Thoughts on “American Jihad”

Hoffman wrote an interesting article on the state of play in terrorism in the U.S. context here. He makes a couple of interesting points that merit further discussion.

First, he calls into question statements by the U.S. government about the status of the fight against al Qaeda (e.g. “we are winning the fight”) primarily because, I think, he means a different thing than the statements mean. There seems to be general agreement that it’s helpful to think about AQ as existing in several forms: the “central’ group around bin Laden (what remains of it); various franchises that have taken on the name and at least some of the ideology (e.g. AQAP); and “homegrown” terrorist groups (and perhaps loners) who want to expand the significance of what they do by associating themselves with AQ, but whose actual connection, let alone direction, by the central group is questionable or difficult to know. When the U.S. government makes statements about al Qaeda, they seem to mean the central group; Hoffman is concerned with the entire spectrum of AQ groups.

He includes some quotations by intel folks about the Christmas bomber, including this one: “It’s not a technology issue, but an untrained people issue”. I don’t doubt that there are problems with the level of training, perhaps particularly at the point where data is collected, entered into computer systems, and assessed for significance. But I doubt that this is all, or even most, of the problem. As I’ve argued here extensively, everyone lacks data analysis systems that can induce the significance of new pieces of data and automatically bring them to the attention of analysts (although we know how — partially, anyway — to do this).

He also makes the point that “we seem able to focus on only on enemy in one place at one time”. This is exactly the point I made in an earlier post about the DoD — the bureaucracy seems to be set up to route too many crucial decisions through a few top people, so that attention is limited to what half a dozen minds can focus on.

He also calculates that the rate of jihadi plots within the U.S. (homegrown or home-based) is running at about one per month. This seems about right — another series of arrests were announced just today. On the one hand, this is sort of good news; some of the recent attacks have been mounted very quickly, that is, the people involved apparently radicalized to the point of planning and carrying out an attack in a matter of a few months. If the number of attacks is only one per month then there can’t be, as it were, a very deep pipeline.

But Hoffman’s thesis is that these low-level, amateurish, small-scale attacks may be guided by AQ Central as a way of distracting the intelligence system and tiring law enforcement and emergency responders; so that a more serious attack has a better chance of succeeding. It’s not clear how to test this thesis; many of the recent attacks have had some connection to e.g. Pakistan’s tribal areas but whether the support from there has been sincere, opportunistic, or motivated more strategically seems hard to judge.

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