The Future of Terrorism

Richard Fernandez has two fascinating posts this week which, when put together, paint a frightening picture of the future of terrorism. The first describes a policy. initiated by the Bush administration but continued under Obama, of targeting people whose lives exhibit patterns associated with terrorist activity.

This implicitly requires a system of persistent surveillance which can track Person A through his life; notes whether he attends a Taliban training camp, records his comings and goings, observes how often he comes along on a trip where IEDs are later observed to explode, whose cell phone records suggest bad company, etc.  Once that system finds his “pattern of life” sufficiently suggestive, some algorithm, assisted perhaps by some men on the loop, he may decide he needs to be zapped. The LA Times says such people are already being hit, and have been for a long time.  Pattern of Life hits have been a big help at keeping down the weeds. As you live, so do you die.

But, now, to go to the second post, couple that idea with our leadership’s unwillingness to think strategically and identify the enemy:

But today only one side — the forces behind al-Qaeda –  have a clear strategic conception of the war they are waging. The President seems determined to misunderstand it. He is waging existential war against tribesmen at the end of the world while denying that the Kido Butai even exists. He may succeed on narrow terms, but al-Qaeda, the modern Kido Butai [ten ships, the ten carriers that were at the heart of Japan’s ability to project power in 1942], will simply move elsewhere: to Yemen, Birmingham or Detroit and the menace will remain unabated.

There’s the rub. We focus on underlings, avoiding thinking strategically and attacking the people who are really behind the assault on the West, because it’s too risky, and too politically uncomfortable, to go after the real leadership. (Saudi Arabia, anyone?)

But what would Washington do with a bigger fish if it found it with stratospheric UAVs and super databases? Would the President impose “very severe consequences”? Or on the contrary, would it find a reason to let the monster fish go in the name of maintaining “world peace”. Suppose  Hillary actually found a smoking gun linking the leadership of Pakistan to al-Qaeda? Which incentive would prevail?  Is saving 500 or 1,000 American lives worth war with Pakistan? There would arguably be a huge incentive to do nothing because of the risks of taking action against Islamabad would be so great. One example of how catching a big fish can cause problems was recently illustrated by a New York Times report that the South Korea found torpedo explosive residue on the sunken hull of its corvette, the Cheonan.  It is almost impossible to avoid concluding that North Korea torpedoed a South Korean Naval vessel. Does this mean “very severe consequences”?  God a-mighty, no.

A premeditated attack by the navy of one country upon another would normally be an act of war. But in the modern world, business as usual sees war as the ultimate money loser and political risk. So the pressures against war are enormous.  South Korea is not prepared to commence hostilities with the North, so there will be no war if Seoul can help it. Similarly, if American aerostats saw Osama Bin Laden receiving money from the President of Pakistan himself there would be a huge incentive to do absolutely nothing….

In the end the leadership of the West may find themselves surveilling everybody and attacking everybody except the people who’ve masterminded the attacks, because that would be too destabilizing. Iran, Syria and elements of the Pakistani leadership can never be confronted for one over-riding reason: the prime directive of the globalized world is to keep the status quo, on which everything depends, going. By itself that’s not a bad thing. But one unfortunate consequence has been to delay fixing anything: the financial system, the entitlements system, even the security system because it might interfere with the day’s trades. Yet inevitably the day comes when you can’t credit swap or missile your way out of a corner you’ve painted yourself into. And the question becomes, ‘what now?’

This suggests that the war formerly known as the War on Terror is likely to go on for a long time, punctuated, but with gradual escalation, until eventually we run out of options or the jihadis are emboldened to do something that forces us to act.

There’s another implication, too. We can blow up underlings in the mountains of Pakistan. But we can’t very well blow them up on the streets of Hamtramck. So, here’s my prediction: more “homegrown” attacks by people who are already in the U.S., and fewer attacks with immediate and close links abroad. That’s not to say that the shots aren’t being called from abroad. But the tracks will be harder to discover, and, from what we’ve seen so far, it appears that our leaders will do their best not to see them even when they’re hiding in plain sight.

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