March 23, 2006
Prospects of Terror: An Inquiry into Jihadi Alternatives (3)By J.R. Dunn
Invincibility lies in the defense; the possibility of victory in the attack. One defends when his strength is inadequate; he attacks when it is abundant.�
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The first point to understand concerning future Jihadi plans for the U.S. is that the Bush Doctrine is dead, insofar as it involves preemption of terrorist threats. It will remain in formal effect for the balance of Bush's second term, and may be activated in a campaign against the Iranian nuclear program. But when George W. Bush leaves office, it will be a dead letter. Politics no longer ends at the water's edge, and relentless attacks by the political opposition, along with unbridled media criticism, have rendered the concept radioactive. No candidate of either party will dare lay claim to it after the current administration leaves office.
The second point is that most of the defensive programs put into place following 9/11 are also under threat. Many of them, including the Patriot Act, telecommunications surveillance, and the domestic nuclear—detection program, will be abandoned by a new administration, and the rest will be emasculated.�
That is all the opening that the Jihadis will need.
Letting Down our Guard
It's necessary to point out — it never seems to arise in public debate�— that the U.S. has been safe for the past five years solely because of active security efforts. There is no other reason — not laziness on the part of the Jihadis, not the bravery of New York Times reporters, not the guardianship of the UN. American efforts have been successful both overseas in disrupting Jihadi plans at the source (it's difficult to put a bomb together when you're being chased by a Predator drone) and here in the United States. Some of the stories — the Lackawanna, Portland, and Lodi cells, 'dirty bomber' Jose Padilla, and the Republican convention bombers, are known to the public, and some of us have seen things that strongly suggest that others have been picked up in secret. Jihadi groups in the U.S. have either been broken up, forced underground, or have fled the country completely.�
Yet at the same time, every security program introduced during the period was greeted with protest in the media, in Congress, and among the intelligentsia. That includes TIA (Total Information Awareness), the ADVISE program that replaced it (Analysis, Visualization, Insight, and Semantic Enhancement),�Camp X—ray at Guantanamo Bay, the international rendition of dangerous prisoners, the CAPPS (Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System),� the Secure Flight system that followed, the NSA phone tapping program, and the national radiation monitoring program.
All of these, no matter what their nature or targets, were attacked as threats to civil liberties from an out—of—control administration. Several, including TIA and CAPPS, were canceled outright. The others were kept alive only thanks to administration stubbornness. The cellphone tapping, rendition, and radiation programs were deliberately kept secret to avoid the controversy that greeted earlier efforts. We know how well this worked out. (Although it's strange that the radiation program— which involves monitoring certain Muslim—owned or operated domestic targets for evidence of nuclear activity —— failed to take off as a public scandal. A possible answer is that the media reported it too soon after the cellphone revelations.)
The most telling example of this attitude occurred in Newton, Massachusetts, this January. After a terror threat was received via a computer at the local library, the chief librarian prevented the FBI from examining the machine for nearly a day on 'civil liberties' grounds. If the threat had been real, such grounds would of course been exposed as indefensible. We will see much more of such irresponsibility as time goes by.
Ironically, the Jihadis' failure to succeed with a follow—up strike after 9/11 may very well work in their favor over the next few years.
There are few forces in the universe more powerful than the democratic insistence on a 'return to normalcy' (as Warren Harding, the most appropriate figure imaginable, christened it) following a crisis. The four—years—plus of security since the 2001 strikes are not viewed as the product of the hard work of thousands of individuals in the military, the Intelligence Community, and law enforcement. No — the attacks were bizarre, abnormal events, and the quiet periods before and after represent normal life, a state requiring no extra efforts or programs or expense on anyone's part.
So when politicians eager for votes begin vying with each other in promises to cut back on 'unhealthy Bush era excesses' or 'paranoid threats to ordinary Americans,' the majority of voters will go along. Once in office, the politicians will put the cuts into effect, full of promises that 'care will be taken,' and 'national security will not be jeopardized,' and the barn door will be open. (Anyone who doubts this is invited to contemplate the fate of the Able Danger program.) This is human nature, and there is no point in becoming frustrated over it.
Similarly, overseas efforts against the Jihadis, involving both U.S. and foreign security services carrying out operations of which we know little, will also begin to slacken off. There is a concept in tactics called the 'culminating point,' where an attack, no matter how successful, inevitably begins to stall out, to lose power and coherence. After that, the assault can no longer be sustained, and the wise commander calls a halt to rest and reorganize his forces.
Eventually, the overseas campaign against the Jihadis will reach its culminating point (it's possible this has already occurred), requiring replacement of personnel, rethinking of objectives, and perhaps a complete overhaul. How strongly a new administration will feel compelled to carry out such a process is anyone's guess. The American record of facing long—term challenges — the Cold War, with its unending swings from one policy to its precise opposite,�is a prime example — offers little encouragement.
Revenge on America
As for the Jihadis themselves, a major point to keep in mind is that Arabs possess a revenge culture, derived from their tribal roots and sanctioned by the Quran in both word (Surah 2:194:� "If any one transgress the prohibition against you, transgress likewise against him.") and deed (Muhammed's execution of the mockers Al—Nadir and Uqba after the Battle of Badr,����� among many other examples). Revenge remains a primary motivation in Arab life, one to which all Arab males are exposed as a matter of upbringing. This is a major reason why Arab politics tends to be so bloodyminded, and also goes a long way toward explaining the Coalition's difficulties in Iraq.
Much of the Jihadi worldview is conditioned by revenge. Osama Bin Laden speaks of little else. Even the tape released on January 19 of this year, which offered a truce to Europe, contained this statement directed at the U.S.:
He has every reason in the world to feel that way, having had his personal terrorist empire overthrown, been chased into the backwoods, hunted by drones, seen his international networks rolled up or forced into hiding, seen thousands of his followers killed or captured, his entire agenda put in jeopardy, and his great enemy go from strength to strength. The Jihadi program vis—a—vis the U.S. will be based on revenge, a very strong motivation indeed.
The next strike by Al—Queda will very likely involve WMDs. Not only does this fit the revenge motif (well over 50,000 Jihadis — and perhaps twice as many —— have been killed or captured, a large number to make up for), it also fits al—Qaeda practice, which tries to outdo each attack with a gaudier or more massive effort. The two strikes against the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001 offer an example. The 9/11 attacks set a very high standard for shock, damage, and bloodshed. Topping them requires moving into the realm of mass destruction.
Weapons of that order are widely misunderstood. Due to a hangover from the Cold War, along with the media's tendency to sensationalize, WMDs are viewed as the apocalypse in small packages. Without exception, they are regarded as more destructive, by several orders of magnitude, than they actually are. The general impression of weapons such as nuclear bombs, dirty bombs, war gases, and biological weapons, is that once they're triggered, every visible thing from horizon to horizon simply comes to an end. This, needless to say, is exactly what a terrorist would like people to believe. The fact that officials in this country have made next to no effort at education such as were attempted during the Cold War period is only one failure among many.
In truth, WMDs are simply weapons with a larger potential for destruction than other types. They are powerful and deadly, but their effects are strictly limited by a number of factors. Some of these effects — particularly involving chemical and biological weapons — are exceptionally ghastly, creating a profound sense of horror that must be held in check in order to evaluate them rationally.
Thanks to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki strikes that ended World War II, along with the lengthy series of tests made during the 1950s, nuclear weapons are understood better than the others of the class. The most important element of nuclear weapons (apart from radioactive fallout) is a factor called 'yield,' the bomb's explosive equivalent in tons of TNT. For a roughly twenty—year period beginning in the 1960s, bombs with a yield of up to 20 megatons — twenty million tons of explosives — became the standard. (The largest weapon ever tested — with a yield somewhere between 38 and 50 megatons —— was set off in the USSR in 1962. Due to a miscalculation, the bomb exceeded its planned yield by a large margin. A perhaps apocryphal story holds that watching Soviet officials were so frightened by the result that they signed the Test Ban Treaty a short time later.) More recent years have seen a drop into the low kiloton (thousands of tons) level as missile accuracy has increased.
A terrorist bomb is very unlikely to match either of those levels. High yields are gained only from thermonuclear weapons — hydrogen bombs —— which require an extremely advanced industrial base to manufacture. A terrorist weapon will almost certainly be a fission bomb, of yield well below a hundred kilotons.�
To put this into perspective, the Hiroshima bomb, the Little Boy, yielded 18 kilotons, and destroyed most of the city. A calculation made concerning the World Trade Center attacks produced a 'yield' (combining airliner mass, speed, and fuel) of 3 kilotons. A terrorist bomb will rank somewhere between these two yields, which gives us a general picture of what to expect. Such a bomb could either destroy a small city or cripple a large one. The number of deaths, from blast, fire, and radiation effects, would be considerably higher than the casualties of 9/11. But apart from fallout, which can be protected against, destruction would be limited to the immediate area of the explosion. Such an attack would be one of the great tragedies of American history, far outdoing 9/11, and perhaps even Antietam and Shiloh. But it would not be a death blow to the country as a whole.
Dirty bombs are an unknown factor, never having been tested by any nation, as far as is known. They consist of a quantity of radioactive material packed around a core of high explosives large enough to blast the material a considerable distance in all directions. Al—Qaeda has shown some interest in such weapons. A dirty bomb was one of the projects Jose Padilla was working on when he returned to the U.S.
The point of a dirty bomb is not large—scale killing, but area denial. Apart from those killed in the explosion or heavily dosed by the fallout, the number of fatalities would be small, the effects of possible panic excluded. Fallout from a dirty bomb can be removed with concentrated effort, returning the area affected to regular use in relatively short order, although many people would be unwilling to return due to psychological factors. Dirty bombs are probably the least effective of all WMDs, which may explain why we haven't seen one yet.�
War gases, ranging from mustard gas to nerve agents such as sarin and taubin, are another matter. Their effects are repellent, the fears surrounding them enormous. Much of this is due to media hysteria. The subject is usually introduced with the claim that an ounce or a gram of Gas X could kill the entire state of California, or wherever. The suitable answer to this is, yes — if you could get the population of California to stand on each other's shoulders. Horrifying as they are, war gases are simply not as effective as most people believe.
In 1995, Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese apocalyptic cult, carried out a nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subways.� Twelve people were killed, and more than 5,000 admitted to hospitals, only a handful of these injured seriously. An attack the previous year killed 7 people. There's little question that the cult was expecting a lot more —— they had stockpiled hundreds of tons of chemicals useful for making nerve gas. What saved most of the victims was a clumsy delivery system — a series of containers with holes punched in them.
The other recent incident involving nerve gas was the March 1988 attack on the city of Halabja by Iraqi aircraft on orders of Saddam Hussein. The MiGs sprayed the town completely in several passes. The results were 5,000 killed and thousands more wounded. It is in no way intended to lessen the magnitude of this atrocity or the suffering of the victims to note that these results don't match predictions by chemical warfare specialists. Statements of the city's population vary from 45,000 to 100,000. In either case, the deaths were a fraction of those present, despite the fact that most of the victims did not know how protect themselves and little or no medical care was available. Horrifying as it is, chemical warfare is not the last word.(The most troubling aspect is the deformed children that are still being born to women of the town nearly twenty years later.)�
Which brings us to biological warfare, the most horrific threat of all, and probably the most overrated. Biowar is usually treated by the media much the same as chemical warfare, with the number of victims increased by a factor of ten to a thousand. This despite the fact that it has never been made to work.
Apart from attempts to spread plague during medieval sieges and small—scale use by the Japanese in China, germ warfare has a limited historical record. It's not widely known that Aum Shinrikyo attempted nine biological attacks before the subway strike. None was successful. Apart from that, there is the still—mysterious anthrax campaign that accompanied the 9/11 attack. (Admittedly, this may have been carried out by a third party, though the cancellation date on the first envelope would mark that fact as one of the greatest coincidences of all time.) One man who worked at a tabloid that had lampooned Osama bin Laden died of exposure, several others were taken ill, and the attacks ended as abruptly as they had begun.
A number of reasons have been advanced for these failures. The New York Times speculated that the Aum Shinrikyo bacteria 'lacked sufficient virulence.' This, as shown by the editor's death, was not the case with the anthrax spores, leading to questions as to why the overall effect wasn't greater. One factor is that microorganisms modified in the lab (military laboratories 'weaponize' such organisms, rendering them more virulent) are often unable to survive in the wild. Beyond that, there's the question of lack of knowledge. Biological organisms are complex systems. I strongly suspect that a widespread epidemic cannot begin until certain very particular basic conditions prevail — otherwise the bubonic plague would be an annual event and new diseases would pop up every other week. Such conditions would probably not be present at the time that a bug is sprayed or otherwise distributed. Biowar, the most terrifying of possible threats, may be the least of our worries.
(It should also be mentioned in passing that the Jihadis often display a surprising lack of competence with any kind of weapon. While public attention understandably remains fixed on such spectacular operations as 9/11, Madrid, and Bali, we must not forget incidents like Richard Reid and his shoe bomb or the second wave of London attackers racing off like so many purse snatchers after their bombs failed to explode. Another point of interest is that while the Jihadis undoubtedly have access to MANPADS — shoulder—fired missiles like the U.S. Stinger or the Soviet SA—7 — they have yet to down an aircraft with one, though several attempts have been made. Such weapons may simply be too complex for the Jihadi foot soldier.)
Panic — the Worst Threat
Those are the challenges facing the U.S. in the next campaign of the Long War. All serious, all worthy of the closest attention. But all of them must also be put in their place. The major worry with these weapons is panic — people stampeding out of fear, both at the site of the attack and across the country, jeopardizing themselves and others by jamming roads, stalling relief operations, and creating conditions of chaos.
On 9/11, I had to calm down several people in the New York area who were ready to take to the highways (one with small children in tow) due to a rumor that the hijacked airliners had contained biowar materials. (One of the best methods of dealing with biological and chemical strikes, and even small levels of fallout, is called 'safe in place' — simply seal windows and doors and remain where you are until aid arrives.) A sly terrorist could use panic in a kind of one—two punch, first getting people out on the roads before carrying out a second attack there. But brute fear could create more casualties than any assault.
The fact that no government organization from Homeland Defense on down has made any serious attempt to address this issue is an indictment of the entire system.
A close look reveals that one element these threats have in common is the fact that they cannot, even if successful, even if carried out against multiple targets, destroy or cripple the United States. The U.S. is too large, too complex, and too powerful to be knocked out by a foe on this level. (Many take complexity as a synonym for 'fragility.' This is not the case. A complex society has more levels and resources to respond to a disaster or similar challenge. Consider how many deaths would have occurred if Hurricane Katrina had struck Africa or Southern Asia.) The Jihadis can hurt us, as they have in the past, but there is no conceivable action they can take that can drive us to our knees.
(I'm leaving out the possibility of EMP [ElectroMagnetic Pulse], in which a nuclear weapon triggered high over the Midwest would burn out electrical circuits across the country. This type of attack would require an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile with a range of 1,500—1,800 miles, a high—yield, specially—designed nuclear warhead, and the ability to launch from a ship or submarine just off either coast. None of these is available to the Jihadis or their allies. EMP is a national weapon, not a terrorist weapon.)
The Next Phase of Homeland Defense
It's doubtful that any of these considerations will affect the fate of current security programs. They will be shut down or truncated, the heroic librarians will bask in public applause, the lawyers will split their hairs, and the entire edifice of American defense will deteriorate, as it did after WW II and the Cold War. Large organizations with detailed charters and plans will remain, and some will carry out their duties to the best of their abilities. But enough gaps will exist to allow the Jihadis free entry. And Americans will be threatened with death.�
So we must be prepared to take up the slack. This will not be easy. Most of the public appears to believe that Homeland Defense and FEMA have everything covered, and Katrina does not seem to have disabused them. The governmental response to 9/11 was the expected one, the same response made to every challenge, problem, and issue since the days of the New Deal: throw on another layer of bureaucracy and forget about it. The end result is precisely what might have been predicted: waste of money and effort, diminution of responsibility, and emphasis on trivial goals.� This cannot be fixed any more than it can be fixed as regards Social Security, Medicare, or any other federal bureaucracy. We have to look elsewhere.
In time, George W. Bush's greatest error in his response to the terror threat will not be seen as the Iraq intervention; or the UAE docks deal, but his failure to adequately rally the American people. This began with his speech of September 20, 2001, in which he outlined the plans for action only to end with,
He has continued in the same vein ever since. It is impossible to picture FDR or Reagan making such an error. The reasons for this (I suspect Bush's advisors —— the belief that the citizenry is a rabble that must be guided is a cherished notion among too many conservatives, both Paleo— and Neo—) are beside the point. The question is whether it is too late to alter the consequences, particularly as involves the conduct of American domestic defense.
As I have written elsewhere, it's appalling how little of America's resources have been utilized in the War on Terror. The U.S. boasts businesses larger than many countries, a number of them — construction, health care, and security firms, among many other types — operating in fields directly related to the terror threat. We possess the largest private computer network in the world, creating instant contact between individuals with every imaginable talent and skill. We have a vast reservoir of people with experience of enormous potential value to the struggle against terror — including, to give only one example, thousands who have worked in the Middle East for major U.S. companies. Yet all this potential has gone by the board in favor of the standard run of Beltway bureaucrat.�
Let's consider a single possibility: how to deal with a new attack on an American target. The simplest and most effective method of meeting such an eventuality would be a people's militia. This is a word that has been tarnished in recent years, so it's best to emphasize that what is meant is how the term is used in the Constitution: the people assembled for the purpose of the defense of the public liberty. The threat to the United States is effectively universal; the response should be as well.
I'm not referring here to the National Guard, which are state—based forces today serving as auxiliaries to the Army. The model would be the armed forces of Switzerland, which consist of every able—bodied man within a particular range of age. Swiss troops are assigned to units from their own towns, keep their weapons at home, and serve on active duty a few weeks a year. Only the officer cadre is professional. The system has served Switzerland well for two centuries, holding off among others an extremely annoyed Adolf Hitler. (In fact, it was the army itself, under General Guitan, that prompted a frightened government to stand up to the Fuhrer. This action, which under other circumstances would have been termed mutiny, could only have been carried out by a citizen's militia.)�
The Swiss system, in modified form, served as a framework for the Israeli Defense Force. John McPhee, who wrote a very informative short book�on the subject, calculated that the American equivalent would consist of over 9 million men, a number that would be considerably larger today. These numbers are more than enough to meet any eventuality facing the United States.
Such an organization could be officered by retired military men, law enforcement officers, or businessmen. Training would be carried out at military bases and cover not only basic soldiering but also emergency medical procedures and evacuation and decontamination. At this point, victims of a disaster are supposed to sit and wait until FEMA shows up with its laptops and forms in triplicate. We saw how well this worked in New Orleans. Suppose instead we had one house in each neighborhood with a supply of atropine and potassium iodide, and people trained to use it? (The first of these is a specific against many types of nerve gas, the second a preventive medicine to stop radioactive isotopes from settling in the thyroid. Both are extremely simple to use, requiring little in the way of medical training.)
The armed units of such a militia would keep order and prevent terrorists from taking advantage of a strike. Medical units would carry out preventive treatment and first aid, evacuation units would either get people away from the scene or persuade them to remain in their homes, whichever response was appropriate, while acting as sources of legitimate information.
(Many people in this country already own suitable rescue vehicles; they're called pickups and SUVs.)�
One of the few heartening things about 9/11 was watching people appear from all across the country to aid and assist the city of New York. Firemen, policemen, and ordinary people got into their cars and drove sometimes thousands of miles, simply to lend a hand. That is the response we'd be looking to harness. There is nothing more American than this, and the fact that no effort has been made to take advantage of it is difficult to fathom. Consider what the Katrina farce would have been like with such an organization in place. (A 4th—Generation Warfare enthusiast would call this a 'network—centric solution', by the way; which is fine.)
Of course, it won't happen. It is straightforward, it's workable, and it utilizes the American traditions of competence, community, and initiative. But it's also against the spirit of the age, the rebirth of Big Government, the drift toward centralization and bureaucracy. In this paradigm, the U.S. citizenry is viewed not as a resource, as a reservoir of talent, ability, and good will, but as part of the problem, to be cajoled, hoodwinked, and manipulated into doing what the bureaucrats think is necessary. The results can be seen in Louisiana.
For the foreseeable future, we'll be stuck with organizations that respond to disasters by sending truckloads of ice from one end of the country to the other. Perhaps at some point such an idea will be considered, after the monster bureaucracies have fumbled the ball another four or five times.
Finally, is there any way that the Islamists can get what they want from another assault? Apart from revenge, what they seek more than anything else is an American withdrawal from the international stage, at least to the extent that we cease interfering with their particular projects.This was what lay behind the 9/11 strikes, with Osama bin Laden convinced by Lebanon and Somalia that the U.S. would run for home, shut the gates, and try to forget about the bad old world, leaving Al—Queda to rebuild the caliphate in peace.
Some commentators believe this could happen — among them James Taranto�of the Wall Street Journal. But it's not very likely. Isolationism has always been a response to failures in relations to American allies and clients — Europe after WW I, Vietnam in the 1960s. We react to threats differently, as the U.S.S. Maine, the Zimmermann Telegram, Pearl Harbor, and 9/11 clearly show. No figure or nation, no matter how powerful, has ever gotten away with a direct attack on the U.S. (or even the perception of one, as with the Maine). A little more knowledge of real history —— as opposed to the kind you get from William Blum��— would have revealed this to Osama bin Laden.
Time is on Our Side
Over the long run, time is the enemy of the Jihadis. Muslim societies are starting to enter the same demographic transition that grips the nations of Europe. (Iran, with a growth rate of a little over 1%, already has.) The excess young males now serving as al—Qaeda's foot soldiers will have fewer to replace them. Islam's encounter with modernity, which is in large part responsible for triggering the crisis, will continue. The desire to embrace the comforts and luxuries of modern life while still retaining medieval mores and strictures is understandable, which does not mean that it will be successful. Islam will eventually work its way to a modus vivendi with modernity. American Muslims have in large part accomplished exactly this. It could well be that the great and long overdue reform of Islam will come from the New World. ('Spengler', the Asia Times' impressive political columnist, points out�
The vision of the Jihadis is wishful thinking. They are victims of forces beyond their control, products of a transitional epoch. They look back with yearning on a mythical 'golden age' rather than face the uncertain and unsettling future. But that future will continue coming, at the same rate as for anyone else. Conditions will change around them, despite their rhetoric, despite their violence, despite all their strategies. The world will move on,� leaving them merely so many mad clowns capering at the edge of civilization.
They will not be recalled with mixed feelings, unlike our enemies in previous conflicts — Yamamoto, Rommel, Peng, Giap — men of respect, men whom were held in a certain regard despite the fact that they were enemies, in awareness of their profound intelligence, skills, and dedication. The Jihadis — bin Laden, Zawahiri, Zarqawi —— are no such thing, and it's unlikely that any respectable figure will arise at this point.
When men start out with vicious tactics — the car bomb, the suicide bomb, the airliner as missile — a door closes behind them, locking them away from all other possibilities. That was a lesson the Anarchists, the historical group most similar to the Jihadis, learned in their time. Though they began in the 1880s challenging the kings and emperors of Europe, they ended up forty years later murdering payroll messengers in Massachusetts�and secretaries and
We are not as they are, and we never shall be. We are the people who go out to see what's the matter when we hear sobbing in the darkness. This leads to much in the way of pain and trouble, but also to a share of glory that is ours alone because no one else, no empire or nation down the long ages, has ever quite done things the way we do them.
A last thought to keep in mind is that the Plan was for the U.S. by this time to be cowering in helpless terror while a resurgent caliphate consolidated its gains and prepared to expand. Nothing like this has occurred. Therefore, we're ahead.
Among many other things, J.R. Dunn was the editor of the International Military Encyclopedia for twelve years.