Tone-Deaf Terrorists
More unfortunate reminders that the war is still on.


With the war in Iraq over, politicians on both sides of the aisle seemed more than ready to put national security on the backburner and focus on domestic issues. But al Qaeda is reminding them that the war is still on. A spate of terror bombings overseas opened the latest offensive, which may now be aimed at the American homeland. Terrorist e-mails intercepted by the FBI gave Muslims a deadline (if I can use that word) of yesterday to clear out of New York, Boston, Washington, and “the commercial coastline” area. Secretary Ridge raised the alert level, and no-notice security drills around Washington made going to work Wednesday something of an adventure. Al Qaeda number-two man Ayman al Zawahiri released a tape hours ago calling for concerted action against “the Americans, the British, the Australians, the Norwegians” adding ominously that Mujahedin were operating in “the heart of America” and that the next few days would “bring news that will gladden your hearts, Inshallah.” Last February a purported bin Laden message threatened an attack “in the belly of the eagle.” And last September, the London-based pro-Libyan newspaper al-Alamiyah reported that sources close to al Qaeda had the assets in place in several U.S. states to conduct “devastating attacks” once the signal was given. However, they had postponed the attacks until after the crisis with Iraq had been resolved, “in order to prevent the United States from using the attacks as a pretext to employ weapons of mass destruction against Iraq.” This raises the question why al Qaeda would believe that a WMD strike would be the American response of choice to their attack, which points to scenarios one would rather not entertain. Sea-borne nuclear weapons off Manhattan, in Boston Harbor, up the Potomac?

Al Qaeda is lashing out with as much strength as it can muster, and the recent bombings may have a favorable morale effect on their demoralized followers, who have every reason to be demoralized. The speedy defeat of Saddam Hussein has again demonstrated, as in Afghanistan, the military power of the U.S. and its Coalition partners. The fact that the war was undertaken without U.N. approval and in the face of opposition from some leading European countries shows that the U.S. is more resolute than the enemy ever expected. With Saddam gone, al Qaeda can lay claim to leading the anti-Western movement, but to do so it has to prove it can still fight. At no time since October 2001 is it more important for them to demonstrate their capabilities.

That explains the timing; but the recent target sets make no sense at all. As I have recently argued, the al Qaeda military planners are prone to miscalculation. They have been faithful to the lengthy 1996 declaration of war, which lays out a very coherent (if fanciful) grand strategic vision. However, at the operational level — that is, in the way they coordinate their attacks towards achieving their strategic goals — they aren’t so bright. The bombings took place in countries they said were ready for revolution, but it is unclear how these attacks will lead to the desired end-state. Militarily, the attacks have little impact. They strike in a loosely coordinated and opportunistic way. They hit soft targets (apartments, clubs, markets) and inflict few casualties. They attack in series, but their efforts are so widely dispersed they cannot generate momentum. They have no mass, and no capacity for sustainment (especially since they specialize in suicide attacks).

In Karachi, Pakistan the Muslim United Army claimed credit for 21 bombings at foreign-owned gas stations. Apparently, they seek to create a hostile investment climate, as well as to wreck local commerce. The attacks in Riyadh have angered the Saudis, so they say, even drawing comparisons to 9/11. No coincidence that this newfound commitment, hardly in evidence after Khobar Towers, comes as U.S. forces are leaving for Qatar and enough Iraqi oil may be available to compete with Saudi exports. In Morocco, al Qaeda struck at Jewish, Spanish and Belgian targets. Jewish, well, we understand that. Spanish too — Spain has been a stalwart defender of civilization of late, and there is that whole 1492 Reconquista situation that bin Laden has condemned. But Belgium? The country that wants to try Ariel Sharon and Tommy Franks as war criminals? The center of an illicit diamond trade that helps fund terror networks? Not to mention — Norway?

The Yale Law School incident would fit well into this pattern of tone-deafness, though there is as yet no public evidence to support such a conclusion. Al Qaeda might consider Yale an attractive target because it is the Bush family college. However, Yale — and more proximately the law school — is also the spawning ground of Bill Clinton and many others of his political persuasion. Attacking Yale is like hitting New York on September 11, striking at a citadel of liberalism and undercutting any possible internal policy divisions on the prosecution of the war. The Soviets were a lot smarter at political warfare. They sought to divide and conquer. They tried to find cleavages in their enemies’ political camps and drive between them. It was a subtle approach, but effective, at least while it lasted. But the al Qaeda attacks seem geared to having the opposite effect. Now they are threatening New York, DC and Boston — three of the most liberal cities in America — which shows that they just do not know what they are doing. I would not be surprised if they went after France.

Widening the target group to many other countries will have the effect of coalescing the opposition to al Qaeda. The terrorists might see strikes at other states as punishment for cooperation or deterrence aimed at neutrals, but the history of such attacks shows that they produce more resentment than fear. The Bali bombing last October, which solidified Australian resolve, is a case in point. Attacks inside the United States have and will have the same unifying effect. The terrorists have demonstrated that they do not understand this country or how it responds to aggression. Al Qaeda dogmatically clings to a model of U.S. behavior based on Vietnam, Beirut, and Mogadishu, which they see as the historic American defeats. Americans are materialistic weaklings, they reason; inflict casualties, and the U.S. folds. This is a simplistic analysis that ignores the variable condition of the national will. In each case above, there was an imbalance in the Clausewitzian trinity of the people, the government, and the armed forces. When one or more of these elements withdraws its support or becomes uncertain, the probability of failure increases markedly. Wars with unclear objectives, in which men and women die for no apparent reason, will not be able to maintain the requisite level of support. Conversely, when objectives are clear and the cause is just, all three elements will unite behind the war effort, with few practical restraints on its prosecution.

As 9/11 demonstrated, and Pearl Harbor before it, attacks on the U.S. homeland only serve to unify the American people, who invest their leaders with the authority to utilize the armed forces to punish the perpetrators of the act, swiftly, brutally, and decisively. Even worst-case scenarios like nuclear terror will leave the elements of national military power intact. The economy of course would suffer, and bin Laden has stated that this is the U.S. center of gravity, hence al Qaeda’s principle target. But the response to an attack of that type would be nothing short of a reorganization of the global political system, new regimes in sundry trouble-making states, and a zero-tolerance approach to nuclear-weapons aspirants everywhere. Al Qaeda would be even further from realizing their strategic goals than they are today.

Be careful out there.