March 18, 2008

Deterring Terror

When Abu Muqawama first saw this article in the New York Times about U.S. efforts to adopt a deterrence strategy toward terror groups, he thought it was the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard. But as he read more, it became clear that some smart folks have thought hard about this, and it sounds less crazy the more he reads about it.

But over the six and a half years since the Sept. 11 attacks, many terrorist leaders, including Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, have successfully evaded capture, and American officials say they now recognize that threats to kill terrorist leaders may never be enough to keep America safe.

So American officials have spent the last several years trying to identify other types of “territory” that extremists hold dear, and they say they believe that one important aspect may be the terrorists’ reputation and credibility with Muslims.

Under this theory, if the seeds of doubt can be planted in the mind of Al Qaeda’s strategic leadership that an attack would be viewed as a shameful murder of innocents — or, even more effectively, that it would be an embarrassing failure — then the order may not be given, according to this new analysis.

Abu Muqawama immediately thought of a conversation he recently had with his anonymous Pashtun flatmate (in our local, no less) about a very specific instance -- related in Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine-- in which al-Qaeda apparently called off a terror attack. The article references the same instance:

George J. Tenet, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, wrote in his autobiography that the authorities were concerned that Qaeda operatives had made plans in 2003 to attack the New York City subway using cyanide devices.

Mr. Zawahri reportedly called off the plot because he feared that it “was not sufficiently inspiring to serve Al Qaeda’s ambitions,” and would be viewed as a pale, even humiliating, follow-up to the 9/11 attacks.

And that's the dominant explanation for why Zawahiri called off the attacks, echoed by Suskind -- that it wasn't big enough. The alternate explanation -- the one Abu Muqawama believes and the one that gives this whole deterrence theory a sliver of hope -- is that such an attack would have been perceived as stepping over the line. Al-Qaeda strategists seem to be split between those who agree with attacks on civilians within non-Muslim states -- attacks such as 9/11 -- and those who would prefer to limit their attacks to attack in occupied Muslim territories such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

So far, the gang who supports attacks on civilian targets in non-Muslim lands has carried the day, swept along by the wave of popular support that seems to accompany attacks like the 9/11 and 7/7 bombings. But can such terror acts be discredited and deterred? That's the million-dollar question asked by the article.

One thing Abu Muqawama has not mentioned yet is how deterrence theory might apply to designated terror groups like Hamas or Hizbollah which are less transnational actors and are more or less rooted in local constituencies. Abu Muqawama's feeling is, if a group depends on a constituency for its popular support, it can be trusted to act more rationally than a transnational actor like al-Qaeda which owes its allegiance to no one. And thus, you'll have more success deterring such an actor. Does that make sense? Any dissenting voices? Leave your thoughts in the comments.