Threat Deflation

April 27, 2008

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In Leaderless Jihad, former Foreign Service Officer Marc Sageman, now a University of Pennsylvania professor,distills what he learned from years of reading the daily feed of intelligence, both classified and open source,  streaming through the State Department. But Sageman is no mere desk warrior—he went to see the forces of terror in action on their own turf in Afghanistan, and has combed the files on the jihadist organizations that operate there still.

Ohio State political science professor John Mueller, whom I’ve known since he commented on “Weaker Than We Think” the assessment of al-Qaida’s diminished capacity for terror I wrote for The American Conservative in 2004.,  recently reported on Sargeman’s analysis in Canada’s National Post:

   ” Mr. Sageman sorts the enemy into three groups.

First, there is a cluster left over from the struggles in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s. Currently they are huddled around, and hiding out with, Mr. bin Laden somewhere in Afghanistan and/or Pakistan. This band, concludes Sageman, probably consists of a few dozen individuals.

Joining them in the area, although perhaps with more on the periphery, are 100 more fighters left over from al-Qaeda’s golden days in Afghanistan in the 1990s. These key portions of the enemy forces would total, then, less than 150 actual people. They may operate something resembling “training camps,” but these appear to be quite minor affairs. They also assist with the Taliban’s far larger and very troublesome insurgency in Afghanistan.

Beyond this, concludes Sageman, the third group consists of thousands of sympathizers and would-be jihadists spread around the globe who mainly connect in Internet chat rooms, engage in radicalizing conversations, and variously dare each other actually to do something.

All of these rather hapless, even pathetic, people, should of course be considered to be potentially dangerous. From time to time they may be able to coalesce enough to carry out acts of terrorist violence, and policing efforts to stop them before they can do so are fully justified. But the notion that they present an existential threat to just about anybody seems at least as fanciful as some of their schemes, and any notion that these characters could come up with nuclear weapons seems far fetched in the extreme.

The threat presented by these individuals is likely, concludes Sageman, simply to fade away in time. Unless, of course, the United States overreacts and does something to enhance their numbers, prestige, and determination—something that is, needless to say, entirely possible.

I’ve checked this remarkable and decidedly unconventional evaluation of the threat with three prominent experts who have spent years studying the issue. They generally agree with Sageman.

One of them is Fawaz Gerges of Sarah Lawrence College, whose brilliant book, The Far Enemy, based on hundreds of interviews in the Middle East, parses the jihadist enterprise. As an additional concern, he suggests that Sageman’s third group may also include a small, but possibly growing, underclass of disaffected and hopeless young men in the Middle East, many of them scarcely literate, who, outraged at Israel and at America’s war in Iraq, may provide cannon fodder for the jihad. However, these people would mainly present problems in the Middle East (including in Iraq), not elsewhere.

Another way to evaluate the threat presented by jihadist terrorists around the world is to focus on the actual amount of violence perpetrated by Muslim extremists since 9/11 outside of war zones. Included in the count would be terrorism of the much-publicized and fear-inducing sort that occurred in Bali in 2002, in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Turkey in 2003, in the Philippines, Madrid, and Egypt in 2004, and in London and Jordan in 2005.

Two think-tank publications have independently provided lists of such incidents. Although these tallies make for grim reading, the total number of people killed comes to some 200 or 300 per year. That, of course, is 200 or 300 per year too many, but it hardly suggests that the perpetrators present a major threat, much less an existential one. For comparison: over the same period far more people have drowned in bathtubs in the United States alone.”

In 2004, I found that estimates of al-Qaeda’s potentially armed forces had fallen as low as 3,000 highly dispersed individuals, with a technical cadre far below the threshold of autonomous development of nuclear arms—the ‘existential threat ’ threshold, and reluctantly concluded that 9-11, like Pearl Harbor or the Trojan Horse, was intrinsically unique- its mastermind, and literal architect having self destructed along with the element of surprise.

I want to closely examine Sageman’s book,and invite readers to do likewise.   Because if OBL’s franchise has fallen below regimental strength,  the tempo of GWOT operations may stand in need of adjustment.  The nuclear genie remains a valid cold war metaphor, but predicating policy on mythology remains a risky business -Djinn are famously stingy in dispensing their favors, and rarely come in a refillable bottle. Little wonder Homeland Security’s latest effort at self justification extends to adding hand grenades to its list of   Weapons of Mass Destruction .

On the other hand, Syria does still lay claim to Antioch.

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