Monday, April 23, 2012

Everything is Relative Even The Terrorists

The past week has seen a bunch of pieces arguing that Al Qaeda is stronger now than ever before or weaker now than ever before.  As someone who does not study AQ at all or terrorism much, I feel I am especially qualified to comment.  This is why twitter is great--no need for citations.

My first take on this debate is that the folks arguing that AQ is stronger confuse opportunity with strength.  Yes, there are all kinds of events/processes/dynamics that are opening the window for AQ--more opportunity:
  • 9/11 fatigue--countries and populations are tired of being alert and spending heaps of resources and energy on fighting terrorism.  Much of this is actually quite appropriate as the over-reactions have probably been less than helpful.
  • Arab Spring and other dynamics have reduced state capacity to fight terrorism.  Feeble democracies may not be energetic or competent when it comes to chasing terrorism, when compared to the autocracies that they replaced.  And autocracies focused on political opposition may take their eyes off of the terrorism effort.  Of course, weak democracies may cause fewer folks to seek extremist solutions like joining terrorist groups that promise to kill their new adherents via suicide terrorism.
  • The fiscal crises and Great Recession mean that the advanced democracies have less money to dedicate to the CT battle.  On the other hand, with fiscal restraints, perhaps less money will be wasted?  Sorry, forget my foolish optimism.
Second, the question is of AQ now vs when?  I picked 1998 as semi-random date for AQ's peak:
  1.  Pre-9/11 AQ had a very useful base in Afghanistan and had cells in Germany and elsewhere that were quite useful, as we realized during the 9/11 investigation.
  2.  Somalia now vs Somalia 1998?  Pretty much the same in terms of haven for terrorists, with more US drones/SOF attacks now.
  3. Antagonized Muslim world for past ten years with realization that AQ kills more Muslims than anyone else.
  4. Democratic alternative seems to work, at least thus far in North Africa.
  5. Bin Laden is still dead as are most folks who have been appointed #3 in AQ. Lots of lost principals and agents, which means less preferred folks are now in key spots.  If they had been preferred, many of them would have had top spots before.  This does not bode well for command and control.
  6. a decade of antagonizing Muslim world, death of leader and 47 #3's, more unity in anti-AQ fight, lost base in A-stan hurts 1/2 
It may be that the West is weaker, but that does not mean that AQ is stronger now than before.  It just means that the West may respond poorly to the next attack. 

1 comment:

R. William Ayres said...

Power has always been relative - power to do what? It's remarkable that, after decades of increasingly-sophisticated research and discussion amongst political scientists about what power is and how to measure it, public pronouncements about one of the more pressing power/security issues of the day falls back on "analysis" more suited to a cracker-jack box (or presidential campaign?) than a serious discussion.

That said, Steve's bullet points are excellent - much better than the standard "public debate" that infests much of the airwaves. If only CNN would give him some airtime...