Daniel W. Drezner

Why I’m glad I’m not a counter-terrorism expert

Why I’m glad I’m not a counter-terrorism expert

Over the weekend, CIA chief Leon Panetta had a chat with This Week‘s Jake Tapper, and provided the following assessment of Al Qaeda’ capabilities:

TAPPER: How many Al Qaida do you think are in Afghanistan?

PANETTA: I think the estimate on the number of Al Qaida is actually relatively small. I think at most, we’re looking at maybe 60 to 100, maybe less. It’s in that vicinity. There’s no question that the main location of Al Qaida is in tribal areas of Pakistan….

PANETTA: I think what’s happened is that the more we put pressure on the Al Qaida leadership in the tribal areas in Pakistan — and I would say that as a result of our operations, that the Taliban leadership is probably at its weakest point since 9/11 and their escape from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Having said that, they clearly are continuing to plan, continuing to try to attack this country, and they are using other ways to do it.

TAPPER: Al Qaida you’re talking about.

PANETTA: That’s correct. They are continuing to do that, and they’re using other ways to do it, which are in some ways more difficult to try to track. One is the individual who has no record of terrorism. That was true for the Detroit bomber in some ways. It was true for others.

They’re using somebody who doesn’t have a record in terrorism, it’s tougher to track them. If they’re using people who are already here, who are in hiding and suddenly decide to come out and do an attack, that’s another potential threat that they’re engaged in. The third is the individual who decides to self-radicalize. Hasan did that in the Fort Hood shootings. Those are the kinds of threats that we see and we’re getting intelligence that shows that’s the kind of stream of threats that we face, much more difficult to track. At the same time, I think we’re doing a good job of moving against those threats. We’ve stopped some attacks, we continue to work the intelligence in all of these areas. But that area, those kinds of threats represent I think the most serious threat to the United States right now. (emphasis added) 

Seriously?  60-100  guys?  That’s it?  As Philip Giraldi points out, this kind of assessment raises some Very Important Questions, like:  "If CIA Director Leon Panetta is correct and al-Qaeda has been reduced to a tiny remnant why are we spending nearly a trillion dollars a year on defense, intelligence, and homeland security?"

It’s a fair question — shouldn’t these guys be able to deal with 60-100 guys?   

The easy answers here are A) path dependence; and B) concerns about U.S. reputation.  There’s a harder answer here, however, that is buried within Panetta’s comments, as well as those of just about every other counter-terrorism expert.  Let’s call it the Counter-Terrorism Mantra, which consists of the following: 

1)  Al Qaeda is nowhere near as powerful as it was a decade ago

2)  Al Qaeda is now really unpopular among Muslims worldwide

3)  Because of their desperate straits, Al Qaeda is encouraging anyone and everyone to try attacking the United States

4)  One of these homegrown, disgruntled sorts might not be a moron be smart and lucky enough to succeed. 

I understand why the Counter-Terrorism Mantra is used — because the political costs of underestimating Al Qaeda’s capabilities are far greater than overestimating their capabilities.  That said, this kind of mantra leads to Very Stupid and Costly policies. 

The fact is, Al Qaeda’s abilities to execute Grand Guignol-kind of attacks appears to be nil.  There have been plenty of opportunities over the past five years for AQ to launch the kind of attack that would put fear into the heart of the West — the USA-England World Cup match, most recently — and there’s been nothing.  Even if Captain Underpants or the Times Square bomber had succeeded, the carnage would have been on a far lower scale than the 9/11 attacks. 

Isn’t it time that some rational cost-benefit analysis was applied to counter-terrorism policies?  In a world where "The [defense budget] gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time," isn’t it time for political leaders to argue in favor of resource retrenchment, even if it increases the probability of a successful attack just a smidgen? 

I can ask this question, because I can be dismissed as an out-of-touch, elities, zombie-loving, pointy-headed academic who knows nothing about counter-terrorism.  What I’d like to see is a few bona-fide counterterrorism experts have the stones to ask a similar question.