IN THE NEWS
Some of the recent postings on national security-related blogs--Armchair Generalist, Global Guerrillas, and Liberals Against Terror--touch on the same question: will the current American grand strategy for counterterrorism effectively stop terrorist cells from acquiring nuclear weapons and using them against the United States? Since the Pentagon seems poised to draft a new National Military Strategy (NMS) for counterterrorism, it's a timely topic to discuss.
Although we've had years since 9/11 to "get inside the head" of terrorist groups like al Qaeda, few public discussions of counterterrorism actually try to do that. It's essentialy, since counterterrorism, like any type of warfare, is an exercise, in large part, in understanding your enemy's goals and means, finding out what you can about the enemy's strategy, and anticipating what the enemy might do in response to whatever actions you take. As Edward Luttwak said in his book on strategy, warfare is not engineering. You're dealing with a live opponent, not inert matter. You can't succeed unless you can understand and outwit the enemy.
In contemporary terms, that means stopping the assumption train about terrorists and nukes, instead of letting it hurdle on forwards. The standard American thinking about the terrorist threat follows this track:
- Terrorists are determined to defeat the United States.
- In their minds, the more often they can attack within the United States, and the larger the carnage, the more successful they will be.
- Therefore, nuclear weapons are extremely attractive, so al Qaeda and like-minded groups will do everything they can to acquire and use them against us.
For people horrified by the 9/11 attacks, that seems to make perfect sense. Why question the train of logic, if al Qaeda hijacked four air liners and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?
What's missing, of course, is al Qaeda's own grand strategy. The preceding argument skips ahead a few steps, straight to what we presume al Qaeda is doing at a theater or operational level. However, it may be completely wrong, including about how much al Qaeda cells want nuclear weapons, and why.
For al Qaeda and similar Islamist terrorist groups, the final battlefield isn't New York City. Instead, it's Jerusalem, Baghdad, Cairo, and other places where they want their militant, intolerant version of Islam to succeed. They want the entire umma, the body of the Islamic faithful, to live under their interpretation of Islamic law. The United States and the rest of the Western world are powerful figures in this drama, but they're not major players in its final act. (In fact, al Qaeda hopes we won't appear at all.) Of course, al Qaeda wants what they see to be the corrupting influences of the West--secularism, imperialism, etc.--removed from Dar al-Islam, the abode of the faithful--in other words, Islamic countries. They also want to stoke the revolutionary fires in the Dar al-Islam by making big, successful, inspiring attacks against powerful countries like the United States. Ultimate victory, however, is not defined by detonating a backpack nuclear weapon in Times Square.
Does that mean we don't have to be worried about al Qaeda or other groups acquiring nuclear technology? Absolutely not. However, looking inside al Qaeda's grand strategy does change our own strategy significantly.
Yes, there are a few rabid haters of the United States within al Qaeda, eager to make major bonus points by attacking us somehow, somewhere. However, there are also a lot more of what you might call "pragmatists," leaders who are ready to shift strategy to make it easier to reach their ultimate goal, revolution in the Dar al-Islam, faster and more successfully. Nuclear weapons may be attractive, but they may also be a liability, if they create alliances among al Qaeda's enemies that would otherwise not exist. "Terrorist nukes" that unite the overt and covert efforts of the American, European, Egyptian, Israeli, Syrian, Saudi, and Indian governments are far less attractive than military and political measures that keep these regimes divided. As events in post-invasion Iraq show, the more chaotic and contentious the situation in any part of Dar al-Islam, the more ground al Qaeda can make.
Therefore, American strategy can (and should) have two prongs. The first is what you hear most frequently: Defeat terrorist cells and deny them access to nuclear technology. The second is what you almost never hear: Keep nuclear weapons from being attractive to al Qaeda. The second prong can succeed without achieving total victory along the first.
That should be good news, since we can "secure the homeland" with far less effort than the traditional strategy requires. You are not necessarily fighting an enemy dedicated heart and soul to the nuclear option, so complete physical, mental, and moral isolation (to use the Boyd language) is not required.
If Abu Musad al-Zarqawi had to choose between (1) nuking Washington, DC, and (2) Islamist revolution in Iraq and elsewhere, which do you think he would choose? Keeping the first choice separate from the second is what our counterterrorism strategy, in whatever form (like the NMS), should do.