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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Al Qaida and Its Media Shortcomings: A Possible Improvement Coming

Last night I guest lectured in Stephen Tankel’s class on Al Qaida and information operations.  We were discussing AQ’s lack of television stations and one student noted that the convergence between television and the Internet will probably solve that problem for Al Qaida (or its successors) in the medium term.  After all Al Qaida has a robust presence on the Internet.  I thought that was a very interesting point.  Straight to the head of the class!

Published in: on October 12, 2011 at 11:01 PM  Leave a Comment  

Have We Recreated the OSS?

Check out my blog posting over at the International Spy Museum’s site where I discuss what the killing of Osama Bin Laden tells us about the role of the CIA in warfighting.


Published in: on July 28, 2011 at 3:36 AM  Leave a Comment  
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9/11 10th Anniversary Conference on Jihadist Studies

The Conflict Records Research Center at the National Defense University and Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Advanced Governmental Studies (where I teach) are going to be putting on a conference on 13-14 September here in Washington entitled “10 YEARS LATER: Insights on al-Qaeda’s Past & Future through Captured Records.”  A lot of the big names in the field will be there but also there will be some people who come from outside the normal circle but who will have important contributions to make, I think.  For instance, Flagg Miller will be there, as will Cynthia Storer, one of the few analysts in the Intelligence Community who was following al Qaida in the truly early days, even before the name Al Qaida was known.  I’m also tremendously excited to hear from Zabikhullah Saipov from the University of World Economy and Diplomacy in Uzbekistan.

In association with the conference there will also be a release of captured Al Qaida documents in both the original Arabic and in English translation.  I’ve seen some of these documents and used a few of them in The Terrorist Perspectives Project and they are fascinating. 

Anyway, I hope to see all of you there!

Published in: on July 27, 2011 at 3:22 AM  Leave a Comment  

Not Releasing the Bin Laden Photos Was a Good Idea

After a vigorous debate inside his administration, President Obama has decided not to release the Navy SEAL’s photographs of the dead Osama Bin Laden. He is right to hold them back….
For more of the column I wrote for the New York Daily News on this subject, see here.

Published in: on May 6, 2011 at 1:26 AM  Comments (1)