Assessing the terrorist threat by assessing vulnerabilities to terrorism is a bad idea. But that is what the United States mostly did after Sept. 11.
Because the United States is an open society it is almost endlessly vulnerable, and so focusing on vulnerabilities inevitably hyped the threat. Three years later we still do not understand the terrorists, their capacities and proclivities very well, but we are learning. We know enough to begin to understand what the threat is -- and what it isn't.
Some perspective is useful. Terrorism has not been all that lethal. In 2003, a grand total of 22 Americans lost their lives due to terrorism, excluding soldiers or contractors killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. That said, al Qaeda and its kin have not been inactive; they just haven't struck in the United States. Globally, they have been pretty consistent in their pace of operations, conducting a dozen attacks since Sept. 11.
The recent seizure of computer disks in Pakistan doesn't add much to our understanding of al Qaeda strategy, but it does underscore what we knew even before Sept. 11 -- that the terrorists' tactical surveillance of targets is meticulous.
The files of financial targets in New York, Washington and northern New Jersey were old but seem to have been updated this year. The updating provided additional puzzle pieces about al Qaeda's structure -- that it was still able to run an operative inside the United States and to communicate with Osama bin Laden, and that, despite all the U.S. hammering, there was still an al Qaeda "center" with which to communicate.
The disks also confirmed something else we knew, that al Qaeda and the others have sought spectaculars. They are fixed not just on spectaculars but also on financial targets. They target not icons of America -- the World Trade Center wouldn't have been in the top 10 of most Americans' list of those -- but rather icons that mix global economic dominance and America. Despite our endless harping on our vulnerabilities to "smaller" attacks -- imagine the psychological and economic effects of five snipers operating at the same time -- they haven't been interested.
At least not yet. That might change. What we are clearer about now is that these terrorists don't conceive of strategy as we do. They conduct what my Rand Corp. colleague, Brian Jenkins, refers to as effects-based operations. To act is the imperative. Action comes first, then it is refined in light of feedback from the effects of the operation. That is plainly visible in Iraq, where the terrorists came only lately to the tactic of kidnapping, but then embraced it once it proved effective in driving companies, and countries, out of Iraq.
Indeed, for the terrorists the ultimate strategist is Allah. That fact, plus the very long time horizon of their aspirations, means that the connection between operations and strategy, at least as we might define it, is bound to be weak.
However, recent events, especially the Madrid bombings in March, do hint at an al Qaeda that is framing tactical objectives, not just apocalyptic ones, and thinking strategically about how to achieve them. If the goal was using terror to break up the U.S.-led coalition, then the three most important targets were Poland, Britain and Spain. In Poland, apparently, public opinion was judged supportive of the war and the coalition. In Britain, public sentiment was opposed, but changing government policy, the terrorists seem to have judged, would take killing on a scale they could not accomplish.
That left Spain, overwhelming opposed to the war and facing an election to boot. It was a softer target than Britain. The terrorists must feel they succeeded far beyond their aspirations.
To the extent al Qaeda is capable of framing strategy as we might recognize it, their strategic task is not easy. That was apparent in recent gaming we conducted at the Rand Corp. Sheer killing is not enough. It can be strategically counterproductive, as it was in the case of the 2002 Bali attacks, which not only mobilized Australia against al Qaeda but put pressure on Muslim Indonesia to press the war on terror.
Indeed, the terrorists confront some tension between the imperative of operations and the demands of strategy. In their code, dying is glorious but failing is shameful. They are thus not likely to shift rapidly from a planned target to an opportunistic one. As a result we can be much more selective in what we protect.
In the first reaction to Sept. 11, Americans were indeed "all New Yorkers." In fact, though, for the vast majority of the country, the terrorist threat is essentially nil. The next attack is almost certain to come in one of a handful of cities, with New York and Washington at the top of the list.
The challenge for our strategy in the war on terrorism is to sharpen that tension between operations and strategy, preventing any attack if we can, but pushing them toward targets they have prepared less for, and where they are more likely to make strategic mistakes.
Gregory F. Treverton is a senior analyst at Rand Corp. and associate dean of Pardee Rand Graduate School. He was vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council in the first Clinton administration, and author of "Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information'' published by Cambridge University Press.
This commentary originally appeared in San Francisco Chronicle on September 5, 2004. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.