The elimination of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden from the world stage only months before the tenth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks was a major tactical success for America’s global campaign against the terrorist organization.
However, the fact that it took the world’s most capable intelligence community nearly a decade to find the tallest man in Afghanistan — analysts had long suspected he was living in nearby Pakistan — is not encouraging. In fact, it underscores how effective Osama’s tactics were in prosecuting his own campaign against the West. For all the strides Washington has made in finding and killing Islamic extremists, no one has yet devised a definitive strategy for dealing with the danger that terrorism poses against democracy.
Donald Rumsfeld saw how difficult that task would be as the misguided American invasion of Iraq began to go sour. In a memorandum to his most senior deputies on October 16, 2003, he warned that the U.S. security apparatus was not adapting fast enough to unconventional threats, fretting that, “The cost-benefit ratio is against us! Our cost is billions against the terrorists’ costs of millions.” Bin Laden saw the same thing, observing that it had cost al Qaeda about $500,000 to carry out the 9-11 attacks, but the resulting cost to America was $500 billion. Gal Luft quoted him in late 2004 saying, “Every dollar of al Qaeda defeated a million [U.S.] dollars.”
By the time Rumsfeld wrote his memo, Iraqi insurgents had figured out what Osama already knew: it’s awfully hard to build and sustain a democracy if even a handful of well-organized zealots are determined to tear it down. Faced with the overwhelming conventional capabilities of the U.S. military, the insurgents turned to the same kind of terrorist tactics that bin Laden had employed so effectively. I called those tactics a strategy of chaos in the August 20, 2003 New York Times, but they were really just a variation on the approach bin Laden had employed: when you are greatly outnumbered by your enemies, causing widespread havoc may be the best way of denying those enemies victory.
It is not a new strategy, and the challenge is not confined to democracies. Barbara Tuchman devotes the second chapter of The Proud Tower, her absorbing history of the fin de siecle West, to the machinations of the anarchist movement between 1890 and 1914. Anarchists managed to kill half a dozen heads of state during their brief moment of prominence, including the President of France, the King of Italy and President McKinley. Their anomic violence and constant underground agitation caused widespread unrest, undermining the authority of governments on both sides of the Atlantic. The fact that the anarchists were, in Tuchman’s words, “desperate or deluded men,” was beside the point. They were committed to the idea and the deed, as she puts it, and that devotion by itself gave them political influence.
Thus bin Laden and the elusive coterie of zealots that surrounded him were just the latest manifestation of a long-running phenomenon. Every generation produces its share of nuts, mostly young men, and some of them express their rage in political violence. What changed between the age of the anarchists and the age of terrorism, though, is the range of tools that technological progress put in the hands of radicals. My favorite example of this came shortly after the global war on terror went into high gear, when Pakistani agents burst into the penthouse apartment of a key al Qaeda operative, to find him surrounded by the latest products of the information revolution — laptop computers, cell phones, digital data links, and hundreds of blank CD’s waiting to carry forth the word of Osama. That episode made it clear that America wasn’t going to be the only global actor practicing “network-centric warfare.”
Like pornographers, underground movements are often early adopters of new technology. If it is available in global commerce, terrorist organizations may begin using new technology even before U.S. military forces do. For instance, the U.S. Army is gradually beginning to embrace smart phone technology for battlefield communications that al Qaeda’s supporters have already been using for years. So our headlong rush into the information era has had the effect of empowering extremists of every stripe, a fact that should give policymakers sleepless nights as they contemplate the options that digitization of the life sciences will deliver to our enemies. How long will it be before computer viruses are replaced by real viruses spawned in home biotech labs?
Bin Laden may not have grasped the full potential of emerging technologies — his supporters seemed way too fixated on bombing commercial transports — but the fact he was able to elude capture for 10 years and build a global brand by exploiting the mass media indicates he understood some of that potential. Other, more imaginative, zealots may come along to replace him, and the rapid pace of technological innovation will deliver an ever-increasing spectrum of options into their hands for causing widespread destruction and fear. As long as bin Laden’s successors are willing to die for their beliefs -- a quality shared by true believers in every society and subculture — the terrorist threat will persist.
So other than spending billions of dollars to track down and destroy terrorist operatives the old-fashioned way — you know, with boots on the ground — is there anything that the United States can do differently to cope with the danger? I would suggest three generic steps. First of all, the federal government is too fragmented and constrained to take full advantage of the technologies available for finding and defeating terrorists. Although human intelligence will always be indispensable in collaring individual operatives, America’s biggest advantage in counter-terrorism is its superior command of the technologies that have lately been empowering our enemies. A streamlined, unfettered apparatus for fully leveraging those technologies around the world — from space, from the air, and from whatever other means are feasible — would deliver benefits beyond what organizations like the National Security Agency are providing today. If you think that means I favor fewer legal constraints on the monitoring of Internet traffic and electronic surveillance of overseas suspects, you’re right — I do.
A second area where U.S. leaders need to become much more effective is in dealing with media coverage of terrorist movements. Global media coverage is an essential ingredient in any terrorist strategy, because unless information about extremist atrocities is disseminated there is no widespread fear they can leverage for political influence. Bin Laden understood this well, and worked hard to keep his organization in the spotlight even as al Qaeda’s ability to carry out attacks faltered. The media rewarded him with heavy coverage, and in some places treated him like a hero.
The Bush Administration was hobbled in fighting back against lurid or misleading coverage by the freedoms granted to journalists in most democracies and the fact that the president himself was notoriously inarticulate. However, nobody in authority during Bush’s tenure or President Obama’s seemed prepared to think creatively about how the global media might be used to America’s advantage in the counter-terror campaign. This is an area that deserves much more attention, because just as guerrillas swim in the “sea of the people,” terrorists depend on media coverage for their sustenance and success.
Finally, and most importantly, it is crucial not to define the problem of terrorism or its solutions too broadly. I remember sitting in Secretary Rumsfeld’s conference room shortly after 9-11, and hearing a four-star general warn the assembled pundits that terrorism was a greater threat to America than fascism or communism had been in earlier generations.
The notion that al Qaeda and its ilk might be a bigger danger than the 10,000 nuclear warheads Soviet Russia once aimed at America is ridiculous, and saying such things helps the terrorists to succeed in gaining influence. By the same token, deciding that the solution to anomic violence perpetrated by a handful of religious nuts scattered across Arabia is to transform the political culture of the entire region is absurd, a sure recipe for failure.
Terrorism is a tough challenge, but we need to keep it in perspective if we want to achieve the best results in countering it. Many observers have speculated about whether al Qaeda might have been defeated sooner if Washington had not been detoured into the task of deposing Saddam Hussein, an effort that was justified in part by bogus claims concerning of his ties to terrorists. We might also wonder how the Afghan campaign would look today if U.S. leaders had confined their goals to destroying bin Laden’s organization, rather than taking on the Taliban and becoming embroiled in what amounts to a civil war.
As the anniversary of 9-11 approaches, some commentators have taken to describing the threat Osama bin Laden posed as largely economic. They point to the way in which the Afghan mujaheddin wore down Soviet invaders, bleeding them of resources, and argue bin Laden used that experience as an inspiration to draw America into a war of attrition in the Middle East that would wreck its economy. That interpretation seems plausible in light of the economic decline America has suffered since 9-11, but it’s important to recognize that such a strategy wouldn’t have worked unless U.S. leaders were gullible enough to fall for it. To some degree they were, spending trillions of dollars on overseas wars and domestic security arrangements, while neglecting festering economic problems that led to the loss of trillions more.
But bin Laden didn’t make us invade Iraq and he didn’t cause the housing bubble to burst, so let’s not give him too much credit. Disturbing though the prospect of future terrorist attacks may be, the beginning of wisdom is to see those acts for what they are — the desperate acts of a few deluded zealots who have no better means at their disposal, and are hoping we are foolish enough to over-react.