In the Calculus of Fear, Terrorists Have an Edge


Nov 2, 2003

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on November 2, 2003.

"It is no secret that warding off the American enemy is the top duty after faith and that nothing should take priority over it," said the terrorist leader. "Crusader military forces" of the United States and Britain, he warned, had established a beachhead in the Muslim world to impose a new imperialism on the Middle East and gain control of the region's oil.

The words of an Iraqi resistance leader? No. The words of Osama bin Laden in his "Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places" in 1996.

The American beachhead Bin Laden was referring to was Saudi Arabia, but his followers, active supporters and sympathizers today view his words as prophetic of the U.S.-led invasion and conquest of Iraq. We don't know the identities of the terrorists behind the recent wave of attacks in Iraq, but they appear to have a variety of backgrounds - Hussein loyalists, Iraqis seeking to empower various factions, Al Qaeda terrorists and other anti-American forces. But we do know their fundamental metric of success is their ability to attack and terrorize, and that the media can bring news of a terrorist attack to billions of people within a few hours. Terrorists crave the regenerative power of a single, new, dramatic attack that can put them in the spotlight.

In this respect, governments are inevitably only as good as their last failure. No matter how many attacks they prevent, no matter how many people are not killed daily by terrorists, what's remembered is the relatively small number of terrorist attacks that succeed.

There's no question that the United States and other governments have made significant progress in the war against global terrorism in recent months. Our airports and planes are far better protected. Government buildings are surrounded by new barriers and other security measures. Many terrorists are in prison cells or in graves as a result of counter-terrorism work by the United States and its allies. But all that's needed is one new, successful attack.

At the end of World War II, the once-mighty armies of Germany and Japan were broken and simply stopped fighting. But despite the crushing defeat in Afghanistan of Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies, terrorist incidents linked to Al Qaeda occurred in the last two years in places as diverse as Tunisia, Pakistan, Jordan, Indonesia, Kuwait, the Philippines, Yemen, Kenya and now possibly Iraq. The terrorist organization has continued to use suicide bombers—at sea and on land. And commercial aviation has remained a significant Al Qaeda target, as July's warning from the Transportation Security Administration showed.

The war against terrorism thus appears to be in a transitional state. Our counter-terrorism measures are becoming stronger. Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are scrambling to adapt to new, less-congenial operational environments. During this period, we are likely to see increased recruitment of second- and third-generation European Muslims.

Recruitment efforts are already targeting Muslim youth living in the Netherlands who were previously assumed to be thoroughly assimilated. Al Qaeda operatives will seek to embed themselves in, and draw new sources of support from, established overseas communities. Such recruits don't usually come under the scrutiny of local or national law enforcement.

Al Qaeda's main challenge is to promote and ensure its durability as an ideology and concept. It can do this only by staying in the news, by elbowing aside potential terrorist competitors and by launching new attacks that reinforce its relevance to the Muslim world. Violence will continue to be key to these objectives.

In the post-9/11 environment, terrorism's power—to coerce and intimidate, to force changes in social behavior and to influence U.S. policies and spending—has increased enormously. The stakes, accordingly, have grown, as have public fear and expectations.

More and more, the measure of success in the war on terrorism is defined as the ability of intelligence agencies and law enforcement organizations to prevent, preempt or deter attacks. Conversely, the standard of success for the terrorists has become simply the ability to spread death, destruction and fear. Unfortunately, it's a lot easier to attack a single target than to defend an infinite number of potential targets.

Although there is a world of difference between bombing a hotel in Jakarta and attacking the Pentagon and laying the World Trade Center to waste, the impact the terrorists seek is not necessarily dissimilar. Al Qaeda's power—and the appeal of its idea of radical jihad—in the world stems from the extraordinary success of its murderous 9/11 attacks.

All this points to a long, long struggle ahead in the war against terrorism. There will be far more victories than defeats, but no matter how successful we are, someone, somewhere, is probably plotting the next attack.

Bruce Hoffman is a terrorism expert with the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

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