I don’t particularly consider myself an expert on terrorism. At the very least, I’ll acknowledge that there are many, many people who understand the issue better than I do, and in particular who are much more deeply steeped in the details of various organizations. But that said, I’ve read pretty broadly in the field, and I am, I think, probably as familiar with the empirical attack data as anyone else.
What has always frustrated me about terrorism is how little we actually know compared to what we infer or speculate about. Whenever I read terrorism analyses, I almost always walk away thinking about how thin is the empirical record underlying the analysis.
Over the past week, three well-regarded analysts have been having a debate about whether the killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi is a positive development or not.
On her blog, Leah Farrall provocatively argued it wasn’t:
And if he has in fact been killed, I wonder if those who think this is a victory (and those supporting the strategy of extrajudicial killings more generally) have given ample thought to the fact that he along with others who have been assassinated were actually a moderating force within a far more virulent current that has taken hold in the milieu.
This prompted a vigorous twitter exchange with two other well-known analysis, Will McCants and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, who later took to their blogs to rebut Farrall’s position.
It’s important to note that when AQ Central deliberates about attacks in the West, they prefer attacks that 1) they can successfully carry out and 2) will have the maximum impact on policy. Body count only factors into the discussion as a measure of impact (the greater the body count, the greater the impact), not as an inhibitor to action. Again, if there is a memo or statement fretting about killing too many non-Muslims, I haven’t seen it.
In summary, al-Qaeda Central’s senior leaders seek to kill as many citizens as possible in the non-Muslim majority countries they don’t like, particularly the United States and its Western allies. AQ Central’s senior leaders choose their physical targets and means of attack overseas based on opportunity and policy impact. High body counts are welcome. They sanction these attacks for a variety of strategic reasons, the main one being that they want to pressure the US and its Western allies to reduce their influence in Muslim-majority countries so that it will be easier to establish Islamic states.
Gartenstein-Ross, for his part, argued:
Let’s leave aside McCants’s various arguments that al Libi was not actually a moderating force, and assume for the sake of this argument that he did in fact serve as one in the way that Farrall claims. When your opponent is a violent non-state actor, and thus an opponent of necessarily limited resources, its ability to act strategically is precisely what makes it dangerous. One overarching argument I made in Bin Laden’s Legacy is that one of the reasons our approach to combating al Qaeda has often been lacking is the assumption that the jihadi group is not a strategic actor. A strategic actor is able to spread its brand into new theaters. A strategic actor is able to garner public sympathy. A strategic actor is able to coordinate its actions in a way that will drive up its opponent’s expenses.
One can, and should, have numerous questions about our current counterterrorism strategies. And as I stated at the outset, in some cases it will be more strategic to leave a violent non-state actor’s leadership in place when fighting it. But al Libi does not appear to be that case; and al Qaeda appears to be more rather than less dangerous when it operates strategically rather than indiscriminately.
Now, let me say at the outset that I am generally sympathetic to Gartenstein-Ross’ assessment that the important issue to focus on is strategic orientation and organizational capacity rather than operational target sets, although I think his use of “strategic” vs. “indiscriminate” is semantically muddled. But you get his overall point. AQ is less dangerous — though perhaps paradoxically more deadly — when it is killing indiscrimately.
Now of course, the push back on GR is that AQ isn’t strategically dangerous at all. Its agenda is wholly implausible. They are not at the vanguard of the establishment of a global caliphate, and thus the only question is precisely about the level of violence we can expect.
But look, what evidence do any of these fine analysts bring to bear in support of this positions? Intuition and logic, yes. Some citations to public statements and/or captured documents largely focused on issues of strategic orientation. But that is really about it. This makes sense, of course, since that is all we have. AQ just doesn’t launch that many attacks. Their order of battle is opaque. You just can’t do real, solid, data-driven analysis to resolve the sorts of questions raised by Farrall’s argument and the McCants/Gartenstein-Ross rebuttals.
I’ve been comparing this mode of analysis to Kremlinology during the Cold War, where people spent a ton of time trying to make sense of various public statements, snippets of private debates, and other esoterica. But, there was always some analytical foundation there. Those Soviet debates would ultimately manifest themselves in observable outcomes — military assistance to other countries, new weapons systems and deployments, and so on.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, I guess), many of the debates/statements coming from terrorist groups do not manifest themselves systematically.
First, of course, there are issues of command and control. McCants touches on this when he notes the divide between AQ-Central and the affiliates who actually are responsible for most of the violence nowadays. Indeed, this is a key issue. One thing that was abundently clear from the documents captured in the bin Laden raid is that UBL, at least, felt like his was pushing on a string rather than exercising operational control.
Second, terrorism — at least the kind we care about really — is pretty rare and probably opportunistic. You need the right people in the right place at the right time. As it turns out, none of the radical Islamist groups have been particularly effectively at infiltrating the West, establishing sleeper cells about to launch attacks, and so on. Well, we don’t really know that for sure, but at the very least this is little evidence in support of the notion that they have done so.
Third, the public statements and internecine disputes that make up the bulk of our ostensible visibility on the intentions of groups like AQ have to be assessed skeptically. They are speaking to multiple audiences. There is a lot of positioning going on, and at least some disinformation. It just isn’t a truly reliable guide, especially in the absence of significant collaborating, observable, behavioral data.
As a result, there is a gap between rhetoric and outcomes, at least in the sense that it is hard to empirically demonstrate how nuanced debates in jihadi circles result in nuances changes in outcomes.
In short, I’ll keep reading Farrall, McCants, and GR because they are smart, talented folks. They know a lot more than I do. But I can’t help by feel that there just isn’t enough there to make their arguments convincing on a lot of scores.