by Eric Martin
Daveed Gartenstein Ross has written an insightful piece outlining the latest trend in al-Qaeda's ever-evolving choice of tactics in its economic war against the United States and other Western powers:
Two Nokia phones, $150 each, two HP printers, $300 each, plus shipping, transportation and other miscellaneous expenses add up to a total bill of $4,200. That is all what Operation Hemorrhage cost us… On the other hand this supposedly 'foiled plot', as some of our enemies would like to call [it], will without a doubt cost America and other Western countries billions of dollars in new security measures."
Thus begins the lead article in the latest issue of Inspire, the English-language online magazine produced by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the jihadi group's Yemen branch, which was released Saturday. The cover features a photo of a UPS plane and the striking headline: "$4,200." It is referring to the recent cartridge-bomb plot, and specifically the great disparity between the cost of executing a terrorist attack and the cost to Western countries of defending against asymmetric warfare -- costs now numbering in the billions of dollars a year and climbing. The magazine warns that future attacks will be "smaller, but more frequent" -- an approach that "some may refer to as the strategy of a thousand cuts."
The slick packaging may be new, but al Qaeda's emphasis on bleeding the U.S. economy is not. From Osama bin Laden's earliest declaration of war against America, al Qaeda has linked its attacks to the U.S. economy. He and other salafi jihadi thinkers had long believed that economic power was the key to America's military might; they thus saw weakening Western economies as their path to victory.
As Gartenstein-Ross tells it, al-Qaeda has gradually refined its strategy from initially focusing on economically vital targets, to attempting to draw the US into protracted and costly wars (there are currently two of those ongoing), to targeting oil production and, now, to a flurry of smaller attacks that, even when "unsuccessful", inspire a massive overreaction in terms of the inevitable security response (both in terms of interdicting the actual attempted attack, and in the countermeasures adopted in the distant aftermath).
Considering the crescendo of opposition to the new, ever-more-invasive airport security measures that, in many ways, are a response to the "failed" underwear bomber, Gartenstein-Ross's timing is impeccable. His piece is a reminder of the urgent need to shift away from alarmist overreactions to terrorism in both the domestic and foreign theaters.
Domestically, we need to come to understand that reacting to the details of the most recent failed attempt will leave us spending billions pointlessly fighting the last war, so to speak. That is not to say that there should not be some hardening of targets but we need to be more realistic, and ever-vigilant that our responses are not taken to such extremes that we cede al-Qaeda a series of victories every time they make any old slapdash attempt at an attack that has some at least some novel features.
For example, in reaction to a failed (and scientifically implausible) plot to mix liquid explosives on a plane, we required all carry on liquids to be in containers of a certain size because...what exactly? On the one hand, mixing liquid elements to create a bomb in an airplane bathroom is exceedingly difficult, calling into question the need for stringent restrictions. On the other hand, if the near-impossible feat can be achieved, then mandating that the liquids that eventually comprise the explosive be in 100ml bottles will be of little solace to the passengers on board (even if, due to size limitations, multiple terrorists will be needed to carry the smaller containers on board).
In the foreign theater, the United States must shift away from an active, interventionist approach. Instead, what we need is a posture akin to the approach recommended by George Kennan during the Cold War, call it Containment 2.0. Parker Potter explains some of the contours:
At its best, it is a practical idea. It holds that, without exhausting or overextending ourselves, we can bound a threat and curtail its ability to operate, then wait patiently for it to wither into an irrelevance or nuisance. It works well with a self-defeating enemy, be it the Soviet Union with its doomed Marxist-Leninist system and imperial overstretch, or al-Qaida, a movement that habitually alienates the very Muslims it claims to represent. Containment is not only about outlasting the enemy, but about keeping costs down and avoiding self-defeating behaviour. [...]
It's time for restraint over activism, for power conservation over its expenditure, for doing no harm over doing good. It means combating terrorism with ordinary police work and intelligence sharing and calibrated disruption. We should focus our military most on what it does most effectively: secure our territory and sea lanes, deter other states and exist as a wise insurance policy for emergencies. Let's try that for the next 10 years, and see where it takes us.
It also means being restrained in how we think. The world may be chaotic. But we are part of that chaos. Except in atypical circumstances, the military is not a surgical tool of political engineering, but a bludgeon wielded by specialists in violence. We therefore don't have the power to alter the political condition of others at our own timetable.
Robert Wright* further expands on the concept, driving home the point that al-Qaeda's ideology/worldview is self-limiting, and will eventually die out of its own accord - just like Communism. However, whereas there was at least some arguable virtue in taking a more active role in competing with the USSR on a global scale (by requiring the USSR to compete with us, and the spend the money to do it, we hastened their economic collapse), when confronting non-state actors in such a way, the economic leverage has shifted.
Rather than hastening the demise of the non-state actor by forcing them to keep up with our actions, their costs remain minimal while we are left spending multiple trillions of dollars chasing shadows, whacking moles, inspecting zip-lock bags of shampoo and installing backscatter imagers to scan 3 year old children on airport security lines.
That is, when they are not being groped by TSA inspectors instead.
(*Full Disclosure: Robert Wright is my boss of sorts with respect to The Progressive Realist website that I edit)