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.
As I discussed yesterday, bin Laden’s death has created a moment of plasticity in the US war on terrorism, which US President Obama may use to reconfigure America’s role in Afghanistan and relationship with Pakistan. There are many in Washington who think that Pakistan’s inconsistency in fighting terrorism is a sign they should not be considered an ally. The US did not inform the Pakistanis of the raid on bin Laden, and (again, as discussed in yesterday’s post) took steps to ensure they would not find out until the raid was already underway. This was a public reminder to all parties of the difficulties in the alliance.
American and Pakistani sailors at a 2010 ceremony handing over a US Navy ship. (US Navy photo)
The US was abuzz last night as news broke–slowly, and with swarming rumors–that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been killed by American forces. Spontaneous celebrations broke out all over the country as the news was confirmed. The killing of bin Laden is a national triumph for the United States, but it is also the end of a national embarrassment, for bin Laden’s ability to avoid the intense search efforts of the US and its allies for more than a decade added to his legend in radical circles while demoralizing the American public. As many have been quick to point out, bin Laden’s death is by no means the end of al Qaeda, for it has fragmented into a number of splinter and affiliate movements. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has likely been the most dangerous al Qaeda organization for several years now, as we have seen from the many recent plots that have been tied to Yemen. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a pseudo-affiliate, is also undergoing a period of prominence, with some of its personnel reportedly serving as mid-level commanders in the anti-Gaddafi rebellion. We have hardly seen the last of al Qaeda and its subsidiaries. However, we must not be too cynical–this is indeed a major symbolic victory. Terrorism relies on symbolism and representation to make its attacks meaningful and draw in new recruits. Bin Laden provided this symbolism. His death does not silence his story, but it removes some of its mystique.
Arab Americans rejoice on the streets of Dearborn, Michigan, upon hearing news of bin Laden's death. (AP)