Why The Terror Threat Lingers

In light of the terror alert issued by the US on Tuesday, we are publishing extracts from an article titled ‘Al-Qaeda’s Quest For Relevance, And Future Attack Scenarios’, which was published on Business Monitor Online on May 23, 2011. The article contains our core views on Al-Qaeda and the threat it poses.

Extract begins:

It is important to note that when we speak of ‘al-Qaeda’, we are not describing a monolithic, unified organisation. There are at least three concentric circles. The first is the core group, formerly headed by [Osama] bin Laden, which provided overall strategic and ideological guidance. The second circle consists of regional affiliates (such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)), which are more active in their region of focus. The third circle consists of small cells or self-radicalised individuals, who have very limited operational links with regional affiliates, let alone the core group. Although bin Laden’s death is a loss for al-Qaeda, it is not a fatal blow, thanks to its decentralised nature. In any case, al-Qaeda has already appointed Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian special forces colonel and one of its top commanders, as its acting leader. Yet, regardless of leadership changes, al-Qaeda has largely failed to achieve its strategic goals.

Al-Qaeda Has Failed In Its Strategic Goals

When al-Qaeda surged to international prominence following the ’9/11′ terror attacks, the group had three strategic goals:

  • Purging the Greater Middle East of Western political (and cultural) influence.
  • Overthrowing pro-Western regimes and replacing them with Islamist ones.
  • Merging new Islamist states into an Islamist superstate (Caliphate) which would be a global power.

The US was struck because it represented the ‘far enemy’ (the ‘near enemy’ being pro-Western Arab regimes). By attacking the US, al-Qaeda sought to demonstrate America’s vulnerability and provoke anti-Western uprisings in the Arab world and Pakistan that would topple regimes there. In addition, the anticipated US retaliation for 9/11 was expected to polarise the Western world and the Arab/Muslim world.

However, almost 10 years after 9/11, al-Qaeda has failed in all three objectives. Regarding the first goal, US troops are no longer stationed in Saudi Arabia (their withdrawal was a key demand of al-Qaeda), but the US retains a significant military presence in the Persian Gulf. Indeed, the US military presence in the Greater Near East increased after 9/11 when it invaded Iraq, and Washington raised its troop levels in Afghanistan to 100,000 in 2010. Although the US is planning to exit Iraq by the end of 2011 and start withdrawing from Afghanistan this year, Western influence remains strong in the broad macro-region.

On the second goal, al-Qaeda was completely unable to provoke Islamist uprisings in the Greater Near East. Not a single government fell to radical Islamist forces. As noted, although the ‘Arab Spring’ represents a clear rejection of Middle Eastern autocrats, the uprisings cannot be seen as gains for al-Qaeda. Even if Islamists subsequently come to power in Egypt and Yemen, they are unlikely to align with global militant Islamists, for the price would be too high. They would be marginalised by the US and Europe, meaning that their economies would suffer. New, untested governments will not want to attain pariah status.

The third goal – the creation of a Caliphate – remains a fantasy. There is no prospect for merging Middle Eastern states into a superstate. Even if several Arab countries became Islamist states, they would have little reason to merge. National identities remain powerful constructs, and previous attempts to merge countries with similar regimes – namely Egypt and Syria in the short-lived United Arab Republic of 1958-1961 and Syria and Iraq in past decades – ultimately failed. Indeed, if even democratic and prosperous European countries cannot agree to merge into a European superstate, there is no reason to suppose that Middle Eastern countries can achieve this. The same is true of proponents of a South East Asian caliphate consisting of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Southern Philippines, and Southern Thailand.

Underlying Drivers Of Extremism Still Present

Although al-Qaeda has failed to achieve its strategic goals, many of the underlying socioeconomic conditions supporting Islamist extremism are still present, meaning that if they are not addressed, they could eventually boost al-Qaeda’s pool of potential recruits. These are:

  • Widespread anger at Western policies (present and dating back decades if not centuries) towards the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere.
  • Rapid social change amid urbanisation and the wide gap between traditionalism and modernity (for a concise and highly readable overview of these processes, read Buruma and Margalit’s 2004 book Occidentalism: A Short History Of Anti-Westernism).
  • Rapid population increase, a demographic youth bulge, widespread unemployment and underemployment, and limited opportunities for upward social mobility.

The ‘Arab Spring’ has resulted in a push for democratisation, but we caution that if new governments in Egypt, Tunisia, etc, fail to improve governance and living standards, they could face a backlash, which would probably favour Islamist parties. Thus, it is far too soon to conclude that the ‘Arab Spring’ marks a death knell for political Islamism (although this need not manifest itself as support for terrorism).

Furthermore, the centre of gravity of al-Qaeda has become much more diffuse. Islamist terrorism is increasingly being driven by second-generation immigrants from Arab or Muslim countries in Western Europe, or directly by groups in Pakistan. This means that al-Qaeda may well survive regardless of political changes in the Middle East.

Lawless Countries Will Provide New Bases

Al-Qaeda can also survive by exploiting security vacuums in failed or lawless states. Its affiliate, AQAP, already has roots in Yemen, and that country’s potential collapse following the expected resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh could strengthen the group’s presence there. This would threaten the security of Saudi Arabia and potentially global shipping through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, which has already been affected by Somali pirates. Meanwhile, the potential collapse of Libya could also create a safe haven for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In addition, Somalia remains in a state of civil war, and the al-Shabaab militant group in 2010 carried out terror attacks in Uganda and has previously threatened to attack the US. Elsewhere, Russia’s North Caucasus remains wracked by an Islamist insurgency, and could serve as a training ground for militants. Finally, Pakistan remains a country finely balanced between secular, democratic government and Islamist extremism.

Al-Qaeda Will Continue Trying To Strike The West

Overall, we believe that al-Qaeda and its affiliates will find themselves under greater pressure to strike the West, mainly to demonstrate to their core supporters that they can still function. Documents captured by the US in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden show that he continued to devise plots to attack the West. Notably, he urged his followers not to concentrate solely on New York, but to attack Los Angeles and/or smaller cities. Indeed, it would certainly make sense for al-Qaeda to target second-tier cities or even small cities, since this would have greater resonance for ‘Middle America’, whose residents might otherwise be forgiven for thinking that they are ‘safe’ if they do not live in New York or Washington DC. However, a new terror strike would probably be seen as an act of desperation, rather than a serious strategic challenge to the West.

Terror Strike Scenarios

Al-Qaeda and its offshoots have failed to attack a Western city since the ’7/7′ bombings in London in 2005. Since then, there have been multiple reports of foiled attacks, such as the 2006 ‘airlines’ plot to bomb several trans-Atlantic airliners, the Christmas Day 2009 plot to destroy an airliner over Detroit, the failed attempt to detonate a car bomb in New York’s Times Square in May 2010 (for which the Pakistani Taliban claimed credit), and the attempt to send parcel bombs aboard US-bound cargo planes in late 2010.

The above plots were foiled by a combination of intelligence, citizens’ actions, and good luck. However, this combination cannot be expected to prevail indefinitely, meaning that sooner or later, the terrorists will probably get ‘lucky’ with a successful strike. Below, we outline several terror attack scenarios, and the likely repercussions.

Small-Scale Attack: The most basic attack would be a small-scale explosion (probably a suicide attack or car bomb) that kills a dozen or so people. Such an attack could be caused by a ‘lone wolf’ attacker or tiny cell, most probably radicalised by the internet, and with minimal guidance from a broader terror network. The initial shock of the bomb would be high (especially if carried out in a busy shopping district or night-life area), but would probably dissipate relatively quickly. Consequently, al-Qaeda would see little strategic benefit from carrying out this sort of attack. Indeed, in many ways a small-scale attack after much deadlier ones such as ’9/11′ and Madrid’s ’3/11′ could make al-Qaeda seem weak.

The political impact of a small-scale attack in the US or Western Europe would probably be limited. Security would be tightened, but it could be deemed a ‘one-off’ incident.

Frequent small-scale attacks: A greater danger for Western countries is that they will face a new wave of frequent (ie perhaps once or twice a year) small-scale attacks. Even if casualties are low, the mere possibility that one could get killed by visiting a key commercial area or bars, restaurants, etc, could put people off going out. This would hit retail sales and the service sector. That said, the public could gradually become accustomed to the risk of small-scale attacks, and life would go on (if only because people would have no choice but to go to work or go out in urban centres). Security would obviously need to be stepped up, but the IRA terror threat to the United Kingdom, the ETA threat in Spain, and the Chechen terror threat in Russia did not bring these countries to their knees.

One major consequence of a new terror campaign is that it would almost certainly lead to a backlash against Muslim immigrant communities and thus probably boost (albeit not necessarily to a significant degree) far-right parties. Meanwhile, the mainstream parties would probably come under pressure to curb immigration, especially from Muslim countries. However, we deem this sort of terrorist campaign to be unlikely. Given that such attacks would be relatively easy to carry out, we believe that if there were to be such a campaign, it would most likely have happened by now.

Mass-casualty attack: There are many possible scenarios for a mass-casualty (scores or hundreds killed) attack. This could take the form of a new aircraft explosion above a major urban area; an attack on railway systems; a Mumbai-style hotel siege; a Beslan-style school hostage crisis; a Moscow-style theatre siege, or some combination of the above. Clearly, the higher the death toll, the greater the emotiveness of the attack, and the greater the public demand for retaliation.

A mass-casualty attack on public transport would be relatively straightforward to carry out, because buses and trains do not have airport-style security checks. Indeed, such checks would surely cause more disruption and delays to commuters than actual attacks. Hostage crises would be more difficult to carry out, because of fairly strict gun controls in many Western countries. Furthermore, this would require many gunmen, and the larger the number of plotters, the greater the risk that the scheme would be infiltrated.

It is almost certain that a mass-casualty attack would lead to public calls for retaliation overseas. However, with Western troops already in Afghanistan, it is not clear which country would be the victim of retaliation, especially if the perpetrators are mainly second-generation Muslims in the Western world.

WMD attack: The biggest and most uncertain risk would be a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) attack on a major Western city. This could take the form of either a dirty bomb (which would not cause much physical damage or many immediate deaths, but could irradiate a large section of a city, thus requiring evacuation), or a nuclear detonation. Either would constitute a nightmare scenario for security planners. We deem the chances of a nuclear terror attack to be very low.

At the very least, terrorists would have to surreptitiously acquire a Russian, Pakistani, or North Korean atomic device (which in itself would probably only be possible if one of those states collapsed), transport it thousands of kilometers to Europe or the US, sneak it into a major city, and successfully detonate the device. At every step, there would be a high possibility of interception – although an off-shore detonation near a port city would be easier than placing the device in a city centre.

Beyond The ‘War On Terror’

Although the Obama administration dropped the use of the phrase ‘War on Terror’ in early 2009, we continue to use it for the purposes of convenience to describe ongoing intelligence efforts and military action against Islamist terrorists. Overall, we continue to believe that there will be no obvious conclusion to the ‘War on Terror’. Western leaders are unlikely to proclaim victory, because any subsequent attack would make them look naïve or ignorant. Thus, while the ‘War on Terror’ will eventually wind down, there will probably not be a specific moment that future historians will be able to indentify as marking the end of the conflict.