The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Behind the curve

September 6, 2006

It’s nice to know the White House is just now accepting the fact that most of us have been fully aware of since at least the Madrid train bombings in 2004. Our own Dan Nexon has been discussing this topic for quite some time. From today’s WaPo:

A new counterterrorism strategy released yesterday by the White House describes al-Qaeda as a significantly degraded organization, but outlines potent threats from smaller networks and individuals motivated by al-Qaeda ideology, a lack of freedom and “twisted” propaganda about U.S. policy in the Middle East.

The National Strategy for Combating Terrorism reflects the intelligence community’s latest analysis of the evolving nature of the threats from widely dispersed Islamic extremists who are often isolated and linked by little more than the Internet.

No duh.

The coherence and hierarchy of the terrorist threat has been long debated, especially in the aftermath of the Afghanistan campaign. Officials and commentators are usually quick to attribute an attempted or successful terrorist attack to “al-Qaeda” without really thinking about what that organization actually looks like today. They seem to want to attribute all of our troubles to some coherent mastermind. This is probably so for any number of reasons, not the least of which has to be the impression that formulating and executing a plan to save ourselves from this peril is exponentially easier if there is a head to decapitate. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be the case. We are seeing a number of inspired, copy-cat actors popping up all over the world (even in the United States) whose connection to al-Qaeda is more inspirational than operational.

Of course, as we have seen with other actors such as al-Zarqawi, these actors can eventually make the kinds of operational connections with al-Qaeda that prove deadly. We may have degraded al-Qaeda to some degree, but this gives me little comfort knowing how these self-organizing cells pop up in seemingly random fashion and present a potential deadly actor who we are completely unaware of. The enemy you know is better than the enemy you don’t know. Unfortunately, as the White House is now apparently realizing, we likely face more of the latter.

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Petti is Associate Director of Insights and Analytics at Alexion . Previously, he served as Lead Data Scientist in the Decision Sciences group at Maritz Motivation and a Global Data Strategist and Subject Matter Expert for Gallup.