The Hatfields and McCoys of Counterterrorism

by Steven R. Corman

Yesterday’s New York Times reported on a feud between Bruce Hoffman and Marc Sageman about whether al Qaeda represents a continuing threat as an organized force, or whether it has degenerated into a disorganized social movement. At the root of it is Hoffman’s scathing review of Sageman’s latest book entitled Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-first Century. Sageman’s thesis is that al Qaeda’s days as an organized threat are largely behind it, and that today their main threat comes from scattered “bunches of guys” who become radicalized as part of a social movement.

In his review at Foreign Affairs, Hoffman says that while we should acknowledge threat posed by roll-your-own terrorist cells, it’s a mistake to assume al Qaeda’s operational days are over:

Al Qaeda is much like a shark, which must keep moving forward, no matter how slowly or incrementally, or die. Al Qaeda must constantly adapt and adjust to its enemies’ efforts to stymie its plans while simultaneously identifying new targets. The group’s capacity to survive is also a direct reflection of both its resilience and the continued resonance of its ideology.

In a tit to Hoffman’s tat, Sageman has just published his own Foreign Affairs essay in which he says “Hoffman portrays Leaderless Jihad as a simple-minded polemic and ignores the subtleties of its arguments.” He still sees the leadership as a threat that must be dealt with, but that the nature of the overall threat has evolved. He says that Hoffman’s position is

completely at odds with the evidence found in trial transcripts from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States, not to mention what I have heard from law enforcement agencies around the world during my extensive consultations with them.

Rumor has it that Hoffman is preparing a counter-tat. But whilst we await that, a I offer a few observations.

First, I have been hearing Sageman’s argument from people involved in counter-terrorism since 2005, so there is no denying that there is less worry about organized leadership and more worry about the social movement than was the case right after the 9/11 attacks. It seems that both experts agree that both threats exist, but they differ about which is number one versus number two. At least one other expert I know of is betting on Hoffman’s formulation.

Second, this argument seems to be part of a trend. Just the other day I wrote about a similar disagreement between Peter Bergen and Michael Scheuer on a related issue, whether islamist ideologues are turning against al Qaeda. If there is this much disagreement among knowledgeable people about the “true” state of affairs, it probably mirrors similar uncertainty among those formulating and pursuing anti-terrorism policy and hints that our intelligence on the state and activity of the leadership leaves a lot to be desired.

Third, this makes me worry about some nagging contradictions in what the government has been saying recently about this issue. Just a year ago, the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate said

Al-Qa’ida is and will remain the most serious terrorist threat to the Homeland, as its central leadership continues to plan high-impact plots, while pushing others in extremist Sunni communities to mimic its efforts and to supplement its capabilities. We assess the group has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability, including: a safe haven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), operational lieutenants, and its top leadership.

As Hoffman pointed out in his review, DNI McConnell just echoed this conclusion February 2008. Yet just a couple of weeks ago CIA Director Michael Hayden claimed significant progress against al Qaeda. According to the Washington Post, he

now portrays the terrorist movement as essentially defeated in Iraq and Saudi Arabia and on the defensive throughout much of the rest of the world, including in its presumed haven along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

In today’s Times , there is another story suggesting success against terrorist networks in Southeast Asia.

It’s pretty hard to reconcile the inconsistent pictures in these reports. I’m not sure what to make of them, but now that the Silly Season of Campaign 08 is fully upon us, I’ll be looking at any reports of sudden success in the war on terrorism with a very skeptical eye.

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