Does al Qaeda have a strategy?
AFP It seems like a stupid question, doesn’t it? Of course al Qaeda has a strategy, right? Al Qaeda masterminds have published long tracts spelling out the latest master plan for the glorious victory of the jihad. The best known of these is al Qaeda #2 Ayman al-Zawahiri’s rambling Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, which ...
It seems like a stupid question, doesn’t it?
Of course al Qaeda has a strategy, right? Al Qaeda masterminds have published long tracts spelling out the latest master plan for the glorious victory of the jihad. The best known of these is al Qaeda #2 Ayman al-Zawahiri’s rambling Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, which urges the global jihad to shift its focus from the “near enemy” (Arab regimes) to the “far enemy” (America). Zawahiri’s goal was to get jihadists from Morocco to Indonesia to push the Great Satan out of the Islamic world so that the region’s governments would lose their main protector. Other jihadi theorists may have since become more influential, but the basic “far enemy first” approach remains unchallenged, according to experts.
Beyond that, however, there’s actually very little consensus on the details of al Qaeda’s strategy in counterterrorism circles, just as there is no widespread agreement as to what motivates terrorists, or even what they might attack next. A recent RAND study tried to get at this last problem:
Each year, the federal, state, local, and tribal governments spend billions of dollars protecting the United States and U.S. property against acts of terrorism, with human, military,and capital resources allocated in ways that reflect the value and vulnerability of each venue to be protected. Yet those buildings, institutions,and icons perceived as being of utmost value to the United States may not be perceived as such to its potential attackers; the country, in other words, may be protecting its buffalo when really it is the goats that are at risk.
(This is an optimistic reading of how Homeland Security dollars are really allocated, but DHS is the client and you don’t bite the hand that feeds ya.) The authors then go on to surmise that since al Qaeda is “a goal-driven organization,” we should be able to divine its likely points of attack.
As I was reading the study, I was reminded of a famous quote from a Lou Reed song, “Some Kinda Love”: “Between thought and expression there lies a lifetime.” That is to say, just because al Qaeda has a written plan of action doesn’t mean they’re able to operationalize it. The real world is much more complicated than a piece of paper, and sometimes you just have to take the opportunities that come your way. So, in looking for patterns in the 14 terrorist attacks it studied, RAND may be prescribing a level of rationality where there is none. By the end, the authors have come to the same basic conclusion:
Thus, while a study such as this might shed light on what the adversary may be thinking, and the consequences of such thoughts, it cannot be used to rule out an attack of one form or another. The next attack may well take place in Ohio even if there are reasons to believe that Ohio (or most of the other 50 states) is not particularly favored for an attack.
Isn’t that comforting?
Blake Hounshell is a former managing editor of Foreign Policy.
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