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Sunday, November 21, 2004

Organized International Terrorism?

I gave a talk today to a group of about 25 adults for a "Solidarity" class in a local Baptist church. The talk went well, I thought, and the audience had a lot of good questions at the end.

I'm not going to include every point I made, but these seemed important:

1. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) says al Qaeda has evolved into a "network of networks." I compared the structure to the way my Department's small computer network contained in a small building connects to the broader university-wide network, which itself includes both numerous smaller networks and one or more connections to the larger internet. The internet, of course, includes an enormous "network of networks."

This is a lot different from an organizational hierarchy. It's also quite different from the "hub system" used by airlines. I think it has significant implications for anti-terror efforts, but I'm not 100% sure what those are.

IISS says there were 20,000 jihadists trained in Afghanistan since the mid-1990s. Maybe 2000 were killed or captured once the US started making war in Afghanistan and maybe 1000 "foreign fighters" in Iraq are jihadists. Where are the other 85% (17,000)? Apparently, they are secretly dispersed in this decentralized network of networks in 50 or 60 nation-states. There is not much evidence that these jihadists are supported by states. The trained terrorists are more like parasites attached to unwitting hosts.

Finding them and stopping them from committing acts of terror probably won't be much like war. It is law enforcement, intelligence gathering, and homeland security.

So why does the US and global debate seem mostly to focus on the use of military threats to address state sponsors?

I saw a recent estimate (reported by UPI) that the US is spending over $5.8 billion per month on the war in Iraq. How many new resources have gone to the non-military tools of law enforcement, intelligence gathering and homeland security since 9/11? Hint: not nearly as much as claimed and not nearly as much as Iraq has and will cost the US.

2. I also talked a great deal about the "false sense of insecurity" that many analysts have discussed in regard to terror. The odds of any American facing a terrorist threat is very, very low. One study calculated that driving a bit more than 11 miles on rural interstate highways (which are the safest US roads) poses about the same risk of death as an airline terrorist attack (1 in 13 million).

Yet, many Americans are irrationally afraid of terrorists. I think al Qaeda should be taken seriously and that the US government should expend fairly significant resources to find those jihadists before they commit acts of terror, However, I do not think that average Americans ought to worry about the risks of terror attacks very much. Except for 2001, which featured an attack nearly 10 times worse than any other terror attack in history, terrorism kills only a few hundred people worldwide in any given year.

That's about as worrisome as peanut allergies, bathtub falls, or deer wandering on to the interstate highways.

Nuclear, biological and chemical proliferation pose additional problems that may or may not be related to terrorism. I think proliferation should be taken very seriously, but no one is going to enrich uranium in a cave and all sorts of non-proliferation tools are potentially available to address the problem. Again, this particular threat may or may not be best addressed with military means.

The debate needs to include serious discussion of sanctions, norms, international law, diplomacy, intelligence gathering, and law enforcement.

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