Why No More 9/11s?
An interactive inquiry about why America hasn't been attacked again
Even some inside al-Qaida have come to view terrorism's costs as too high. In June 2008, Wright profiled a founding leader of al-Qaida known as Dr. Fadl. The author of two books used by al-Qaida to recruit members, Dr. Fadl more recently wrote from his Egyptian jail cell, "We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do that." In Dr. Fadl's view, the 9/11 attacks were suicidal not only for the hijackers but for al-Qaida as a whole. Writing in 2007, Dr. Fadl argued that it was immoral to fight Muslim heads of state if they were believers and that it was unwise to do so if these leaders possessed sufficient power to prevail. Quoting the Prophet Mohammed, Dr. Fadl wrote: "Those who rebel against the Sultan shall die a pagan death." Dr. Fadl further argued that it was immoral under any circumstances to kill even non-Muslim civilians. These arguments stirred considerable debate in the Islamist world, and one can't rule out that Dr. Fadl produced them under threat of torture. But they were seconded by a Kuwaiti cleric named Sheikh Hamid al-Ali, who has been identified by the U.S. Treasury as an al-Qaida fundraiser. Al-Qaida's al-Zawahiri felt it necessary to write a lengthy rebuttal in which he claimed, preposterously, "no difference" between 9/11 and President Clinton's 1998 bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaeutical plant in Sudan (believed, mistakenly, to be an al-Qaida chemical-weapons facility). The 1998 bombing killed one night watchman—a tragic blunder, but hardly comparable to the deliberate slaughter of 3,000 noncombatants.
However nonsensical, al-Zawahiri's views still prevail within al-Qaida. But does al-Qaida have the means for another U.S. attack? "Let's have some healthy skepticism … when we read about these terrorist masterminds who were poised to kill thousands of people and do incalculable damage," wrote cryptographer Bruce Schneier in a June 2007 column for Wired online titled "Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot." Schneier believes that terrorism remains a real threat, but he also believes that the danger posed by the various alleged and would-be terrorists who've been caught inside the United States since 9/11, many of them lured into plots by undercover law enforcement, has been greatly exaggerated. (I'll have details about these sting operations in two later installments.) In The Looming Tower, Wright quotes Issam al-Turabi, a Bin Laden friend from his days in Sudan, thus: "I loved that man. … Unfortunately, his IQ was not that great."
Are terrorists dumb?
It may be that Bin Laden's family wealth and otherworldly dedication far outstrip his native intelligence. (Al-Zawahiri appears to be the brains of the operation.) But the real question isn't whether terrorists are smart per se but whether they are rational. "Acts of terrorism almost never appear to accomplish anything politically significant," prominent game theorist Thomas C. Schelling observed nearly two decades ago. Max Abrahms, a pre-doctoral fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation, reaffirmed that conclusion in a 2006 paper for International Security titled, "Why Terrorism Does Not Work." Abrahms researched 28 groups designated "foreign terrorist organizations" by the U.S. State Department since 2001, identifying among them a total of 42 objectives. The groups achieved those objectives only 7 percent of the time, Abrahms concluded, and the key variable for success was whether they targeted civilians. Groups that attacked civilian targets more often than military ones "systematically failed to achieve their policy objectives."
In a 2008 follow-up essay, "What Terrorists Really Want," Abrahms explained that terrorist groups are typically incapable of maintaining a consistent set of strategic goals, much less achieving them. Then why do they become terrorists? To "develop strong affective ties with fellow terrorists." It's fraternal bonds they want, not territory, nor influence, nor even, in most cases, to affirm religious beliefs. If a terrorist group's demands tend to sound improvised, that's because they are improvised; what really matters to its members—even its leaders—is that they are a band of brothers. Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and former Central Intelligence Agency case officer in Afghanistan, collected the biographies of 400 terrorists who'd targeted the United States. He found that fully 88 percent became terrorists not because they wanted to change the world but because they had "friendship/family bonds to the jihad." Among the 400, Sageman found only four who had "any hint of a [psychological] disorder," a lower incidence than in the general population. Think the Elks, only more lethal. Cut off from al-Qaida's top leadership, they are plenty dangerous, but not nearly as task-oriented as we imagine them to be.
II. The Near-Enemy Theory
There's no denying that al-Qaida wants to hurt the United States. The terror group repeatedly said so, through word and action, well before 9/11. In 2004, Osama Bin Laden boasted in a videotape that al-Qaida would "make America bleed profusely to the point of bankruptcy," much as he and his fellow jihadis had made the Soviet Union bleed in the 1980s by fighting Russian troops in Afghanistan. In truth, Bin Laden and the foreign fighters he led in Afghanistan played a peripheral role in chasing the Soviets out of Afghanistan—the real credit goes to the homegrown (and CIA-financed) mujahedeen—and the failed Soviet military intervention was only one of many factors that hastened the Soviet Union's dissolution. Even so, let us grant that al-Qaida means the United States serious harm and has managed to cause the United States considerable hardship. Is that an end in itself?
Of course not. Al-Qaida wants to bleed and bankrupt the United States not because it covets the territory that lies between Canada and Mexico but because it reviles U.S. influence in the Muslim world. We can argue about the extent to which that influence is wielded on behalf of progress (secularism, rule of law, democracy) or self-interest (cheap oil, geopolitical stability, development of markets for western goods and services). To al-Qaida, it scarcely matters. "Progress" and the advancement of U.S. interests are equally undesirable because they impede al-Qaida's sacred goal of resurrecting the 1,000-year caliphate.
In the previous essay ("The Terrorists-Are-Dumb Theory"), we saw Thomas Schelling, Marc Sageman, and Max Abrahms argue that terrorists think about strategy either very poorly or not at all. If that's the case, then al-Qaida attacks the United States mostly because it's there. But if terrorists are strategic thinkers, then al-Qaida's immediate goal would logically be to start building that caliphate by fostering the creation of jihadist regimes in the lands once conquered by the Prophet Mohammed and his successors. Following this logic, the need to attack the United States would vary according to how tightly the United States kept a lid on jihadis in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa. At the moment, the United States can't keep a very tight lid at all on Pakistan or Afghanistan, two places where al-Qaida has long maintained a presence. It would therefore make sense for al-Qaida to concentrate its resources there. Pakistan is a particular prize, because it has nuclear weapons; Bruce Riedel, formerly of the Central Intelligence Agency and now with the Brookings Institution, calls it "the most dangerous country in the world today." Two recent decisions by Pakistan authorities have caused particular alarm: an agreement with a key Taliban jihadi to impose Islamist law (Sharia) in the Swat valley, located within 100 miles of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad; and the release from house arrest of A.Q Khan, the scientist who sold nuclear secrets to North Korea, Iran, and Libya. In Afghanistan, the resurgent Taliban remains tightly knit with al-Qaida, and starting in 2005, it began adopting al-Qaida's tactic of suicide bombings. Both al-Qaida and the Taliban were implicated in the 2007 assassination of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and there's some evidence they also collaborated on a failed attempt to assassinate Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in April 2008.
Jihadis speak of the "near enemy" (apostate regimes in and around the Middle East) and the "far enemy" (the United States and the West generally). The man credited with coining these terms, Mohammed Abd al-Salam Faraj, did so largely to emphasize that it was much more important to attack the near enemy, a principle he upheld by organizing the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. (The Egyptian government affirmed the same principle in executing Faraj.) In 1993, a militant Egyptian group called al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya ("the Islamic Group"), which had extensive ties to al-Qaida, broke with the "near enemy" strategy and bombed the World Trade Center. In 1996, al-Qaida followed suit and formally turned its attention to the far enemy. But according to Fawaz A. Gerges, an international affairs professor at Sarah Lawrence and author of The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, other jihadist groups around the world never really bought into this shift in priorities. Even al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya had by late 1999 declared a cease-fire, a move that outraged its incarcerated spiritual leader, Omar Abdel-Rahman ("the blind sheikh") and caused the group to splinter. With the 9/11 attacks, Bin Laden hoped to rally jihadis outside al-Qaida's orbit to join the battle against the far enemy. Instead, he scared them off. Al-Qaida is today the only foreign terror group we know of with a declared interest in attacking the United States. That's why discussion—including this one—about whether the United States might experience another 9/11 typically focuses solely on al-Qaida. (I explain in "The Melting-Pot Theory" why the possibility of a domestic group causing another 9/11 is considered remote.) If al-Qaida isn't focused right now on attacking the United States, then there's no reason to believe anyone is.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.