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.