Al Qaeda and Its Apathetic Public

My friend Ryan Evans’ excellent review of Fawaz Gerges’ new book, The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda got me thinking about conspiracy theorism and its relationship to Al Qaeda’s fortunes.

Ryan takes issue with Gerges’ contention that Al Qaeda never really had a “viable social constituency.” I am most decidedly with Ryan on this one, but I disagree with one of the points he made in arguing his case. Ryan argues that the fact that a majority in the Muslim world do not believe that Arabs conducted the 9/11 attacks suggests the existence of a constituency that Al Qaeda could appeal to.

I think that this conspiracy theorism proves just the opposite. Rather, I think it shows the existence of an enormous pool of apathy in the Arab world. Consider this. Al Qaeda intended 9/11 to be, among other things an inspiring event that would make Muslims around the world believe that they could strike a blow against the United States. How likely is a Muslim to be inspired to act by an event that he thinks was orchestrated by the Mossad or the CIA or George W. Bush? Instead, I think that the 75% of Egyptians, the 57% of Pakistanis, etc., who believe such conspiracy theories are lost to Al Qaeda. They are the equivalent of the Americans who sit on their couches and shout at the television but never both to vote. They may hold strong views, but they are politically irrelevant and they are never going to kill anybody.

I think Al Qaeda knows this. AQAP’s Inspire magazine recently complained about such conspiracy theories and, if memory serves, Bin Laden and Zawahiri have both gone on record to similar effect, as well.

This connects, I believe, with the burning question of the application of deterrence theory to religiously-inspired terrorists. Traditional deterrence as people like yours truly came to know and love it during the Cold War was “deterrence by punishment.” This involved threatening to kick the bejeezus out of anybody who screwed with us. Deterrence by punishment doesn’t work so well with an enemy like Al Qaeda which wants the United States to respond militarily and the members of which want nothing more than martyrdom. This has led to discussions of “deterrence by denial.” The idea here is that one might be able to deter undesirable actions if one can deny the benefits of those actions to the actor. Typically this leads to recommendations for increased counterterrorism efforts and increased resilience against terrorist attacks. However, it may be that the Muslim population is a strong deterrent by denial to Al Qaeda, as well. If the population can’t be inspired by violence, what’s the point in trying?

Published in: on November 21, 2011 at 2:04 AM  Comments (1)  
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The Use of Force Needn’t Imply a Failure of Deterrence

Thomas Rid has been doing some very interesting work (of which this is only a soupçon) about deterrence and its role in dealing with an enemy which can never be definitively defeated.  In this context, he has argued that the use of force doesn’t always imply a failure of deterrence but may, in fact, be a necessary condition for its maintenance. 

To me this has always been somewhat reminiscent of the “tit-for-tat” strategy that Robert Axelrod found so robust in tournaments of the “iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma” game and which he discussed in his remarkable book The Evolution of Cooperation.

However, I’ve run across an interesting historical example of a strategy that even more precisely fits what Thomas talks about.  While at this weeks Society for Military History conference, I picked up a copy of Three Byzantine Military Treatises edited by George T. Dennis.  One of the treatises in this volume is the 10th Century “Skirmishing,” which is traditionally, though incorrectly, attributed to the Emperor Nikephoros.

The text was written at a time when one of Byantium’s foremost military problems was dealing with the Muslim raiders often entered Byzantine border lands.  The text advises a remarkable method of dealing with this problem.  “Instead of confronting the enemy as their on their way to invade Romania, it is in many respects more advantageous and convenient to get them as they are returning from our country to their own.”

There are several reasons for this, according to the author.  The raiders will be “worn out” and disorganized after their raiding and plundering.  Furthermore, “they are likely to be burdened with a lot of baggage, captives and animals.”  In addition, attacking them on their way out, would allow the “Romans” extra time to mobilize a larger force to confront and destroy them.

Most to the point, however, “attacking them as they return has this advantage…It will instill in them the fear that each time they want to invade, we will occupy the passes, and after a while they may cut out their constant incursions.”  [Emphasis added.]  Note that implicit in this strategy is that in order to deter future raids, at least one must take place.  In other words, violence must be applied in order to deter future violence.

Two caveats are in order.  First, “Skirmishing” is a prescriptive book, a military manual, not a history and it is not clear (to me) that the Byzantines actually applied this strategy, though I rather suspect that experts in the period could tell us.  Secondly, the editor of this book does note that whatever the military merit of such a strategy, the local civilians can’t have appreciated it much!