Center for Strategic Communication

My friend Ryan Evans’ excellent review of Fawaz Gerges’ new book, The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda got me thinking about conspiracy theorism and its relationship to Al Qaeda’s fortunes.

Ryan takes issue with Gerges’ contention that Al Qaeda never really had a “viable social constituency.” I am most decidedly with Ryan on this one, but I disagree with one of the points he made in arguing his case. Ryan argues that the fact that a majority in the Muslim world do not believe that Arabs conducted the 9/11 attacks suggests the existence of a constituency that Al Qaeda could appeal to.

I think that this conspiracy theorism proves just the opposite. Rather, I think it shows the existence of an enormous pool of apathy in the Arab world. Consider this. Al Qaeda intended 9/11 to be, among other things an inspiring event that would make Muslims around the world believe that they could strike a blow against the United States. How likely is a Muslim to be inspired to act by an event that he thinks was orchestrated by the Mossad or the CIA or George W. Bush? Instead, I think that the 75% of Egyptians, the 57% of Pakistanis, etc., who believe such conspiracy theories are lost to Al Qaeda. They are the equivalent of the Americans who sit on their couches and shout at the television but never both to vote. They may hold strong views, but they are politically irrelevant and they are never going to kill anybody.

I think Al Qaeda knows this. AQAP’s Inspire magazine recently complained about such conspiracy theories and, if memory serves, Bin Laden and Zawahiri have both gone on record to similar effect, as well.

This connects, I believe, with the burning question of the application of deterrence theory to religiously-inspired terrorists. Traditional deterrence as people like yours truly came to know and love it during the Cold War was “deterrence by punishment.” This involved threatening to kick the bejeezus out of anybody who screwed with us. Deterrence by punishment doesn’t work so well with an enemy like Al Qaeda which wants the United States to respond militarily and the members of which want nothing more than martyrdom. This has led to discussions of “deterrence by denial.” The idea here is that one might be able to deter undesirable actions if one can deny the benefits of those actions to the actor. Typically this leads to recommendations for increased counterterrorism efforts and increased resilience against terrorist attacks. However, it may be that the Muslim population is a strong deterrent by denial to Al Qaeda, as well. If the population can’t be inspired by violence, what’s the point in trying?