Daniel W. Drezner

You say strengthening, I say weakening

Over at Shadow Government, Mary Habeck argues that al Qaeda’s capabilities are on the rise, as evidenced by the recent effort to launch a trans-European Mumbai-style bombing. This is akin to a CNN headline I just saw: "Europe plot reveals al Qaeda adapting." I would have assumed that these analyses  argue that recent events demonstrate ...

Over at Shadow Government, Mary Habeck argues that al Qaeda’s capabilities are on the rise, as evidenced by the recent effort to launch a trans-European Mumbai-style bombing. This is akin to a CNN headline I just saw: "Europe plot reveals al Qaeda adapting."

I would have assumed that these analyses  argue that recent events demonstrate al Qaeda’s abilities to find ways to overcome current counter-terrorism tactics. 

But then I read the actual CNN story:

With al Qaeda struggling to replicate attacks on the scale of the devastation witnessed on September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, security experts believe the Mumbai attack, which gained worldwide publicity, may provide the template for its future operations.

"This new plot is perhaps an indication that al Qaeda is trying to change its strategy," said CNN’s Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson. "The high-profile attacks that it has always liked using explosives are clearly getting harder and harder to perpetrate.

"The cells are being spotted and it’s harder to keep undercover when you’re making bombs. Even buying the material to make bombs is getting harder, so many analysts believe al Qaeda would be unable to mount a 9/11-style attack in the current climate.

"Therefore Mumbai would have been viewed as successful by the al Qaeda leadership as it killed a large number of people. This type of attack is just as deadly but harder to stop."

In the last year, a number of plots targeting the West have been foiled, including the failed Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. airliner; the failed car bomb attempt in New York City’s Times Square and an alleged plan to attack shopping malls in Manchester, England over one holiday weekend in 2009.

This strikes me as defining adaptation down. Technically, events suggest that al Qaeda is adapting, which is a bad thing from the perspective of everyone preferring, you know, civilization. But the nut of this analysis is that al Qaeda’s preferred tactics are being thwarted, and that they therefore have no choice but to switch tactics. This switch might lead to a greater likelihood of actual attacks, but their lethality seems lower. [But the CNN story suggests that this kind of attack is "just as deadly" as a 9/11-type attack?!- -ed. Yeah, that’s wrong. The Mumbai attacks led to 173 deaths and 308 wounded.  These are appalling numbers, but they are not as appalling as the loss of life on 9/11]. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner