DIAGNOSING AL QAEDA
RAND has an interesting discussion by that title on their website. They discuss the origins and nature of the network; whether it will survive if Osama is/has been eliminated; and several other interesting issues.
Greg Treverton is alone among the panelists of not being particularly worried about AQ acquisition of WMD:
Sure, if al Qaeda were handed a nuclear bomb, it might well use it. But the technology is not as easy as is sometimes portrayed. More to the point, as we wrote in a 1995 assessment when I was in the government, terrorists can do plenty of damage with “conventional” weapons, like 9-11’s airplanes. So neither al Qaeda nor other terrorist organizations really need to go to the bother of trying to get nukes or biological weapons (chemical weapons are not a good terrorist weapon). The one reservation I have about my guess is that there is a kind of escalation in violence. 9-11 was shocking, but a repeat would be less so. So there may be an incentive for terrorists to look to the next level of “stun” value.
Still, all the panelists are vehement that AQ, and indeed international terrorism collectively, are far less threatening than 20th Century threats like Hitler and Stalin. Bruce Hoffman says,
I think the parallel drawn between radical Islam, much less al Qaeda and bin Laden specifically, with Nazism and communism is not only facile, but dangerous. To date, neither al Qaeda alone nor in combination with its many associated and affiliated organizations (e.g., Jemmah Islamiya, al Ittihad al Islamiya, etc.) has come even remotely close either to causing the untold millions of deaths or showing themselves capable of engaging in the systemic state genocide engineered by Hitler and Stalin.
It is not only inappropriate to make such comparisons, but unproductive: since such parallels play precisely into the far-reaching and disquieting psychological repercussions that terrorists hope to achieve in their target audiences. Such assertions inadvertently inflate the terrorists’ power and capabilities and play precisely to the fear and intimidation they hope to instill in their enemies. Beyond any doubt, al Qaeda and radical Islam are among the most serious threats to U.S. national security that we face today. But at the same time we have to keep that threat in perspective and think about our adversaries rationally and soberly if we are truly to be effective in ensuring their defeat.
Brian Jenkins adds,
We must keep in mind that 60 million people–soldiers and civilians–died in the two world wars that were fought during the first half of the last century. When it comes to sustained, organized slaughter, the “civilized” nations cannot easily be matched. These wars were driven by diverse ideologies–nationalism, fascism, and communism. Between 5 million and 10 million people have died in the wars of the past quarter century. Bin Laden and like-minded fanatics have killed thousands. Terrorists create spectacular tragedies, but they don’t yet imperil the republic.
I have long subscribed to the notion that even those we label terrorists are subject to self-imposed constraints. Violence beyond a certain point is counterproductive. It threatens group cohesion, alienates the terrorists’ perceived constituents, and provokes reactions that their organizations seldom survive. True, as my colleagues often remind me, these constraints are not universal or immutable. Believing they have the mandate of God, terrorists subscribing to ideologies drawn from religion are less constrained by conventional morality or assessments of personal risk. But al Qaeda and its affiliates are not monolithic institutions; they are complex systems depending on tolerance and support.