Al Qaeda’s Masterminds: Lex Luthor or Doctor Horrible?

People who study terrorist organizations often say that their most crucial asset is human capital. Terrorist operations, after all, are not very expensive–9/11 is famously said to have cost al Qaeda about half a million dollars. The expertise needed to carry out a successful attack, however, is uncommon and diverse–finance, surveillance, planning, operations, and much more. These are complex skills that take time to transmit from person to person, yet terror organizations are constantly losing personnel to counterterror efforts, and those personnel that are not arrested must remain on the move and avoid regular contact with one another to reduce their chances of arrest. Thus, many experts think that the foundation of a terror organization like al Qaeda is a core group of shadowy men with the right skills. They see the war on terrorism as a struggle between two highly competent forces, engaging in careful strategic thinking and minimizing exposure. A terror planner, for these experts, is like Lex Luthor: a supervillain fending off the hero with brilliant inventions and ingenious plans.

New reports from the interrogations of al Qaeda planners suggest that they may be more like Joss Whedon’s inept Doctor Horrible, for whom even good plans backfire and fall apart–and he typically doesn’t have good plans. In confessions obtained by the media, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad mentioned a plan to attack the Brooklyn Bridge by cutting its suspension cables–except he referred to it only as “the bridge in the Godzilla movie.” KSM also wanted to hijack cargo aircraft and fly them into airport terminals–a high profile attack, no doubt, but one unlikely to generate mass casualties or serious economic damage. Recall, for instance, the low impact that the complete shutdown of air transport had on the European economy after the Eyjafjallajökull eruption of 2010.

Bad Horse still votes "Neigh": 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and failed supervillain Doctor Horrible may have a lot in common.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s less-effective ideas are nothing in comparison to what some of the other planners proposed. Operatives were dispatched to destroy two gas-heated apartment buildings by causing an explosion–an inventive idea, but given the value of human capital to a terror organization, the loss of two operatives who were already in the US for a low-casualty operation (for apartment buildings are not very densely occupied) would be foolish. Another operative suggested he have four wives (the maximum number allowable) and have twelve children with each, making his own personal jihadi army–for surely no leaks would emerge from a 50-person, multi-decade operation!

Perhaps the most ridiculous plan–made with KSM’s involvement–was to blow up the fuel storage tanks beneath several gas stations. Again, all operations risk death or capture of valuable personnel, so terror organizations seek to maximize their returns, and the destruction of gas stations would have almost no impact. Individual gas stations make up a tiny portion of the market, so the only price increases would be due to insurance hikes and market jitters; the constant demand for gas would ensure that fearful Americans would not be able to avoid purchasing gas even if stations were under a sustained terror campaign. Al Qaeda operations aim to disrupt the American economy and security apparatus via carefully targeted actions, for an organization of their size is capable of only pinpricks. The events of September 11th were an example of how this can be done–the attacks provoked two wars, trillions of dollars in spending, and a reduction of American hard and soft power. Blowing up gas stations, apartment buildings, or cargo planes would not be adequate to this task.

Al Qaeda’s bumbling Doctor Horrible image is not helped by the discoveries in the bin Laden compound. Unsurprisingly, pornography was found in the compound, and unsurprisingly, this fact was leaked to the media. Despite their austere religious views, computers seized from Taliban and al Qaeda operatives often contain copious amounts of haram photos and videos. This story is not being heavily covered in Pakistani media–they are still much more concerned with that whole violation of their sovereignty thing.

American personnel also found unreleased bin Laden tapes on the site, which introduced the world to the uncanny sight of the face of global evil waiting, confused, for his cue. It also had some oddities–notably, while there was a requisite statement in support of some of the Arab Spring revolts, there was no mention of the one in Libya. Al Qaeda has an on-again, off-again relationship with Libya’s main terrorist organization, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. The kunya al Libi (the Libyan) is quite common in the world of terror, and Libyans were frequently found in the ranks of terror groups in Iraq. LIFG, however, has often attempted to distance itself from al Qaeda. The spat became public after AQ #2 Ayman al Zawahiri made the claim that LIFG had joined al Qaeda, and LIFG told the media that this was false–a major embarrassment for the former kings of the jihadi world.

LIFG personnel have reportedly taken mid-level leadership roles in the rebellion against the Gaddafi regime–a necessity for the rebels, who have been shown time and again to be sorely lacking in human capital of the sort that terror groups covet. One former LIFG fighter was killed while serving as a brigade-level commander for a frontline rebel unit. These sorts of events, unlike those of the Arab Spring, perfectly fit al Qaeda’s narrative: violent radicalism is key to overthrowing the Arab World’s dictators. Even if they hate the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group for publicly jilting them, a media-savvy al Qaeda would be praising their role in the rebellion against Gaddafi at every opportunity. May has truly been a bad month for bin Laden and his fanatics.

There is thus an important takeaway from all this. Terror groups are not the wily, invincible enemies that some see them as. Terror groups are prone to blunders–more prone, in fact, than the forces that oppose them, because the pressure of counterterrorist action sows distrust in their ranks, hinders their ability to communicate, and compromises every stage of their decision cycle. Terror groups can be kept at bay with policies that target their human capital weaknesses–hard policies like wiretapping and drone strikes, but also soft policies that challenge radical narratives and thus prevent (a) radical influences in mosques and (b) the formation of marginalized radical cliques in moderate communities. These policies starve terror groups of their most valuable resource. Sometimes they will, like al Qaeda, still be able to make occasional strikes in spite of their weakness. Sometimes, however, they will become so weak that (to borrow a phrase from another study of human capital under pressure, one of the guidebooks of the Arab Spring) “they do not even have sufficient power to surrender.”

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11 responses to “Al Qaeda’s Masterminds: Lex Luthor or Doctor Horrible?

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