Terrorists: Nitwits or Masterminds?

Recently, in the Atlantic Monthly Daniel Byman and Christine Fair (two first-rate analysts) argue that the reality is that the terrorist enemies of the United States are not highly disciplined religious fanatics – but in fact are a bunch of nitwits. The article is interesting, provocative, and makes some important points. But we cannot dismiss the terrorists as nitwits quite yet – they’ve had failings in attacking the U.S. homeland directly, but they have also had some important successes.

Byman and Fair point out the many cases of terrorist incompetence such as the Times Square bomber, the UK doctors, and the Miami jihadis. In many regards, I agree with them. Terrorist groups are extremely constrained in their efforts to hit “far targets.” I’ve argued that this is a logistical issue. With intelligence agencies worldwide on high alert it is increasingly difficult to move operatives long distances. This complicates long-range terror strikes. Self-starters do not have the necessary skills and groups do not want to risk well-trained operatives on operations that will probably not succeed. The failed attacks on the West aren’t because the terrorists are stupid. What’s more they are adaptable. My argument continued that the danger was now in the realm of geopolitics – terrorists destabilizing and important country rather than carrying out direct attacks in the U.S. or the West.

Fair and Byman also state that the Taliban are similarly stupid. They frequently blow themselves up and also become intimate with livestock (this has been caught on tape by drones and other battlefield cameras). Maybe, but they are also giving the U.S. military a run for its money so discounting their capabilities seems unwise. I would be remiss if I did not note two important points their article makes. First that the less than pious behavior, as well as their tactical mishaps, could be important tools for American public diplomacy efforts to discredit them. Second, Fair and Byman point out the importance of disrupting terrorist training facilities so that they can remain stupid. This is dead on – terrorist groups are adaptable, “learning” organizations. If they cannot learn and transfer knowledge, they cannot survive.

But another recent event highlights the adaptability of asymmetric opponents and perhaps is a caution against any kind of over-confidence. The Gaza Flotilla was a brilliantly planned operation on every level (tactical and strategic). If the key in asymmetric warfare is to exploit critical vulnerabilities with small amounts of force – the Flotilla operation succeeded. (Strictly speaking, calling the Gaza Flotilla terrorists is problematic as they were attacking military personnel. On the other hand, they were doing so in an effort to support Hamas – a terrorist organization.)

Tactically, the Flotilla organizers carefully examined Israeli operations and identified a way to create a situation that worked to their advantage. Politically the Flotilla undermined Israel’s Gaza policy, the Israeli-Turkish alliance, and drew attention to Egypt’s siege on Gaza. (Long-term, as I’ve argued before, the Egypt angle may be the most significant.)

There have been important gains against terrorism, but very serious dangers remain. There are a lot of dumb terrorists – but there are also more than enough smart ones.

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5 Responses

  1. Great article. The issue is this, both the Christmas Day bomber and the Times Square Bomber were successful. They pasted through all layers of security. It was only luck that made the bombs not detonate correctly.

    The failure is not due to the US counter-terrorism system.

  2. Thanks for your kind words.

    I think it was more than luck. Bomb-making is not for amateurs – doing it effectively requires lots of training and getting that training requires lots of time in the backwoods of someplace like Pakistan. This will tip off intelligence agencies.

    We can't get a perfect seal – there is too much traffic worldwide to monitor everyone. But effective intelligence can raise the barriers to a successful operation.

    Counter-terrorism is the application of Murphy's Law – making sure that more things can go wrong.

  3. I have to say Aaron that you mirrored my thoughts exactly when I read the original article in the Atlantic. Byman's book on state-sponsored terrorism remains one of my favorite books on the terror topic, however I feel as though the cynical view he and his co-author expresses here can be a dangerous precedent to set.

    Your point on geopolitics is an interesting point as well – as targets in the West become more secure, and as more nations choose to align themselves against the greater threat that terrorism poses, I think it is natural to assume that terrorist organizations will turn their attentions to more local and immediate targets. Unfortunately, this could mean governments and states whose overall systems and abilities may not be as well suited to handle the effects and aftereffects of terrorist actions.

  4. Philip,

    Thanks for your comment. First, I have to say that I really respect Byman and Fair. They are good solid researchers. In terms of potential public diplomacy tools their article has much to recommend it.

    But I do think that the Uganda bombings were an example of a smart attach in which they matched their capabilities to their ambitions.

    Attacking the west doesn't get al-Shabaab anything they would want and they can't pull it off anyway.

    Attacking Uganda worked perfectly for them.

    I think it is a phenomenon we will continue to see.

  5. later on we'll look back at this as a transition period, between the big set-piece attacks, and the small-scale, low-cost, incdients. Remember the Palestinians with bulldozers in Israel? That, and other no-training, no-complex-logitistics, type attacks are what's coming…

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