Leon Panetta, newly installed Secretary of Defense, proclaimed in Kabul on Saturday that the United States was “within reach of strategically defeating Al-Qaeda.” He did not explain how Washington defines ‘Al-Qaeda’ today. Nor did he specify what is meant by ‘defeat.’ Those are critical omissions. Without greater precision we are not in a position to assess the significance of the statement or to estimate the likelihood of success in meeting the American objective. It was simpler in the wake of 9/11. Then it was thought that Al-Qaeda was a unitary organization, hierarchically structured and with clear command and control. In other words, sort of like Goldman Sachs. That is certainly not the case nowadays. Remnants of ‘classic Al-Qaeda’ haunt the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its leadership is fragmented, its foot soldiers scattered. Al-Qaeda today is at best a loose holding company; more likely, little more than a franchise operation. Moreover, its franchise units seem to have limited operational capability.
Secretary Panetta made specific reference to U.S. born Imam Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen and unnamed members of al-Sabah in Somalia. There is a glancing reference to Al-Qaeda in North Africa. But al-Sabah has a Somalian agenda and none of its leaders have been involved in attacks on American interests for thirteen years. It has no known capability to do anything on American territory. Al-Awlaki is the supposed instigator of two failed airline plots most noteworthy for their amateurishness. As for AQNA, it is little more than a crime family specializing in equal opportunity kidnapping and extortion. What to make of this picture? Most striking is that the United States does not seem to be in danger of serious Al-Qaeda directed terrorist acts on its homeland for the foreseeable future. There is almost no likelihood of another 9/11 attempt. Second, inchoate groups of activists with some potential to develop over time an approximation of a dangerous capability can be found in an number of places – including Hamburg and other European cities. So why concentrate a huge effort in AfPak that drains hundreds of billions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury, inflicts casualties on thousands of Americans, ravages the Afghan countryside and undercuts America’s standing in the world? The answer is inertia ? intellectual, psychological, organizational and political. Change is a forlorn hope as the Obama people continue the tradition of at once evoking a generation long war on terror and trumpeting their stellar successes.
Al-Qaeda has become an American obsession – especially for the security/intelligence establishment and the huge terrorism industry that it has spawned. A detached appraisal of the current situation, set against the backdrop of the 9/11 decade, points to the conclusion that the prevailing threat estimate is grossly exaggerated. That holds for both likelihood and magnitude of any conjectured attack. My personal view is that a truly consequential threat, were it ever to materialize, would take a very different form. It would involve just a handful of persons from the greater Middle East with expert credentials in biology, chemistry or the like. One may run a large import-export business. They would have ready access to the United States where they may have institutional ties to universities/research laboratories as well as business connections.They are not radical fundamentalists; indeed, they may not be particularly religious. They would be motivated by grievances such a close relative or two killed by Blackwater in Baghdad, a drone attack, or something similar. They would have experienced deep humiliation at some point in dealings with American officials. They would be embittered by U.S. actions ? direct or indirect – against Muslims re. Palestine, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Lebanon, even Egypt.
The plot could entail creating a nationwide anthrax style panic. Lethal material might be sent to the Pentagon, Central Command, the CIA and/or any high profile American politician. Killing a few persons would be the aim. In addition, packets of the material would be distributed in a small number of airports, sports stadiums and freight cars. As a practical matter, this in itself is child’s play. (Try it with some innocuous substance). The perpetrators would inform the media of their location ? IRA fashion. Once their existence is confirmed, the group would declare that 25 similar packets have been placed in other locations. It may be true or it may just be a feint. Then watch the panic.
What could we do about it? No standard counter terrorism tactics would have any preventive effects. The hundreds of billions we have spent to make Americans safe and secure would have been wasted. The perpetrators will have been motivated by concrete American actions in the Middle East. They might demand their cessation. Does anyone in Washington think in terms of this possible threat? Nothing that I have heard or read suggests that they have. Why? One, it is hard to admit impotence ? especially in American macho culture when the testosterone is churning. Two, there is the powerful terrorism industry. Reflection is not expensive and requires few resources. It makes neither money or careers. Three, the United States is incapable of changing its ‘pro-active’ policies in the Middle East – for reasons of intellectual, emotional and political deficiency. Finally, politically, thinking along these lines has no pay off, and we live in an era when gaining electoral office eclipses any serious thought about what one might do once having attained it. For some, even the Presidency’s appeal is mainly as a good resume item ? and a heck of a lot more fun than anything else they can imagine. Finally, as a people Americans cannot stand living with uncertainty.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.