Inflating the Terrorist Threat

Jason Ditz reported today on the contradictory claims simultaneously coming from the government about al Qaeda’s strength or weakness now and going forward. Chris Preble has a related post up at Cato:

A front-page story in today’s Washington Post reports that al Qaeda is a shadow of its former self, and finds that there is even talk among senior defense and intelligence officials of the organization’s imminent demise.

[…] It is unfortunate that this story is filed in the “news” category. Al Qaeda has been on the ropes for some time. It is, at best, “a fragmented and unmanageable movement.“ But if senior officials are willing to speak so publicly about our recent gains, it may signal something significant.

As many have noted, one of AQ’s goals (and the goal of many other terrorist organizations) is to induce a counterproductive and self-injurious overreaction on the part of its target audience or government. The best approach, though it is difficult to achieve in practice, is to avoid terrorizing ourselves. If, many years from now, historians conclude that AQ was never as threatening as we made it out to be, they may deem the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on homeland security post-9/11, and the trillions more spent on wars that were once believed connected to the so-called Global War on Terror (GWOT), to have been an enormous waste of resources. We will be seen as having played into Osama bin Laden’s “bleed and bankruptcy” strategy.

As for the contradiction in analysis vis-à-vis al Qaeda’s strength or weakness Preble speculates:

If Secretary of Defense Panetta is feeling confident, the folks in Foggy Bottom appear not to have received the memo. This policy disconnect–with some officials believing we are safer while others warn of impending danger–may be caused by bureaucratic inertia, the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, or merely an elaborate scheme to deflect blame in the unlikely event that an attack occurs at some later date.

He is perhaps partially right. Bureaucratic inertia and the covering-your-ass game of politics may certainly be a part of why the State Department and various political figures inflate the threat level al Qaeda poses, despite intelligence officials’ estimation to the contrary. But I think there are more fundamental reasons. First of all, this terrorist threat remains a principal pretext for imperial foreign policy. Without it, difficulties arise in attempting to justify fantastical and unnecessary new military targets or invasive surveillance policies or even just the prolongation of our occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Secondly, there is a constituency for threat inflation throughout the electorate. Influential and active political lobbies regard a focus on Islamic terrorism to be a prerequisite of any politician’s favorability. The rest of the public simply falls for a politics based on fear and paternalistic military hawkishness.

If the intelligence community is correct about the relatively weakened state of al Qaeda and affiliated groups, as I suspect they are, this truly a miracle and speaks primarily to what a weak organization they were from the beginning. Virtually every step of the way, Washington has chosen and pursued exactly the policies which would exacerbate anti-American sentiment and influence potential extremists to engage in retaliatory attacks. If the threat is now weak, imagine how nonexistent it would be if America stopped supporting the systematic oppression of Palestinians, pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan, closed Guantanamo and other torture prisons, stopped giving money, weapons, and diplomatic cover to the worst dictatorships of the Middle East, ended the drone program in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, ended harsh sanctions and aggressive threats towards Iran, stopped bombing Libya unnecessarily and illegally, and dismantled our elaborate military empire. That is the real policy of “disrupt, dismantle, and destroy.

  • Curious

    I agree!

    I think it means that they are naturally weak but through American foreign policy the government tends to make them stronger.

  • John_Muhammad

    I wonder how many mouths we could feed and how many roads could be repaired and how many homes could be built and how many lives could have been saved with the money the US has spent on this pointless, useless 'War on Terrorism'.

    I wonder what's more effective at ally-building: cluster bombs and napalm or a working power grid and fresh water? If you were a farmer living in a third-world nation, would you rather be shot at or taught how to service your new tractor and water well?

    • bob35983

      The situation is much worse than past-tense commentary. Consider the future (if Uncle Sam doesn't repudiate His debts) and, using the American Civil War as an example, (John?) Dunnigan has written (about two decades ago) that the final check issued by Uncle Sam for a direct Civil War cost was written some 120 years after the end of that war.

  • masmanz

    At the height of its power the total size of Alqaida was less than that of an army brigade, their firepower was probably less than that of a single company. They certainly didn't have any fighter, bomber, or helicopter at their disposal. Yet, through a massive propaganda campaign our government managed to embark on this fantastic wild-goose chase, called war-on-terror, causing a loss of thousands of life and over a trillion dollar. The real reason behind this wild-goose chase is a mystery which even wiki-leaks has not solved. Those who are profiting from the war would surely want us to continue.

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  • ASORO

    If we keep fighting the war on terror, we are wasting money and lives, If we stop fighting and another
    9/11 happens then we were sleeping on the job and everyone points there fingers whos to blame for
    not doing what might need to be done, we lose either way

  • ASORO

    What needs to be done is stop giving all this money to country's that dont even like us, and stop being dependent on there oil when we can produce more of our own, I am tired of the bullshit the gov, tells us. its all for there own needs and power, money and dumb Politics. When is there going to be someone that cares about us first?

  • life and over a trillion dollar. The real reason behind this wild-goose chase is a mystery which even wiki-leaks has not solved. Those who are profiting from the war would surely want us to continue.