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Weaker Than We Think

On Oct. 18, President Bush asked if today we are still living in the ’90s, “in the mirage of safety that was actually a time of gathering threats.”

The Weekly Standard takes this to mean “a need to fundamentally change the political culture of the Middle East” lest, as Bush declared, “anger and resentment grow for more decades … feeding more terrorism until radicals without conscience gain the weapons to kill without limit.”

This is Cold War rhetoric warmed over. No longer do we face an Evil Empire bristling with ICBMs behind its Iron Curtain but a region without strategic weapons and already twice invaded. Salafist fanaticism is a worthy successor to Marxist zeal when it comes to malevolence, but policy must consider the capacity for action, not intent alone. To judge by action, terrorism indeed took advantage of our at best sporadic vigilance and summoned its resources in the ’90s much as the president’s speech observed. But how does its actual capacity for evildoing compare with the sum of our fears?

In a War on Terror, knowing the enemy’s numbers is vital. London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies reckons Osama bin Laden has recruited 18,000 since 9/11, while some DOD officials think he’s down to his last 3,000 men. Others say that numbers do not matter: it took only 25 to fill the Trojan Horse, and a few thousand National Socialists and Bolsheviks gave lie to Lenin’s dictated identity of quantity and quality.

Today, we have seen the enemy and he has, at most, one division under arms, making it hard to believe a replay of the Thirty Years War is in the offing. Many horrors of the 20th century stemmed from the metastasis of small cadres, but the exponential growth of totalitarian movements remains an historical rarity. Few last long enough to outgrow their infamy. At the margin, 9/11 could join the Trojan Horse and Pearl Harbor among stratagems so uniquely surprising that their very success precludes their repetition.

It takes singular ingenuity to achieve stunning surprise. The ruse that broke a ten-year stalemate and burned the topless towers of Ilium came from Odysseus’ cunning mind, not Agamemnon’s planning staff. After the failed 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, Mohammad Atta applied himself to calculating the energy ten tons of blazing jet fuel could deliver to the towers’ hearts. He chose the moment of his death as wisely as his target and his impact velocity, for the dead man Osama bin Laden now styles “Commander-General” made us forget what he was not: a weapons expert. His inspired effort at grand theft aero transcended the failure of al-Qaeda to acquire the weapons of mass destruction that have obsessed us ever since. The fear one morning engendered dominates our political culture.

However tall bin Laden may loom as a scourge of civilizations, it is increasingly clear that his arsenal is as phony as his army is small—its shelves are bare of expertise and materiel alike. But the War on Terror is anything but phony, and al-Qaeda is under withering attack by every means a hyperpower and its allies can devise. The cancer remains, but intrusive therapy is clearly taking its toll. As the attrition continues, the focus on what remains is intensifying. This concentration of fire to accelerate the enemy’s demise coincides with the contraction of the safe haven available to him to hide. A feedback loop has arisen from the intelligence that flexibility has gained. It is becoming a noose around Osama’s neck, and he has only himself to blame for the crumbling platform on which he stands.

Al-Qaeda means “foundation” in the sense of a base of operations rather than a Brookings Institution. In 2001, its host, Afghanistan’s Taliban, was on a war footing with the Northern Alliance, an American ally against the Soviet occupation. With the Twin Towers still standing, bin Laden ordered the assassination of the Alliance’s leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud. The blood feud this ignited bought al-Qaeda’s leadership breathing space, but eventually forced it to flee not just into the Pashtun no-man’s-land along the Pakistani border but beyond it, into Pakistan’s Northern Areas. It is a region whose lower passes are higher than the Rockies and whose winters make Tora Bora look like Palm Springs—a fine place to hide, but a ludicrous launch pad for a global revolution. On the lam and preoccupied with security and survival, not strategy, al-Qaeda is no longer a magnet for the best and brightest young jihadis. The average al-Qaeda grunt is no Atta, but a high-school dropout who lives at home.

However much the world changed on 9/11, the thousand days before and after it remain identical in one respect—Islamic terrorists killed no one on American soil. Whatever our future fears, in the here and now, al-Qaeda remains boxed. They can spike truck bombs with as much concentrated radwaste as they can steal or buy, but a frontier of plausibility still separates analytical pessimism from the hinterland of paranoia. Those who imprudently equate the modern ubiquity of high technology with terrorists becoming omniscient or infallible risk a rendezvous with cognitive dissonance.

Practitioners of urban terrorism, like those of strategic bombing on both sides in World War II, may find the psychological as well as the physical damage done disappointing. London’s civil society endured the Blitz, and cities of millions coexist with violent death today as well. On 9/11, 1 in 3,000 New Yorkers perished, but in the same year, over 1 in 1,000 urbanites were murdered in three major cities in the Western hemisphere alone.

Sept. 11 reigns supreme among media events, but that bespeaks the semiotic power of television, not the strategic impact of hijacked planes. What happened in New York and Washington pales in comparison to the bombing of London, Dresden, or Tokyo, all orders of magnitude more lethal but equally ineffectual in altering the outcome of the Second World War. Instead of roaring back to reinfest Germany’s body politic, the Nazi diaspora died out in the wilderness of Bolivia and Brazil. The Khmer Rouge escaped hanging and remains objectively as capable of entering the WMD sweepstakes as al-Qaeda. But their will is gone. The remnants of their genocidal cadres sit in forest clearings under the brow of the Dalgrek Escarpment, like troops of sullen baboons awaiting a peanut handout.

Information about weapons of mass destruction is ubiquitous in the postmodern world, but functional expertise remains rare. Bioterror is easy on paper, but the learning curve is lethally steep in practice. Likewise, the infrastructure of nuclear escalation remains difficult for nations—let alone cults of no fixed address—to acquire and operate. Especially when everyone expects them to try.

Past assessments of nuclear ambition that assume fixed R&D facilities lead to a more acute view of proliferation risks than the case of a perpetrator on the run. The standard objection is that even if al-Qaeda fails to get an atomic bomb, the fallout from one radwaste-spiked fertilizer bomb would be catastrophic. The answer is guarded: it is not easy to convert the fears of the nuclear freeze movement into reality. Building a bomb in the absence of sanctions entails a cadre of hundreds of PhDs directing a small army. Bin Laden’s skilled technocrats are manacled by sanctions and mercifully few. The ratio of ranting to rocket science among today’s jihadis does not point to any replay of the Manhattan Project. The fact is that Salafist Islam’s categorical rejection of science not only creates intellectual arthritis but also makes it impossible to integrate technology into the curriculum of a madrassa that would look askance at notions of the earth revolving around the sun.

The largest al-Qaeda explosives cache thus far found (in Jordan in 1999) equaled 16 tons of TNT. That’s some truck bomb but three orders of magnitude short of what struck but failed to kill the still living city of Hiroshima, where a thriving financial district abuts the well touristed memorial.

In the recent debates, President Bush asserted that al-Qaeda had lost 75 percent of its top people, but Vice President Cheney reminded us that the remainder “is bent on our destruction.” Now, 18,000 is a formidable force of homicidal fanatics to unleash on any nation, but we are not alone. Al-Qaeda has enemies by the score, and its local concerns are a drain on its capacity for global action. What fraction of his resources can bin Laden sustainably devote to force projection on the far side of the world?

Three decades ago, al-Qaeda was a sort of multinational PLO, an IRA with a worldview refracted through the dark glass of Salafist Islam rather than Marxism. What do we do if it reverts to type? The question may not be academic. The world is far from cured of the paroxysmal metastasis of bin Laden’s cult, but this malignant growth on the body of Islam has shrunk in response to intervention both surgical and strategic.

But what of the claim that he is a power to be reckoned with within the world of Islam? Volumes have been written about Wahhabi evangelism and Osama’s charismatic power, yet scarcely one Muslim in 100,000 has actually signed up for his jihad—good news, considering that we have over 1.3 billion Muslim contemporaries. If Osama were the culture hero he aspires to be, he would have a horde on horseback behind him that would put Saladin to shame. Instead, no more Islamists answered his call to arms than Marxists did Che Guevara’s. If the Church Militant had found so little European zeal at the turn of the 12th century, the crusades would have gone down in history as a 20-platoon fiasco.

All faiths have their crosses to bear, and one bloody-minded zealot per 100,000 is, alas, the norm. Buddhism shudders at Aum Shinrikyo’s adoption of nerve gas as a Tantric sacramental, just as Christianity does at the Ku Klux Klan and the Reverend Jim Jones. It did not take a Thirty Years War to put them out of business.

Islamic militants may drool over weapons-show catalogs and dream of acquiring what they see in them, but they are looking through a window into the rapidly receding past. The technology-fed arsenals that provided harness for the WWIII that was never fought between the superpowers have moved on. The most modern weapons Saddam’s billions could buy ended up turning Iraq’s late Republican Guard into multispectral eye candy for artillery spotters when America’s JSTARS crews materialized like time travelers with equipment from the next millennium. What justifies the breathtaking cost of America’s high-tech military procurement is that it buys a lease on the future, where we so own the battlefield that no one wants to face us in pitched battle on it.

Yet there is more to conflict than hardware. Even in the WMD era, a Clash of Civilizations requires the dispersion of compelling beliefs more than the concentration of mere zeal. For faith to manifest itself in the redirection of history often requires a vacuum into which ideas can expand into consequences. Unless, as seems unlikely, Islam implodes before our eyes into a perfervid militancy unseen since the 7th century, al-Qaeda may remain unable fill its half of the Plain of Armageddon—or the Superbowl, for that matter. The sum of all thugs falls 3,000 short of the number of airliners available, and newly minted airport guards outnumber al-Qaeda’s minions 2.5 to 1. What about weapons of mass destruction? To those who have agonized about them for decades, an epidemic seems as improbable as a few cases of devastation seem inevitable. Despite the continuity of motive and opportunity, just a handful of targets have drawn fire, and only the Lebanon Marine barracks truck bombing, the Cole, and the attack on the Pentagon have been militarily significant

Stealing hydrogen bombs, like breaking into Fort Knox, is hard work; the score is still zero despite half a century of trying. So attention turns to the relatively portable and unguarded. Al-Qaeda is always looking for a ship full of hazardous cargo to hijack, simply because one small ship out-carries a fleet of 747s. A kiloton of the least explosive cargo imaginable still dwarfs the destructive potential of airliners in collision. But merchant ship piracy is as much a fact of life now as in the days of letters of marque and reprisal, and the ongoing megaton trade in explosive ammonium nitrate makes ship detonations, as at Port Texas, inevitable disasters of peace like the Kobe earthquake but not the end of the world. Terror is to a degree self-limiting because risks rise as weapons increase in complexity and size. As societal vigilance grows, that risk is multiplied until failure becomes the norm.

Being hunted across the world may have improved the tenor of al-Qaeda. If the 18,000 postulated recruits are all as smart, organized, lucky, and effective as Atta & Co., each might claim 146 victims. But that would leave all of them dead and 99 out of 100 Americans alive and very angry.

The difference WMD would make in al-Qaeda’s hands is not between societal survival or extinction, but America facing the lethal norm Europe and Japan experienced in World War II—a war with terror that has not yet begun because the enemy lacks the means to fight it. Unlike the Axis, the amply evil bin Laden doesn’t have an army—or an aircraft carrier. Pearl Harbor was never in danger of becoming a collective noun. The indifference that led to Dec. 7, 1941 gave rise to its antithesis—vigilance as a policy so universally evangelized that it took a generation to relax into the torpor that made Sept. 11, 2001 possible. Osama bin Laden at large sustains our attention in ways that preclude 9/11’s repetition.

This brings us to something hard to face: some things end at their beginning, and al-Qaeda’s best shot may have been exactly that. Something perhaps a hundred times worse still hangs over us, but not the Damoclean existential threat the real zealots want. When civilizations clash for ages, their roughest edges dull first, and the risk of their mutual destruction grows less assured. Once the rhetoric of extinction threatened to cow us into abandoning all thought of confrontation with an Evil Empire. Now it serves to inflate into satanic stature a merely evil man.

Late this winter comes the day the War on Terror will have lasted longer than WWII. It will be a time to ask if, in the frozen moment, one side may still be too bruised to consider victory and the other too proud to contemplate defeat. Osama once called America a “weak horse,” but as al-Qaeda’s forces wane, the shadow this pale rider casts upon the earth is looking ever less caliphal and more quixotic.


Russell Seitz, formerly of Harvard’s Center For International Affairs and a Los Alamos consultant, has written extensively on WMD and proliferation, visited the Northern Areas of Pakistan, and testified to Congress on the Comprehensive Antiterrorism Act of 1995.

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