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Bruce Hoffman in the National Interest

01/06/2010

Counter-terrorism sage Bruce Hoffman has an article in the latest issue of the National Interest which I would recommend as a sanguine assessment of the threat that the U.S. faces from domestic Islamist terrorists.

The article opens with a cold-eyed assessment based on insider conversations of the intelligence disaster that took place around Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt to bring down an airliner in December 2009. Highlighting a number of missed connections that were likely in part for Admiral Denny Blair’s resignation recently, the main point appears to be that the dots were simply not put together in time to stop Abdulmutallab getting on the plane in Amsterdam. Apparently, preparations had been built around the assumption that AQAP was about to launch an attack on a U.S. target abroad, not that an attack was about to be launched on the homeland.

The broader point of the article, however, is the lack of imagination which has led the U.S. to treat a tactic as a strategy (Predator strikes) and a mistaken belief that America was somehow immune to the sort of domestic radicalization which has become the primary preoccupation of many European planners. A list of events, plots, and groups is provided showing how short-sighted this analysis has been, showing how links to various AQ affiliates can be found in a long list of plots, as well as a larger pool of low-level attempts all carried out by American citizens. A lack of imagination which is also found in the inability to recognize that AQ is a multifaceted organization with many different locations and iterations, rather than a monolith which can be focused on in an organized fashion in one location at a time, “we rivet our attention on only one trouble spot at a time, forgetting that Al Qaeda has always been a networked transnational movement.”

This is coupled with an ongoing failure to admit that the Predator strategy which is regularly trumpeted as crippling Al Qaeda’s ability to carry out attacks has done nothing to stem the flow of foreigners going to train in the camps in Pakistan (he cites a figure of about 100 who have graduated from the camps and now returned home). Something that is only a tactic appears to have become the only show in town when it comes to strategic planning in addressing the threat from Al Qaeda in Pakistan. As has been repeatedly said by numerous experts, it is unlikely that you will be able to kill your way of this problem. As Hoffman puts it: “until we dissemble the demand side….we will never be able to staunch the supply side.”

So simply hammering AQ or its affiliates in local insurgencies abroad is not going to get rid of the problem, especially as the ideology continues to appear to have deep resonance amongst a community of individuals living in the West. Management is key, and making sure that we are able to contain the problem from exploding as it did in the case of Abdulmutallab or some of the other plots that have managed to come to fruition in the U.S., is likely the best we can do in terms of stopping AQ or the ideology it inspires. This is not going to eradicate the problem in the immediate term, but neither is the current approach. But admitting to this will hopefully open doors which maybe lead in a better direction.

There was one point in the article which bothered me, which was when he refers to Abdulmutallab’s profile as defying “conventional wisdom about the stereotypical suicide terrorist being poor, uneducated and provincial.” My question would be: whose conventional wisdom is this still? Given the laundry list of well-educated and assimilated terrorists, who out there still sees simpletons from the provinces as the main incubator of radicalization in the West? I do not actually disagree with what Professor Hoffman says, but it bothers me that there might still be those out there looking for such a profile.

One final point which struck me as interesting is the assertion that Lone Wolves might be part of a strategy by AQ to “flood already-stressed intelligence systems with ‘noise’.” The suggestion, if I am reading it correctly, is that low-tech attacks by “lone wolves and other jihadi hangers-on,” are more coordinated than one might think and are in fact an effort to keep security planners busy and distracted from focusing on serious directed plots from abroad.