United States

A Response to Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman, thanks to some prompting from my friend Sean, has responded to my post about people drawing the wrong conclusions about Al-Qaeda’s abilities.

He writes:

Blowing up an airplane is not the same thing as simultaneously hijacking multiple aircraft and turning them into missiles. There’s literally an order of magnitude difference between the 300 people who would have died had the Christmas plot succeeded and the 3000 who died on 9/11. What I’m saying isn’t that 300 potential deaths are nothing. It’s that we should notice we’re not talking about a nuclear-armed al-Qaeda, or an al-Qaeda that can topple and conquer Pakistan or other scenarios that a few years ago were plausible (well, maybe the Pakistan one was never plausible). al-Qaeda isn’t beaten. And you’re never going to stop a lone-wolf self-starter who can just get a gun and shoot up a mall to exalt the greater glory of Usama bin Laden. But it’s significant that we’re not seeing al-Qaeda’s capabilities increase or even stagnate. We’re seeing them fail — even if they came too close for comfort — at attacks that start out with diminished ambitions compared to 9/11.

My original post made a very simple and narrowly-focused argument, namely that we should not read too much into a failed terror plot. To be clear, I actually believe that Al-Qaeda is indeed weaker today than it was before 9/11, but my reasons for believing this do not stem from the failed exploits of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, but rather from my knowledge of the various security measures that have been implemented since then.

The fact that Abdulmutallab tried to blow up the plane in midair rather than hijacking it and flying it into a skyscraper does not necessarily mean that Al-Qaeda is weaker or less able to develop the assets to execute such an operation. What it probably means is that they’ve realized that hijacking airliners is no longer a viable strategy, given that cockpit doors are now solid steel, bulletproofed affairs that are locked before takeoff and guarded by a plainclothed air marshal nibbling on mushroom canapés in first class. In other words, there’s not much point in training suicide pilots.

Does this mean that Al-Qaeda’s (or whoever’s) options for creating physical destruction using airplanes is diminished? Of course it does. Are 300 deaths less tragic than 3000? Sure. But as long as we’re wearing our sinister actuary hats, let’s push the straight talk a little further and admit that a law of diminishing returns applies, as far as terrorist “casualties” are concerned. Had Abdulmutallab succeeded, there would have been 2700 fewer deaths than there were on 9/11, but I have to believe that the bombing would have had many of the same repercussions. Air travel would have plummeted, the stock market might have taken a tumble, additional billions would have been spent in the whack-a-mole affair that we’ve all become so familiar with.  So I think that congratulating ourselves on a dip in potential human casualties is a tad myopic.

To recap, then, yes Al-Qaeda is almost certainly weaker today than it was eight years ago, both in absolute and relative terms. But I don’t think that one can gauge its weaknesses on the basis of failed (as opposed to foiled) terror plots, particularly when they fail due to technical problems. (Would the Iranian Revolutionary Guard have been justified in believing that the U.S. military was weaker than ever because of the failure of Operation Eagle Claw?)

I think I’d better stop talking about this before someone confuses me with Pete Hoekstra.
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Discussion

20 thoughts on “A Response to Spencer Ackerman

  1. “Would the Iranian Revolutionary Guard have been justified in believing that the U.S. military was weaker than ever because of the failure of Operation Eagle Claw?”

    The answer to your rhetorical question is that based on the failure of eagle claw the Revolutionary Guard came to believe a true statement: The the US does not have the will power or the ability to free its hostages in Iran using force. You cannot evade the fact that even accidental failure, shows lack of preparedness. The US army at that time put together an awful plan that did not take into account possible weather contingencies. This shows a severe weakness. Also, by not attempting another rescue, the US admitted its weakness at that point in time. It could be that this weakness was due to Carter and indeed he paid the price.

    You keep trying to argue that evidence is not relevant when it clearly is. Beware of the epistemology police.

    Posted by AIG | January 5, 2010, 7:11 pm
  2. Blowing up an airplane is not the same thing as simultaneously hijacking multiple aircraft and turning them into missiles.

    QN,

    cc: sean

    And blowing up an airplane is not the same as blowing up a pizza parlor.

    Your using these examples to prove that “we should not read too much into a failed terror plot”?

    Puleeeeze!

    Anytime a US airliner has a close call, a near collision, a hard landing, or falls out the sky, the NTSB is called for a detailed investigation.

    Where terrorism is concerned, the intelligence agencies find the mistake.

    This is how terrorism works. It diverts attention and resources towards the problem the terrorists created.

    Of course, it’s all relative. If it is a few thousand mortars and rockets that fall into empty fields, it may take a few years to respond to the terrorism, if it is a couple of downed airliners, it may take a few days or a week.

    To recap, then, yes Al-Qaeda is almost certainly weaker today than it was eight years ago, both in absolute and relative terms. But I don’t think that one can gauge its weaknesses on the basis of failed (as opposed to foiled) terror plots, particularly when they fail due to technical problems.

    To recap, the War on Terror is far from over, and no matter how liberal or no matter how isolationist Obama or Ron Paul is, respectively, they still will/would have to deal with it. Terrorists leave you few choices.

    Unclench your fist Barack;)

    Posted by Akbar Palace | January 5, 2010, 9:57 pm
  3. I think there are some solutions to reducing the effectivness of Al-Qaeda. Chief among them is resolving the arab-israeli conflict, especially the status of Jerusalem. As the heavy handed israeli approach to the conflict has not helped one bit in my view. Building settlements in the west bank and declaring Jerusalem as exclusive to israel, etc.

    Solutions are out there, feel free to add yours.

    Posted by Ras Beirut | January 5, 2010, 10:04 pm
  4. Ras Beirut,
    The solution is for the Arabs to monitor the radicals within their society and to internally fight extremism. Blaming others such as Israel is pure escapism and running away from responsibility.

    Posted by AIG | January 5, 2010, 10:10 pm
  5. AIG,

    I beg to differ, and history is on my side on this as far as who had terror organizations in the ME in the early part of this conflict. Look it up on Wiki.

    Posted by Ras Beirut | January 5, 2010, 10:17 pm
  6. Chief among them is resolving the arab-israeli conflict…

    Ras Beirut,

    “Chief” among them? I’d say the Arab-Israeli conflict is merely a diversion. A myth.

    The insurgents and Saddam killed
    hundreds of thousands of muslims in Iraq and the “arab-Israeli” conflict had nothing to do with it.

    Assad didn’t blow up Hama because of the “arab-Israeli” conflict.

    The Iran-Iraq war didn’t occur due to the arab-Israeli conflict.

    “Fix” the “arab-Israeli” conflict and you’ll still have Arab terrorism. IMHO, it would be easier fixing those countries that support and harbor terrorists and the clergy that brainwashes them.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | January 5, 2010, 10:38 pm
  7. Ras Beirut,
    I know history very well. Who took care of the Irgun and Lehi? Ben-Gurion and the Haganah.
    Only the Jews were able to stop Jewish terrorism. Only Arabs can stop Arab terrorism. Blaming others will not work. Take responsibility.

    Posted by AIG | January 5, 2010, 10:57 pm
  8. Beware of the epistemology police.

    Can we change your name to TheEpistemologyPolice?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | January 5, 2010, 10:58 pm
  9. “(Would the Iranian Revolutionary Guard have been justified in believing that the U.S. military was weaker than ever because of the failure of Operation Eagle Claw?)”

    They would be looking at the weakness demonstrated by the operation that killed CIA and other persons of import in Afghanistan.

    Posted by lally | January 6, 2010, 12:00 am
  10. AIG,

    Don’t kid yourself that the jews in israel stopped the acts of Irgun because they were so agaisnt them. Instead, they reaped the fruits of Irgun’s actions in terms of land conquest, and thus Irgun was no longer beneficial from a public relation point of view.

    Heck, if that was the case, Begin wouldn’t have rose to be the PM of israel.

    Once again, pratical solutions is where it’s at in my view to resolve most but maybe not all of this problem.

    I’m gathering that you and AP don’t think that resolving the Arab/Israeli conflict can aid in this endeavor, and that’s your choice. But I think you conveniently look the other way in this regard, and refuse to admit the obvious.

    Posted by Ras Beirut | January 6, 2010, 12:14 am
  11. Ras Beirut,

    Of course solving the Arab-Israeli will not help ONE iota. The two country solution is not supported anyway by the fundamentalists. The EXISTENCE of Israel is a provocation for them. No peace will help that. Don’t delude yourself.

    If you would read history you would know that a large majority of the Jews pre-1948 hated the Irgun and the Lehi and saw them as deranged. Ben-Gurion would not agree to talk to Begin and never addressed hum by name.

    It took Begin 31 years of sitting in the opposition before getting elected PM! And that also because of the Yom Kipur war.

    The sooner you accept that Arab terrorism is an internal Arab problem and with only an internal solution, the sooner this will be solved.

    Posted by AIG | January 6, 2010, 12:48 am
  12. AIG.

    You had better hope that Hezbollah can continue to act as an impediment to AQ across the Blue Line then….shouldn’t you?

    Posted by lally | January 6, 2010, 1:14 am
  13. Lally,
    And why can’t the Lebanese Army be an impediment against Al-Qaida? This is a job they can do. Hizballah and Lebanon are not doing Israel any favors by stopping attacks from Lebanon on Israel. Lebanon has paid dearly for not stopping such attacks in the past and will continue to pay in the future if it does not control its militias.

    Posted by AIG | January 6, 2010, 1:24 am
  14. Suprise, suprise. Tom Friedman agrees with me:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/06/opinion/06friedman.html

    Posted by AIG | January 6, 2010, 1:49 am
  15. Hah, I wasn’t aware that King Abdullah was known as the (or even a) “global leader” of Islam by anyone besides the royal family and those on its payroll.

    Posted by sean | January 6, 2010, 4:33 am
  16. Tom Friedman writes:

    I keep saying: It takes a village. The father, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, saw himself as part of a global community, based on shared values, and that is why he rang the alarm bell. Bless him for that. Unless more Muslim parents, spiritual leaders, political leaders — the village — are ready to publicly denounce suicide bombing against innocent civilians — theirs and ours — this behavior will not stop.

    AIG,

    Tom Friedman must be high on weed. The entire Arab and Muslim world encourages “martyrdom”, excuses terrorism, demonizes Israel, and much of it outright supports and plays “footsie” with terrorists.

    The Arab street is powerless to do anything except demonstrate against Israel.

    Tom Friedman shouldn’t hold his breathe waiting for “more Muslim parents, spiritual leaders, political leaders …[who]are ready to publicly denounce suicide bombing against innocent civilians“.

    Unfortunately, I concur with the Bush/Cheney approach, hold the governments responsible and set up a carrot/stick approach. Sort of like training a young puppy.

    Can can’t hope for change in the ME. You, for one, should know that. Alhaji Umaru Mutallab was an anomaly.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | January 6, 2010, 7:56 am
  17. An excellent article by Daniel Pipes that will be ignored as usual. At the bottom there’s a link to Syrian “dry-run” that occurred a few years ago (ancient history)…

    http://www.danielpipes.org/7866/airport-security-theater

    Posted by Akbar Palace | January 6, 2010, 10:27 am
  18. Jihadist Hero or International Menace/Addams Family lookalike winner?

    You decide.

    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,582112,00.html

    Posted by Akbar Palace | January 6, 2010, 11:56 am
  19. “solving the Arab-Israeli will not help ONE iota.”
    “Arab terrorism is an internal Arab problem.”
    “The Arab street”… blah blah blah blah
    “The solution is for the Arabs to”… blah blah blah blah
    “I concur with the Bush/Cheney approach”
    “I know history very well”

    I’d rather be brainwashed by some clergy than read more of this truly brainwashing propaganda disguised in so-called expertise.

    Posted by quelqu'une | January 6, 2010, 2:56 pm
  20. AIG.

    Be practical here, Hezbollah has the homefield advantage and AQ is an enemy in common. If I were Israeli and knew something about the nuetered capabilities of the LAF, I would be aware that Hezbollah’s self-interest in containing AQ et al in southern Lebanon is to Israel’s advantage.

    Posted by lally | January 7, 2010, 4:11 am

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