We see the televised briefings in Washington, but what about the briefings on the other side of on the campaign against terror, perhaps in the mountains of Pakistan?
An aide briefing Osama bin Laden on the al Qaeda balance sheet today would have to admit to plenty of bad news:
"Our training camps in Afghanistan have been dismantled, and thousands of our brothers have been arrested worldwide, including some talented planners who are hard to replace; meanwhile, our cash flow has been squeezed," the aide could say. "The infidels occupy Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain, the Emirates, Qatar and Oman, and they threaten Syria. We have been forced to decentralize our operations. We must beware of fragmentation and loss of unity. We face martyrdom."
Yet there would also be good news to report from the terrorists' point of view. The al Qaeda aide could go on to say:
"We have survived the infidels' mightiest blows. Our leadership and communication remain, even if they are dispersed and decentralized, independent operations continue, such as the successes of our brothers in Spain and England.
"The United States' arrogance has angered Muslims and alienated its allies. We still retain a large cadre of loyal dispersed Afghan veterans, one that is sufficient for hundreds of operations. And we have enough financing to continue operations."
Continuing this hypothetical scenario, the terrorist briefer could add:
"Above all, the United States has given us the gift of invading Iraq. The war has split the infidels and provoked our community around the world. 'Victory,' as the United States calls it, has put U.S. soldiers precisely in the kind of warfare we can wage and Americans hate — an open-ended, slow- bleeding conflict that stretches resources, strains morale and erodes public support: Iraq will be the United States' Afghanistan!
"This new front for jihad will radicalize and bond hundreds of young recruits — and leave a new cohort of bloodied veterans. How long can the Americans stay? It took a decade to convince the Soviets, but Americans have less spine or stomach for losses. Will they last until 2013? No, and when they depart, chaos will ensue in Iraq, giving jihad new space. The apostate regimes of the region will tremble and fall."
This hypothetical briefing derives from efforts to get inside the heads of al Qaeda and its kin — understanding the "operational code" of the jihadists, just as 50 years ago the Rand Corp. and other scholars sought to understand the "code" of the Soviet Politburo.
This time around, we have been tragically slow to try to understand the terrorists on their own terms. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, it was too easy to demonize them as pure evil or to focus on individual pathology — the "terrorist personality." To go beyond moral epithets was politically dangerous. It risked appearing to give the terrorists legitimacy.
As a result, we didn't analyze our foes' mind-set, worldview or strategy, but rather focused on our own vulnerabilities. And because democracies are infinitely vulnerable, doing threat analysis by concentrating on vulnerabilities was a good idea only for frightening ourselves.
Cracking the jihadist code begins with UC Santa Barbara Professor of sociology Mark Juergensmeyer's concept of "cosmic war," which is the eternal struggle between good and evil. This struggle is at the heart of most religions but made manifest in the here and now.
Cosmic war is unending but cannot be lost. It is, for the jihadists as for other cosmic warriors, defensive. From their perspective, Islam is in mortal danger. They believe Islam is surrounded by U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iraq, and by military bases in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and Central Asia.
They believe Palestinian lands are occupied by U.S.-supported Zionists, and that the United States' "puppets," like Pakistan, have joined the oppressors. And the threat is perceived as not just external but internal as well, for pervasive Western corruption threatens Muslim souls.
Jihad is the answer and the antidote, and the key is action.
Cosmic war is exhilarating and provides a sense of meaning to life, especially the lives of young men adrift, even relatively successful ones. For the jihadist enterprise, action is just as critical. Without a continuing terrorist campaign, Osama bin Laden is only a picture on a T-shirt. Without action, money and recruits will go elsewhere, and al Qaeda will lose its brand.
Jihadist objectives are broad. They seek to drive out the infidels, topple apostate regimes, foster religious revival, re-establish the caliphate and expand Islam. But their strategy for accomplishing this is not linear or sequential. They are opportunistic. Their goal is building a following, not taking ground, and their time horizon is distant.
Allah is the ultimate strategist. There is no road map to "victory." No need for timetables. No requirement to measure progress.
However, fervency of belief does not banish debate from the ranks of the jihadists. Apparently, not all thought it was wise to launch a terrorist campaign in Saudi Arabia, traditionally a pillar of support for al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda communications assert that official casualty figures from attacks in Muslim countries undercount dead infidels and overcount dead Muslims, fully indicating the movement's sensitivity to collateral casualties. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's No. 2, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda's commander in Iraq, clearly differ on attacking Shiites. The older al Qaeda leader has criticized the attacks. The younger Zarqawi seems bent on provoking a sectarian civil war.
Strategy implies central direction, but al Qaeda has dramatically changed since Sept. 11. It still communicates, recruits, trains, plans and carries out terrorist operations.
But a more hostile operating environment has forced decentralization, made the kind of transactions that can be monitored by intelligence more dangerous and increased the role of local operatives, whose connections with the historic center remain murky.
The good news is that unrelenting pressure on al Qaeda may prevent it from mounting strategic attacks like Sept. 11, forcing the jihadists toward less ambitious, if still lethal, schemes like Wednesday's attack on three hotels in Jordan and recent attacks in London, Egypt and Bali.
The bad news is these homegrown attacks are difficult to detect. They provide none of the usual clues national intelligence services watch for. Local cops are as likely to learn of local conspiracies.
Today, we confront a pervasive ideology of violence, not some James Bond-ian central headquarters of terror. Military force, never ruled out, will find only occasional and precise application.
Our arsenal now must emphasize intelligence and law enforcement, enhanced locally and linked nationally and internationally, coupled with efforts to disrupt jihadist recruiting while turning around those in captivity. That way, we can guarantee al Qaeda's leaders truly depressing briefings in the future.
Brian Michael Jenkins is senior adviser to the president of the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. Gregory F. Treverton is senior analyst at Rand and associate dean of the Pardee Rand Graduate School.
This commentary originally appeared in San Francisco Chronicle on November 13, 2005. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.