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September 30, 2006

Terrorism: No Good News

One of the many frustrations and disappointments related to the recent contract negotiations I've written about so much here recently is that on Sept 11, I was in negotiations for about 21 hours. As a result, I really didn't have time to post anything related to the anniversay of the terrorist attacks or about terrorism. As a criminologist, I studied terrorism before 9/11 and I have been trying to expand my understanding of the challenge of terrorism to the free societies in the global village.

I'd like to write a little bit about the recent National Intelligence Estimate as part of my efforts to clarify the bigger picture, especially since  the NIE has become fodder for the political debate narrowly centered around whether Bush's war in Iraq has made us safer. In particular, the aspects of the NIE that mention jihadists in greater number and geographical dispursion is troubling in the larger context of 4th generation warfare (discussed and defined below).

First, the NIE statements, via Juan Cole - who, as always, has excellent detail and context. The "Key Judgements" from Declassified Key Judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States" dated April 2006:

  • United States-led counterterrorism efforts have seriously damaged the leadership of al-Qa’ida and disrupted its operations; however, we judge that al-Qa’ida will continue to pose the greatest threat to the Homeland and US interests abroad by a single terrorist organization. We also assess that the global jihadist movement — which includes al- Qa’ida, affiliated and independent terrorist groups, and emerging networks and cells — is spreading and adapting to counterterrorism efforts.
  • Although we cannot measure the extent of the spread with precision, a large body of all-source reporting indicates that activists identifying themselves as jihadists, although a small percentage of Muslims, are increasing in both number and geographic dispersion.
  • We assess that the global jihadist movement is decentralized, lacks a coherent global strategy, and is becoming more diffuse. New jihadist networks and cells, with anti- American agendas, are increasingly likely to emerge. The confluence of shared purpose and dispersed actors will make it harder to find and undermine jihadist groups.
  • We assess that the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives; perceived jihadist success there would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere. The Iraq conflict has become the cause celebre for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement. Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves, and be perceived, to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight.
  • We assess that the underlying factors fueling the spread of the movement outweigh its vulnerabilities and are likely to do so for the duration of the timeframe of this Estimate.
  • Four underlying factors are fueling the spread of the jihadist movement: (1) Entrenched grievances, such as corruption, injustice, and fear of Western domination, leading to anger, humiliation, and a sense of powerlessness; (2) the Iraq jihad; (3) the slow pace of real and sustained economic, social, and political reforms in many Muslim majority nations; and (4) pervasive anti-US sentiment among most Muslims, all of which jihadists exploit.
  • We judge that most jihadist groups, both well-known and newly formed, will use improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks focused primarily on soft targets to implement their asymmetric warfare strategy, and that they will attempt to conduct sustained terrorist attacks in urban environments. Fighters with experience in Iraq are a potential source of leadership for jihadists pursuing these tactics.
  • CBRN [chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear] capabilities will continue to be sought by jihadist groups, While Iran, and to a lesser extent Syria, remain the most active state sponsors of terrorism, many other states will be unable to prevent territory or resources from being exploited by terrorists.
  • Anti-US and anti-globalization sentiment is on the rise and fueling other radical ideologies. This could prompt some leftist, nationalist, or separatist groups to adopt terrorist methods to attack US interests. The radicalization process is occurring more quickly, more widely, and more anonymously in the Internet age, raising the likelihood of surprise attacks by unknown groups whose members and supporters may be difficult to pinpoint.

[For those still in doubt, Cole has other posts with links to items noting that the UN has also issued a report on Iraq as a major generator of anti-Western terrorism, and a British Ministry of Defense think tank study called the Iraq war a 'recruiting sergeant' for extremists.]

From Kyoto Kiyomizu Temple, Japan. People write prayers on the wood, which is then burned and carried up to the Gods. I thought this was great, both for the overall spirit and the note about the 'travesty in Iraq.' Seems as valid today as it was in June of 2004. (click for a larger version)

Key take away points: (1) while many people think terrorists are irrational, their ideology is spreading and they are proving adept at evolving strategies to counter our conter-terrorism efforts (2) while the anti-US ideology is not only about Iraq, US involvement there serves as a visible example of a larger litany of complaints and grievances (3) Iraq is serving as a radicalizing event - which we know is a key ingedient in the making of an extremist - as well as providing opertional training (4) ideology and instructions are easily passed on, increasing the threat from diffuse cells wanting to attack soft targets in urban areas, while more centralized groups pursue more serious CBRN attacks.

Implications: 4th Generation Warfare & Open Source War

There's a great deal of thoughtful writing on fourth generation warfare and I'll link to some sources. But the very basic idea is that wrs are no longer about national armies standing in lines or defending fronts. On article from the Marine Corps Gazette (1989) noted:

In broad terms, fourth generation warfare seems likely to be widely dispersed and largely undefined; the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point. It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between "civilian" and "military" may disappear. Actions will occur concurrently throughout all participants' depth, including their society as a cultural, not just a physical, entity.

The Defense and the National Interest site has a section devoted to Fourth Generation warfare that's worth a read. They try to distinguish between terrorism, guerrilla warfare and when those two use principles of fourth generation warfare.  Ultimately, "Unlike Clausewitzian warfare, which envisions war as an act of policy in a contest between states, 4GW more resembles a boxer versus a viral infection." (Of course, "Fourth generation war will not replace second and third generation conflict but will co-exist alongside it.") While they do not have a specific comment on Iraq, they note:

A coherent "grand strategy" is needed to ensure that military (destructive) actions harmonize with our overall objectives and do not undermine the public support needed to prosecute a fourth generation war to its successful conclusion.  

I'm highlighting this idea, and perhaps doing clumsy job as I am still learning these ideas, because I think the conflict in Iraq is hastening trend that were already in place regarding US military power and jihadist terrorism. As I have noted elsewhere, Islamic militants see the Crusades not as an historic event, but an ongoing struggle. Iraq - with Abu Ghraib, the manhandling of Muslim women by US soldiers,  even the rape and muder of young Muslim women - provides ample fuel to the fire.

With the growing and diffuse nature of jihadists, the discussion from Global Guerrillas about Open Source War is also important.  He notes that in Open Source wars, guerrillas "don't have a center of gravity (a unifying ideology). In open source war, the guerrillas aren't loyal to a single group but rather dozens of different groups, each with their own motivations for fighting. The benefits of this organizational type, once it reaches critical mass, are numerous (and once it is entrenched, it is almost impossible to defeat)."

Luckily, it is difficult to achieve because it involves "sharing, trading, collaboration, and coordination with groups that are willing to participate but do not share the same motivations or loyalties as the initiating group." But bin Laden has done a good job providing an overarching ideology and momentum because of his successes (getting the Russians out of Afghanitan, attacks on US embassies, the US Cole, 9/11, Madrid, London, etc).  Luckily, as the National Intelligence Estimate notes, his 'solution' of a strick Islamic state does not have wide appeal.

But we are left with a spreading anti-American ideology; the NIE notes some declining favorable perceptions of the US even among our allies. The means to spread the ideology is in place in the form of books, tapes, radical clerics and some schools. From there, Iraq serves as a radicalizing event for many (and people watching Mid East media see much more fo the horror of Iraq than we do). Potential recruits are identified and sent off to training camps, and there are enough conflicts to provide operational experience.

Nuclear Attack on the Port of Los Angeles? (As if this post wasn't depressing enough...)

Remember that part of the NIE was about terrorists' interests in acquiring Chemical, Biological, Nuclear and Radiological weapons. We've already seen anthrax attacks, which allow for some debriefing and better preparation for when (not if) they're used in the future. Now, thanks to RAND, we have an outline for a simulated attack based on a 10 megaton nuclear weapon in a shipping container sent to the port of Los Angeles (pdf/72 pages).

Personally, I think we'll see a radiological attack first - something that uses radioactive materials like hospital waste combined with conventional explosive. The panic from radiation and the expense of cleaning it up would be significant and easier to pull off than a nuclear weapon. (Think about news that a radioactive bomb was detonated outside a terminal of Los Angeles International Airport.)

I'll be in LA in November for a criminology conference, so I don't use this example lightly, but al Quaida has targeted LAX before adn the do try again on targets (like the World Trade Center). bin Laden frequently talks about the Zionist-Crusader alliance, indicating anti-semitism and well as anti-Americanism. Attacking NY was thus strategic given the heavily Jewish population, esp in the financial businesses in the WTC; Los Angels has what bin Laden and others see as the Jewish-run decadent Western media personified by Hollywood.

RAND doesn't give their rational for picking LA, so the above is my speculation. Their report, Considering the Effects of a Catastrophic Terrorist Attack, does note the background

In our scenario, terrorists conceal a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb in a shipping container and ship it to the Port of Long Beach. Unloaded onto a pier, it explodes shortly thereafter. This is referred to as a “ground-burst” as opposed to an “airburst” explosion. We used this scenario because analysts consider it feasible, it is highly likely to have a catastrophic effect, and the target is both a key part of the U.S. economic infrastructure and a critical global shipping center.

This scenario was 'feasible' because each day, 20,000 shipping containers arrive from ports all over the world. Also, "we have very little capability to reliably detect hidden weapons before they reach our shores." And, finally, "We chose a 10-kiloton explosion because it is possible to obtain such a yield with a relatively crude unboosted design." 

So, the consequences, starting with the first 72 hours:

  • Sixty thousand people might die instantly from the blast itself or quickly thereafter from radiation poisoning.
  • One-hundred-fifty thousand more might be exposed to hazardous levels of radioactive
  • water and sediment from the port, requiring emergency medical treatment.
  • The blast and subsequent fires might completely destroy the entire infrastructure and all ships in the Port of Long Beach and the adjoining Port of Los Angeles.
  • Six million people might try to evacuate the Los Angeles region.
  • Two to three million people might need relocation because fallout will have contaminated a 500-km2 area.
  • Gasoline supplies might run critically short across the entire region because of the loss of Long Beach’s refineries—responsible for one-third of the gas west of the Rockies.

In the slightly longer term, there is a conflict between those who would want to close the all ports to prevent another atatck, and businesses which would want to reopen as soon as possible because US ports carry out 7.5% of global trade activity. So, "all U.S. ports would likely close indefinitely or operate at a substantially reduced level following the attack. This would severely disrupt the availability of basic goods and petroleum throughout the country."

Further economic consequences result from a crippled insurance industry and the default of many business loans and mortgages in the area. Many insurance policies do not include coverage of nuclear effects, but there would still be indirect losses so insurance companies would be on the hook for some part of the immediate losses that  exceed $1 trillion.

Check out the full report for a fascinating detailed view of how the scenario unfolds. They also have details of how they ran the simulation, giving participants some information on which to make decisions, then telling them the next series of events and again asking them for decisions.  


This isn't a fun subject, and I'm sure media attention will be focused on the immediate impact on the mid-term election of the NIE and Woodward's new book on Iraq, State of Denial. But my point in writing this is to emphasize how serious these matters are. While I'm anti-Bush, my point is that I'm not sure the Democrats get it either.

I'm hoping that if you're still reading, you have a better sense of what's at stake here and that we can ill afford anyone's simple-minded rhetoric.

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