July 11, 2005

Why Not Another Attack?

A quick extra note on the London terror attacks. I'll be the first to agree that it's a bit hopeless to try to caulk the walls and guard ourselves completely and totally against conventional bombs in buses and subways. And I also agree that war with Syria and Iran would be the height of idiocy (although from what I know of Michael Ledeen, he's fairly opposed to invading those two countries; rather he favors... um... getting "serious" about the terror-masters so that we can figure out a "better" policy. Oh, and we need to do it "faster, please.")

On the other hand, I'm not quite sure that al-Qaeda, because it's been so skimpy on terrorist attacks over the past four years (which is sort of true, sort of not), is probably much-weakened. That may be the case. Still, Michael Scheuer wrote a little-read analysis for Jamestown a few months ago that suggested something at least as plausible: Osama bin Laden might well be holding off on attacking the West—and instead leaving matters to those little franchises—not because al-Qaeda's too crippled to act, but because bin Laden and Zawihiri need to complete a "warning cycle" that Islamic scholars have insisted must precede any terrorist attack. (They were criticized after 9/11 for failing to do that.) I don't really understand many of the intra-Islam ideological battles that are going on here, but they're important, and both bin Laden and Zawihiri are certainly aware of them.

Meanwhile, assuming al-Qaeda still has the capacity to bring mass death to the United States—and who knows?—there might be any number of reasons for not attacking the West in full force just yet. Perhaps they'd prefer to wait until the United States is defeated in Iraq and then withdraws, assuming that happens. I could see how that might be the "smarter" thing to do from a strategic perspective, in which case Robert Pape's theory, that al-Qaeda is trying to get America's allies to leave Iraq, starts to make a lot of sense. Perhaps they need to raise the bar with the second attack or they'd suffer a major propaganda blow. It's kind of weak to follow-up on 9/11 by blowing up a bus, after all. So it's hard to tell what they're up to. Considering all the major al-Qaeda figures sitting pretty inside Iran, though, I have a hard time believing the group's been crippled beyond repair.
-- Brad Plumer 4:47 PM || ||