A rather unfortunately titled piece in today’s New York Times, “The Search for White Jihadists,” seeks to shed light on the growing problem of Al Qaeda seeking out seemingly non-traditional recruits in order to wage small-scale attacks on the United States. There are some pretty glaring problems with this article, but the following stood out. The author writes:
Appeals for nonmembers to carry out small-scale attacks are a departure for Al Qaeda, the global terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden. It maintained centralized command and training for many years, masterminding the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. After that, it pledged to trump the mass killing with even more spectacular assaults.
As the United States kept up pressure on Qaeda hide-outs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Qaeda leaders exercised less control over related organizations and have begun to encourage attacks by unaffiliated individuals…
…Enticing “lone-wolf” terrorists is a symptom of the “continued weakening of the core Al Qaeda group,” and the “trend toward decentralization,” Stratfor, a political-risk consulting company in Austin, Texas, said in a March report.
Atomization of holy war comes at a price, Stratfor added: The would-be killers may be less skillful than trained ones, and less committed.
For one thing, jihadist support for small-scale, loosely-organized terrorist attacks is hardly new. In 2006 a text authored by al Qaeda member Abu Jihad al-Masri, “How to fight alone”, circulated widely in jihadist forums, while New America Foundation Counterterrorism Fellow Brian Fishman has written about an al Qaeda recruitment manual released in the summer of 2008 that laid out tactics for recruiting individuals into the organization. And one need only look to Richard Reid to find an example of a terrorist operating alone who did not “fit the mold,” way back in December 2001.
But what is more worrisome is the idea that the recruitment of individuals to perpetrate small-scale terrorist attacks necessarily indicates a weakened al Qaeda forced out of necessity to change. While this may very well be true, and increased counterterrorism measures seem to have inhibited the ability of al Qaeda’s leadership to operate, there is another explanation for why al Qaeda may shy away from large-scale attacks in the future: smaller attacks do just as much damage.
The failed Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Flight 253 provides the perfect example of the damage even an unsuccessful attack can cause. Despite the limited scope of the plot, Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s explosive malfunction caused what terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman called this week, “most extensive government review of our terrorism defenses since the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security seven years ago.”
Moreover, the increasingly strong rhetoric of some American leaders regarding Abdulmutallab and stark policy changes made by the government in the wake of the attempted bombing did not go unnoticed in extremist circles. As jihadist forum expert Jarret Brachman noted in January, many forum contributors shifted their views of a “successful” attack in the wake of the Abdulmutallab’s failure, noting that the outsized reaction of the United States and it’s potential impact around the world rendered the attack a success.
By overreacting in the face of an attack, the United States sent the message that we were vulnerable and would expend huge amounts of money and effort, while possibly antagonizing Muslims around the world and at home, to alleviate any risk. And until we ourselves become more resilient in the face of terrorism, that is a lesson al Qaeda will not forget.
— Andrew Lebovich