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Terrorism and the Coming Decade

Fall 2011 Features

Terrorism and the Coming Decade

Terrorism FuturesAusterity, resource scarcity and technological advances will empower Al Qaeda and other violent non-state actors, just as they weaken certain already-fragile states

Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, US officials are speaking openly of Al Qaeda’s impending death. Defense secretary Leon Panetta declared in early July of this year that the US is “within reach” of “strategically defeating” the jihadist group – an assessment that the Washington Post has confirmed is shared by many intelligence analysts. This view is questionable on its face: after all, we have heard similar official proclamations that did not bear out. But it is all the more so because it examines the group in a vacuum, without considering major geopolitical trends that could well strengthen violent non-state actors in the coming years.

The second decade following the September 11th attacks and the onset of the poorly named ‘war on terror’ is likely to be defined by the fragility of the nation-state system. Three overarching trends are driving this fragility. First, the world is entering an era of austerity caused by record national debts and slumping economies. This makes developed countries less likely to sustain their extravagant counter-terrorism budgets – thus creating the prospect that future attacks may be more likely to succeed. Fewer government jobs and cutbacks in social services may produce social unrest. And developed countries, faced with their own internal problems, will be more hesitant to devote resources to stabilizing poorer governments on the brink of collapse.

The second defining trend is resource scarcity. The past two decades have seen unprecedented global growth – especially in China and India. This growth has put a strain on the world’s resources. One early and vital indicator has been oil, where growing demand has outstripped the pace of new discoveries. Skyrocketing oil prices have had a direct impact on individuals’ transportation costs. The cost of agricultural inputs has risen – driven by rising fertilizer prices and spikes in the cost of bringing produce from farms to the markets. Rising food prices, in turn, create desperation for those who worry that their basic needs will go unfulfilled.

The third defining trend is technological advances that empower non-state actors who wish to overturn the status quo. Technology has played a clear role in the Arab Spring revolts, allowing revolutionaries to organize and disseminate their message. But technology also played a role in the violence that wracked London and other parts of Britain this past August, where lofty aspirations of democratic change took a backseat to the violent lust for mammon. Technological developments can make upheavals hit an already unstable system at a heretofore unimaginable pace.

Not all of the changes likely to be brought by this coming decade of fragility will be negative. Few tears will be shed for the likes of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi – dictators who deprived their own citizens of so much. Yet the overthrow of even a repressive, despised ruler does not necessarily mean that better days lie ahead – as the aftermath of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s overthrow in Iran demonstrates. And even if the already deposed leaders of the Arab world – as well as other leaders who are soon to fall – are replaced by something better, this does not mean that the death knell will sound for groups like Al Qaeda. Indeed, when looked at through the eyes of Al Qaeda and other violent non-state actors, the three converging trends of austerity, resource scarcity and technological advancement provide a great deal of opportunity.

The US economy is in shambles; its national debt more than US $14 trillion. National debt, as is reasonably well known, is not an inherent evil. As the economists Robert Heilbroner and Lester Thurow once noted, “The government sector, like the business sector, also can justify its rising debt in terms of an increasing stock of real assets – dams and roads, skills and knowledge, and the like.” However, the US’s current staggering level of debt is larger than one could see as a reasonable investment in its economic future. Moreover, many of the past decade’s expenditures – including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the mushrooming of homeland security and intelligence agencies – have been defensive in nature. Rather than building American infrastructure, these expenditures were designed singularly to prevent hostile forces from taking American lives or destroying property.

The national debt threatens the US’s fight against non-state terrorist groups, and in fact threatens the country’s continuing role as a superpower. Harvard University historian Niall Ferguson wrote in 2009 that the US’s “ability to manage its finances is closely tied to its ability to remain the predominant global military power.” Not mincing words, Ferguson added: “This is how empires decline. It begins with a debt explosion. It ends with an inexorable reduction in the resources available for the Army, Navy, and Air Force.” Other observers agree that the US defence budget is likely to experience major cuts that will hamper the country’s continued ability to project military power.

By 2019, the annual interest on the US’s national debt will be more than US $700 billion, which is more than the current size of the Defense Department’s budget. “If the deficit isn’t reined in, investors eventually could refuse to continue lending Uncle Sam the money required to run the government – everything from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to unemployment insurance, Social Security and Medicare,” USA Today noted in August 2010. “Once ignited, worries about US creditworthiness could quickly snowball.” Such fears are clearly already emerging, as shown by the recent S&P downgrade of US debt.

The US remains the world’s sole superpower, and thus its cutbacks will uniquely undermine the methods of maintaining global security in which the international order is currently so deeply invested. But the US is by no means the only country that will be forced to make cutbacks. Austerity is the paradigm du jour throughout Europe, and is a paradigm that is unlikely to quickly fade.

The riots that rocked Athens in June of this year after Greece’s parliament passed unpopular austerity measures demonstrate the kind of internal instability that austerity can bring. And though the apparent cause of the riots that hit London and other British cities in August was not austerity measures, those events did trigger fears about what such measures may eventually bring. As news analysis published by Reuters notes, the riots “[raise] questions about the sustainability of spending cuts and a widening gap between rich and poor.” Indeed, after noting that a massive show of police force restored order to London, Reuters stated that even the police “face the drastic spending cuts that will affect everything from the military to social benefits and inner-city services.” In other words, spending cuts threaten internal unrest as jobs, benefits and social services are lost. Meanwhile, police cutbacks may leave governments less able to contain this unrest.

As numerous governments are faced with cutbacks – and possible unrest – where will this leave their counter-terrorism efforts, foreign aid budgets, and overall appetite for trying to bring stability to remote lands?

Diminished counter-terrorism resources increase the probability that terrorist attacks will succeed in developed countries – not necessarily on the scale of 9/11, but perhaps in the idiom of the later attacks in Madrid, London or Mumbai. From the perspective of violent non-state actors, such smaller, opportunistic attacks can easily raise their profile, advance their objectives, and attract monetary contributions.

Even more significant to these groups’ long-term prospects is the diminished appetite that developed countries will have for foreign commitments. In the fall of 2001, Al Qaeda enjoyed a single physical sanctuary: in Afghanistan. Today, its affiliates have four such sanctuaries: in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and also northern Mali. No one has a cognizable plan to dislodge these groups from their safe havens. Indeed, because of declining governmental capacity, it is likely that the number of physical safe havens enjoyed by Al Qaeda and other Islamist militant groups will grow rather than decline in the near-term.

Besides fiscal austerity, resource scarcity will put further strains on already struggling governments. One prominent example is Pakistan – a country long beset by unrest. Pakistan’s political system is notoriously corrupt, and its government discredited by countless failures – including a bungled response to the flooding that devastated the country last year. Based on these factors, the New York Times found great pessimism among informed observers about Pakistan’s future. At the start of this year, a Western diplomat told the Times that the only thing that the country lacked was “a person or institution to link the economic aspirations of the lower class with the psychological frustration of the committed Islamists.” He continued: “Our assessment is: this is like Tehran, 1979.”

Scarce resources are already part of this combustible mix – and, as scarcity deepens, the situation in Pakistan will grow more precarious. Already, the country has experienced food price inflation of 64 percent in the past three years, while the average wage-earner’s purchasing power has declined by 20 percent. Moreover, Pakistan has for years been in the midst of a deep energy crisis. Noting that energy riots have been common since 2008, David Steven of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation has written that “Public reaction to the energy crisis has swung from resignation to violent protest and back again.”

Steven notes that the country’s resource scarcity produces a “feedback loop” – undermining its resilience in the face of its many challenges. For one thing, energy and food prices have derailed the growth that Pakistan experienced from 2001 to 2007. But there are also security implications. One is the destabilizing effect of citizens’ basic needs not being met. Another is Pakistan’s militant groups, which doubtless see opportunity in scarcity. “In 2005, production from the Sui gas field, which accounts for 45 percent of national production, was halted for more than a week due to sabotage,” Steven writes. “Attacks on gas pipelines and electricity grids have continued with depressing regularity ever since.”

Pakistan’s resource scarcity problems force one to the unhappy conclusion that the country’s most important indicators are pointing in the wrong direction. And it is not alone. Yemen is beset by environmental and resource catastrophes. As Gregory Johnsen wrote in Foreign Policy in early 2010, “The country’s water table is nearly depleted from years of agricultural malpractice, and its oil reserves are rapidly dwindling. This comes just when unemployment is soaring and an explosive birth rate promises only more young, jobless citizens in the coming years.” Food prices have spiralled upward in such already deprived countries as Afghanistan, Chad, Mozambique, Sudan and Uganda. Indeed, the Horn of Africa is currently wracked by what seems to be its worst drought in 60 years – a condition that observers fear is partially attributable to global climate change. And Iraq may be running out of water, with a March UN report warning that the Tigris and Euphrates rivers could dry up by 2040.

Resource scarcity will exacerbate the challenges that nation-states face. Like austerity measures, scarcity in itself can be destabilizing. Scarcity will force tradeoffs, making nation-states choose between dealing with their own internal problems and addressing the challenge of violent non-state actors. As was the case in Pakistan, resource scarcity presents new targeting opportunities for terrorist and insurgent groups. Their keen awareness of this fact can be seen in Al Qaeda’s repeated targeting of Saudi Arabia’s means of oil production as global prices have risen.

There has been some talk that the Arab Spring – driven in part by technological advances that have allowed unprecedented organizing by the disaffected – has devastated Al Qaeda. As journalist and Al Qaeda expert Peter Bergen told this author: “Have you seen a single person carrying a placard with Osama bin Laden’s face on it? Has anybody been mouthing Al Qaeda’s talking points? Have you seen a single American flag burning? It’s an ideological catastrophe.” One might describe this view as technological triumphalism: as social media technology helps to sweep away the old, bad regimes, the violent ideologies that arose in opposition to them are discredited as well.

It is, of course, far too early to conclude that the Arab Spring has eliminated Al Qaeda as a threat. In the short-term, upheaval in the Arab world creates a more permissive operating environment for jihadists, as a significant talent pool of violent Islamists has been released from prisons in Egypt and Libya, and groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have secured new weaponry during the chaos. In the medium-term, the Arab Spring may produce a more fertile recruiting environment for violent groups. After all, the Arab Spring is not just about the desire for democracy. It is also about unemployment and skyrocketing food prices – and, as discussed above, both of these indicators may move in the wrong direction. Historically, when sky-high expectations – as in the Arab Spring – go unfulfilled, extreme ideologies can take hold.

Still, it seems that the most powerful lesson of the Arab Spring is not that technology can be democratizing, but that it can be destabilizing. The same social media that were used to organize peaceful protests against undemocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt also helped to organize violent protests against a democratic regime – and state – in Britain. Looking at the Arab Spring through the eyes of Al Qaeda and other violent non-state actors, it is clear how technology has made it easier to provoke instability. Bref, while technology – which it itself can be used for good or for evil – has in the past decade clearly empowered individuals relative to the state, it has also made weak states even more fragile. Violent non-state actors will certainly seek to exploit this growing weakness for their own gain.

Fragility equals unpredictability. Just as the Arab Spring may (arguably) be understood as a ‘Black Swan event,’ there will be many more wrenching changes that commentators simply do not foresee. Some of these changes may ultimately be for the good, as many expect of the Arab Spring. Other events, such as the current drought devastating the Horn of Africa, or possible meltdowns in Pakistan or Yemen, may be unmitigated disasters. Thriving in the decade of fragility will involve a nimbleness and ability to adapt that developed countries have not displayed during the past decade.

Looking specifically at the threat of terrorism, it is important to make counter-terrorism efforts more efficient – a characteristic that has not defined them in the ‘war on terror’ era. A decade ago, when the US was far richer, it structured its system of homeland security – from top to bottom – in an extremely expensive manner. This included the country’s hesitation to embrace a system of terrorist profiling: without some framework for assessing risk, security personnel were left trying to guard against a greater number of potential threats. (Profiling, it should be noted, does not mean looking out for ‘threatening’ ethnicities: the most promising aspect of risk allocation to date has been behavioural detection.)

But beyond guarding against terrorism more efficiently, strategy must play a more central role in the coming decade of fragility. The past decade of combatting jihadist groups has been characterized by the US’s poor strategic understanding of its foes, and hence by a strategy that has often played into Al Qaeda’s hands. The aforementioned inefficient systems of homeland defence and such follies as the invasion of Iraq have helped to advance Al Qaeda’s goals of driving up its adversary’s costs, and of broadening the battlefield on which its enemy has to fight.

The lack of attention paid by the US to Al Qaeda’s strategy during this period is evident from such documents as the National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism (NMSP-WOT), which is the most comprehensive plan detailing the US armed forces’ understanding of the fight against Al Qaeda. Understanding an adversary’s ends, ways and means is fundamental to military strategy. Tellingly, the NMSP-WOT outlines America’s ends, ways, and means in the conflict, but does not perform this same analysis for Al Qaeda. Likewise, neither the White House’s National Strategy for Combating Terrorism nor the 9/11 Commission Report performs an ends-ways-means analysis of the jihadist group. Vital strategic documents typically discuss Al Qaeda’s goal of re-establishing the caliphate and its tactic of terrorism, with an unresolved disconnect between the goal and the group’s methods. It appears that planners assumed that Al Qaeda did not think strategically – an unwarranted assumption. Even granting that it may be difficult for democratic powers to competently formulate strategy, the US and its allies cannot afford another decade of strategic blundering.

In this decade of fragility, bad things will happen. People will die, and even the US will lack the resources for prevention or robust response. Therefore, building up societal resilience is an important way to hedge against the damage that violent non-state actors can inflict. As the US’s Department of Homeland Security has defined it, resilience, which has both physical and psychological dimensions, is the “ability of systems, infrastructures, government, business, and citizenry to resist, absorb, and recover from, or adapt to an adverse occurrence that may cause harm, destruction, or loss of national significance.”

From an infrastructural perspective, it is important to identify the vulnerabilities that a society will have in five, 10 and 15 years’ time, in order to work on these from time zero. (Fifteen years ago, the cell phone and Internet were not seen as critical infrastructure.) As for psychological resilience, incorporating the public into emergency response processes can help to produce better national performance and outcomes in times of crisis – man-made and natural. An example is the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) model adopted in some areas of the US – such as Phoenix, Arizona – which teaches citizens how to prepare for a disaster, and how to serve as auxiliary responders when one occurs.

A final critical – if controversial – question that must be asked during the decade of fragility concerns the pace of change. At this time of writing, the NATO mission to Libya that deposed Muammar Gaddafi is generally seen as a success. (The historical reading of this mission – a strategically discretionary mission, to be sure – may yet determine otherwise.) Three different regimes have been toppled in North Africa this year alone. The question is whether having another regime fall – another new government in need of international assistance – is a good or bad thing. Indeed, there may be something to be said for letting an already challenging pace of change remain somewhat ‘manageable.’

Without question, the decade ahead will feature unprecedented challenges. These challenges do present opportunities. But the threat posed by violent non-state actors will probably deepen rather than recede, driven by the overarching trends that will make nation-states more fragile and already-fragile states dangerously so.


Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the author of Bin Laden’s Legacy (Wiley, 2011) and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

(Illustration: Christian Northeast)

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