TERRORISM SALON: Matthew Levitt on Al Qaeda’s Economic Warfare


(Matthew Levitt is a Senior fellow and Director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy).
Gregory offers a thoughtful analysis and has bravely baited the rest of us to respond, so I’ll take the bait. First, and just FYI, my “not unrelated” comment was intended to link energy and the economy, not the economy and terrorism.
That said, there is an interesting side note to add here, though it only underlines to my mind how the recent economic downturn in particular and economics in general is mostly unrelated to efforts to combat terrorism (the exception, of course, is the tremendous costs of fighting two wars, especially the war in Iraq, which was never truly part of the poorly phrased war on terror). That is, al Qaeda has been extremely effective at conducting economic warfare — al Qaeda has expended relatively little treasure to inflict on the U.S. and the West in general exorbitant costs.
Look to senior al Qaeda leaders’ statements to underscore that this is part of their strategy. Consider also the recent case in Canada involving Monin Khawaja, who reportedly wrote in a 2003 email, “So we have to come up with a way that we can drain their economy of all its resources, cripple their industries, and bankrupt their systems in place, all so that they are forced to withdraw their troops, so they cannot afford to go to war…. We need constant economic j[ihad], blow after blow, until they cripple and fall, never to rise again.” In that, despite the costs we have incurred (some unnecessarily), I submit that have and will continue to fail – but there is that connection in terms of their intent.

Gregory agrees that terrorism “is very important indeed and requires continued
maximal vigilance and sustained attention.” So the fact that al Qaeda has failed to conquer territory, while telling and a sign of its inherent bankrupt ideology, really doesn’t mitigate the threat it poses to America and its allies. And taking our allies into account is critical. Al Qaeda affiliates in North Africa, for example, may pose less of a threat to the U.S. but it is the primary threat facing our allies in much of Europe, particularly France, Spain and Italy. Giving our transatlantic relationships greater attention is not well-served by playing down the threats posed by al Qaeda’s regional affiliates. And as to the homegrown threat, the New York Police Department’s study should be a wake-up call to us all — the radicalization Peter and I have discussed in the UK context may well be happening in parts of the United States as well.
Gregory and I apparently disagree over the seriousness of the threat posed by Iran — that’s an important debate but a different one that the one we’re having now so I’ll leave that for another time. But should terrorism continue to be the – or one of the – “premier national security priorities” of the next administration (the questions we’ve been asked to address here)? Yes. Gregory’s musing whether it is also the “defining challenge of the 21st Century” is in fact a totally different question. I submit that if we give the issue the attention it needs now there is no reason it should be “the defining issue” when historians later look back at the 21st Century.
Finally, Gregory makes an important point when he highlights the growing importance of Russia, China, and India, among other states, to which we need to give greater attention. The next administration will need to walk and chew gum at the same time, focusing on counterterrorism while balancing not only other priority issues and countries but even sometimes competing foreign policy interests, as we’ve discussed earlier regarding, for example, the democracy agenda, Arab reform, combating AIDS/HIV in Africa, etc. We’ll need to deal with all these critical issues, and fix the economy and the housing market and plenty of other things at home, but combating terrorism will remain a priority for at least the next four years, so yes: it deserves to be at the very top of the next administration’s priority list.
— Matthew Levitt
This week long terrorism salon will continue to be hosted by The Washington Note and UN Dispatch.


2 comments on “TERRORISM SALON: Matthew Levitt on Al Qaeda’s Economic Warfare

  1. Paul Norheim says:

    “In fact, according to the State Department, the terrorist threat
    has been transformed to the point that it now is a “form of
    global insurgency.”” (Levitt in a former comment in this
    “In fact, according to……” That formulation tells me what I need
    to know about Mr. Levitt. The oxymoronic character of this kind
    of language may be varied by saying: In fact, according to Dick
    Cheney… In fact, according to Fox News… In fact, according to
    Karl Rove…In fact, according to Douglas Feith…etc…
    Actually, the current mess in the ME would probably not have
    taken place if people had been suspicious to everybody who
    said “In fact, according to…” five years ago.
    Add to that this formulation from Levitts comment above:
    “Giving our transatlantic relationships greater attention is not
    well-served by playing down the threats posed by al Qaeda’s
    regional affiliates.”


  2. JohnH says:

    Unfortunately, the Bush administration has done absolutely nothing to reduce America’s economic vulnerability. The main source of vulnerability is oil supply, which we source increasingly from remote, unstable places. By and large the vulnerability has been exacerbated by the US government’s eagerness to embrace corrupt tyrants, no questions asked, as long as they deliver the oil cheap. Many of these regimes and their cronies wallow in their riches, oblivious to the needs of their ordinary citizens. This has been exacerbated by the fecklessness of the oil companies, who have prospered enormously while severely degrading the environment and living conditions of the people living near the oil fields. In places like Nigeria this has created a backlash unrelated to Al Qaeda. It’s a problem which Al Qaeda did not create, and all the counter-terrorism efforts in the world can ever really solve. But the vulnerability can be significantly mitigated by enlightened policies by the US government, its oil suppliers, and the oil companies combined with programs to reduce oil dependency and judicious use of counter-terrorism.


Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *