck off when they come around telling us that they need more toys, more analysts, and more organization.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 11:41 AM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


These "loan wolf" attacks

Maybe Elizabeth Warren can help out with these.
posted by freecellwizard at 11:54 AM on September 22, 2010


The cake has only been there since 11AM EST. I am pleased to report the chocolate cake has been completely neutralized and is no longer a threat to our freedoms.

"Though no one was seriously injured in the Breakroom Cake Divebombing, analysts and Pentagon officials agree that American workplaces need to start making more serious and expensive efforts to secure breakrooms, lunchrooms and even cafeterias against the sugary forces of foreign pastry. The Department of Breakroom Security has been granted 63 bazillion dollars in emergency funding to bolster its workplace mealtime security apparatus, and employees in sensitive swivel-service industries are being asked to comply with blanket bans all batter-based foodstuffs voluntarily.

"Back to you, Wolf."

"Candy, seems like the most reasonable thing for Americans to do would be to stop eating entirely."

"Well, that's certainly the GOP position moving into these midterm elections. In response, Democrats plan to table a bill sponsored by Joe Lieberman next week making it expressly legal for panicked-Americans to crack open each other's heads and feast on the goo inside."

"Another excellent reason to cower in fear behind your couch or bed. Thanks, Candy. We'll take a break. When we return to The Situation Room: Ethnic groceries selling calling cards - shouldn't we be investigating them for something?"
posted by gompa at 12:18 PM on September 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


The cake is a lie!
posted by randomkeystrike at 12:27 PM on September 22, 2010


I've been thinking a lot about this lately, and I believe that, at this point, there is really only one conclusion that can be drawn about the last ten years"

The terrorists won.

Plain and simple. When weighed against the amount of actual damage done and lives lost from their attack and compared to the complete shift our country did with regard to foreign policy, war-making, civil liberties, torture, political infighting, and money spent in anti-terror activities, they won.

We went from a country with very little ill will towards the Muslim community, to one that is actively fostering hostilities in several countries (as well as a healthy dose of xenophobia right here at home).

And the very best part of all this? Most of our actions have made us that much more unattractive in the eyes of the world, and thus, aided the recruitment of the extremist groups we've been trying to stop. Every time some children are accidentally harmed by a drone trying to stop a terrorist, we make more angry brothers and fathers who are looking for revenge.

We lost, they won, and the only way we are ever going to break even is if we stop thinking that the game is still being played.
posted by quin at 12:29 PM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


...also given that Al Qaeda never existed

I don't know whether to believe Jason Burke in the YouTube video where he says it never existed or in the Guardian where he describes how this organization has changed in the last 30 years.
posted by MtDewd at 12:57 PM on September 22, 2010




A lot of people treat the decentralized architecture as more dangerous because it's harder to stop.
But it also means you - 'you' being any organization - lose a lot of redundancy (important in bomb making, say) and diversity of expertise and oversight.
So you lose effectiveness because you have no one to say to you, f'rinstance "Hey man, no one is going to pay you to blow up Wrigley Field no matter how much they hate the Mayor."

From the Terror Threat More Diverse, Study Says: "No agency in the U.S. government, for example, is charged with monitoring and stopping the radicalization and recruitment of Americans to terrorist ranks"
Except for the FBI domestically, the CIA overseas, the NSA which monitors communications, the DHS which coordinates the actions of many government organizations specifically to combat terrorism, the DoD which is responsible for military response to terrorist actions... oh, wait, that's from the "make shit up" study, carry on.

The terrorists can only win when they stop being terrorists and start being the new order.
We're spending a lot of time and money on this kind of thing, yes. More than we should. And counterterrorism is more sexy than it was, perhaps due to "24" and other crapola. And politicians seem to want to use it for their personal stalking horse (sewer problem? Terrorism. Referendum not going to pass? Terrorism.)

Lower value threats are a good thing. One reason I am pro-firearm and anti-death penalty is because large organized groups can kill far more people far more efficiently than one guy or a small group of nuts.
Sucks when it happens, but at least it's not a big organized machine of co-supported, integrated and coordinated action.
As with anything, it's the difference between putting up a large building, say, by yourself and doing it with 300 other people. You're not going to learn masonry, ironworking, electicity, plumbing, etc. etc.
So too - having to plan, build and execute is a lot harder as one guy, no matter how fanatic he is.

What has happened over the years - quietly - is the recognition that there is a connection between funding, ideology, and organization and intelligence and the delivery of skills and the actual person or group executing the terrorist act. And that is a victory of sorts.

Unfortunately some people still think the government should spend its time chasing the one guy who's nutty enough to plant the bomb rather than the guys funding and arming him.
Probably because it's way more exciting.
Reading documents, chasing paper, freezing assets - Jack Bauer wouldn't do that.


Also, I disagree with the premise. The benefits of decentralization of force diminishes greatly as access to force increases.
Sort of why people who are ok with someone owning a deer rifle get skittish when he's got an assault rifle. Or a grenade launcher. Or surface to air missile.

So too, preventing a mass casualty event from something really nasty - chemical, biological, nuclear, whatever - is going to get harder as technology advances.

It is, in fact, easier to circumvent the development of such things with incentives (as outlandishmarxist says) than it is to do with force.
I'd say the reason for that is not security organizations - who certainly may want bigger and more bang, but that's pretty much their job anyway so it's redundant - but rather the desire to maintain economic and social privileges politically.

Same deal with Rome, really. Bread and Circuses and a war economy.

I do think there's going to be a very big bang in a large city the near-ish future unless that changes.
Probably not from the terrorists we think of as terrorists now, but from other, larger, better heeled principles using terrorism tactically.
The world has gotten too close and too complex to act without using anonymity and distortion over naked force.

But hell, Kennedy knew that as far back as the early 60s.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:06 PM on September 22, 2010


Also related: Pentagon tries to buy entire print run of US spy expose Operation Dark Heart: US defence department attempts to prevent book by former intelligence officer Anthony Shaffer from reaching the shops
posted by existential hobo at 3:12 PM on September 22, 2010


the recognition that there is a connection between funding, ideology, and organization and intelligence and the delivery of skills and the actual person or group executing the terrorist act.

But given the shadowy nature of the terrorist threat, along with the documented history of outright distortions we have heard about the supposed enemy, and also given how much money flows through things like illegal arms sales (to say nothing of Afghan heroin production), the question is who (or even sometimes if) the terrorists are.

For instance, here's a tidbit from an article today about arms smuggling in South Florida:

In June, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and a former Israeli aviation executive were charged in Fort Lauderdale federal court with conspiring to export 2,000 AK-47s to Somalia

My point being that much of the connection between funding, ideology, and organization is forever hidden from view, and the distinct possibility emerges that some part of our government, contrary to its stated PR goals in the ongoing GWOT, is just lying to us about what's really going on.
posted by existential hobo at 3:46 PM on September 22, 2010


The major force multiplier for AQ in the US is the strategic cooperation of domestic extremists and Islamophobes. Terrorism is mostly about appearances, so the appearance of the US in Moslem eyes as a nation of haters is a major asset to jihadists.

It's Muslim. The root is سلم

The actual Arabic spelling is مُسْلِم

That little squiggly mark is called a domma, it is the short vowel equivalent of an "oo" sound in English. Hence Mu not Mo. The little dash below the second from last letter is called a kessra, hence im, not em. Altogether it spells Muslim not Moslem.
posted by Biru at 4:00 PM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


Thanks Biru. Moslem, whilst not entirely correct, was an improvement over the colonial term "Musselmen" which makes me cringe whenever I read it.
posted by three blind mice at 5:16 PM on September 22, 2010


I do think there's going to be a very big bang in a large city the near-ish future unless that changes.

Like a 30" gas main blowing up a neighborhood?

There's nothing terrorists can do that's more horrifying than what we do to ourselves. Leaded gas. Salmonella eggs. BPA-coated receipts. Etcetera.

The only thing the terrorists really have going for themselves is our fear of "other". If "other" hurts us, oh noes! If "us" hurts us, oh well.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:37 PM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


is just lying to us about what's really going on.

I think it’s even worse than that existential hobo. Many parts of our government are engaging in distortion for a variety of reasons, some of them systemic (e.g. – overstating the annual budget so far away bean counters don’t arbitrarily reduce your funding without regard to need) some of them natural, some selfish, some political/ideological.

The latter is a big problem. Especially given not only the nature of the collusion between the military industry and some military officials, which really as bad as it is, is still just in the ‘corruption’ category, but the absolute primacy of civilian leadership and the distortion possible if political leaders ignore the reality.

If you have part of the government providing an accurate reality picture, and a part higher up the chain ignoring or distorting that reality picture and the latter is better disseminated and has more influence on the national conscience, you’re naturally going to have what seem like unintended consequences or non-productive work.
When actually it’s part of the design of those elements or factions interested in something other than counterterrorism.
And regular self-defeating deception and pig-headedness happens in a variety of ways.
All that above and beyond just plain idiocy.

If it were more monolithic it would probably be easier to deal with. But it’s more a ‘clean the Augean stables’ job than a slay the lion thing.

Like a 30" gas main blowing up a neighborhood?

Like a nuclear explosion. I’d agree though there’s decent odds on another nuclear accident like Chernobyl (uranium mining, production and demand are all on the rise). Michael Levi (from his book “the major limits to physical materials protection and material control pertain to human factors such as the presence or absence of a highly developed nonproliferation and security culture and the commitment by political leaders to expend the resources necessary to make MPC&A a national priority”) and Graham Allison have a lot to say on the nuclear terror subject.

I think Allison's ‘no nuclear states’ proposition really rankles some people who don’t like the idea of the U.S. not having nukes.
And I disagree with his premise that state and terrorist action are intrinsically separate things. (He says http://bigthink.com/ideas/18972 terrorists can’t make fissile material, so lock up all the material and weapons tightly. But a state’s interest can be served through the actions of a terrorist organization, or anonymous terrorism. And they can disavow the act or protest that it was stolen, etc. I’m not excluding potential U.S. action from this kind of scenario either – given the givens. We have our own brand of crazies here as well.)

There's nothing terrorists can do that's more horrifying than what we do to ourselves.


Yeah, they seem to be similar cases of willful blindness. To environmental disaster. To the idea that we should favor unregulated commerce over government ‘intrusion’ into such things as food safety (I can mentally hear Jurgis Rudkus puking up a lung). To catastrophic terrorism and nuclear proliferation.
All very preventable. And something we haven’t done much about. And it’s been around for a while.
(Nice report. From ’98. Prophetic really. Except … the bit that gets me is “Our leaders will be judged negligent for not addressing catastrophic terrorism more urgently.” – Yeah, you’d’ve thought so, eh? Turns out, not so much.)
The IAEA has reports of hundreds of nuclear smuggling incidents since the early 90s. Meanwhile some guys kill 6-odd thousand Americans with a few airplanes and we still don’t get our shit together to change the field. The new paradigm is not “hey, we could ALL die” it’s “Those damn muslims! Grrr!”
You could make 40,000 nukes with the 1,300-odd metric tons of HEU and plutonium in Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.
And hey, those places are as f’ing stable as Ward Cleaver, right?

(It’s an ongoing thing. The Georgians stopped a Russian national in Tbilisi in 2006 trying to sell almost 80 grams of 90% HEU, which is weapons grade material. About 1/25th what you’d need for critical mass, but it does reveal there’s a market for it. And were I a terrorist leader, that is how I would go about it. Not buy en masse, but a little bit here, a bit there, and build over time. I’d expect the organization to outlive me anyway – and I’d pretty much have to believe that as a fanatic – so I’ve got the patience. – In ’03 they stopped a guy at the Georgian-Armenian border with 170 grams of the stuff. (cue Gogol Bordello))

And $211 million (+/-) out of the U.S. budget is f’ing peanuts for the security it provides.
Of course, we’ve got to make sure we prevent homosexuals from getting in the military. That there’s a priority. Potential annihilation of four million people? – yeaaah, we’ll get to it at some point.

The big problem, beyond the willful blindness (and really – it’s scary as hell to think about so maybe that's why people don't) is the willingness to sacrifice to whatever is politically expedient at the time (John McCain as the textbook example).

Ideologically - you have elements as disparate as Andreas Toupadakis and (Ret.) General Gene Habiger agreeing that, as Habiger said, it’s not a matter of ‘if’, it’s a matter of when.’
The hell of it is, as Allison says, it’s preventable. We're just ... not.

And AQ, and other terrorist organizations, have been red herringed to death. Such that it’s apparently unimaginable that anyone else would ever use a loose nuke for any reason. We don’t have any specific intelligence that AQ is making an effort to get a bomb, so – hey, why secure them?

Well hell, no one is actively lighting matches in the house, so why not just keep pouring gasoline all over the floor?

National security been so polarized as a terrorism issue, we forget basic security issues and what to prioritize.

Small outfits shooting up hotels really sucks, but it can (*can) be handled by special weapons units and regionally coordinated tactical response teams.

Nuclear material smuggling, other mass casualty causing weapons – Joe Cop isn’t going to be able to hunt down. Neither is Joe Infantry.
And by the time something like that gets to the point of execution it’s already too late. So the focus on the lone wolves, the guys pulling the cord or the trigger is stupid. It would be miraculous if you could pull off stopping them that late in the game.

That’s one of the supremely stupid things about the ticking time bomb scenario people bandied about trying to justify torture. The idiocy of torture itself aside – apparently it’s perfectly ok that 24 hours before Joe Terrorist and his outfit set up this gigantic ticking time bomb plot the security apparatus of the country was sitting with its thumb up its ass waiting for someone to suddenly be dangerous.
Leads? Proactive response? Investigations? Gee, we thought we’d just grab some guy (who’s willing to die in agony) and beat it out of him and save the day in the last seconds. - Silly stuff.

Communication makes security. It's secrecy that kills.
Well hell, case in point, the lone wolf. Who the hell can know what some guy who never talks to anyone is planning at night in his basement?
Even the terrorist organization that might be sympathetic otherwise - is it a success if even you don't know what the hell is going on with the people you call your own?
So yeah, it's a sort of death spiral for them.

But I don't think that's making us any more secure or solving any of the root issues that gave and give rise to disaffected groups using terror as a tactic.
And the relative danger of terror to any population from a smaller and smaller group is only going to increase as time goes on - to an inevitability, given we don't change what we're doing and remain complacent by the 'circus' and beguiled by the 'security theater' of what appears to be action film foreign policy.

As the monopoly on force decreases - whether by design by state actors or as a natural result of the progression of technology - the need for interdependent oversight and checks on weapons that can kill large numbers needs to increase drastically.

That pretty much flows from the premise of many of the pieces from the FPP. It's just that we - not just the U.S. but the 'first world' - have used nukes and technological supremacy as influence and we really just can't do that arbitrarily anymore without dramatically increasing the threat to our own populations.
MAD won't work - who do you retaliate against if it's a non-state actor? Or if they're willing to sacrifice thousands or millions of their own to advance their ideology?
So, as Allison says, remove the source of the threat that you can remove.

Otherwise terrorists can indeed do a great deal of damage to us. Albeit with our own numbheaded help.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:59 AM on September 23, 2010


Thanks Biru. Moslem, whilst not entirely correct, was an improvement over the colonial term "Musselmen" which makes me cringe whenever I read it.

It might be a corruption of مسلمين

"Muslimeen" - Plural of Muslim.
posted by Biru at 3:41 PM on September 27, 2010


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