Paul Pillar

Unfounded Interpretations of This Week's Terrorist Threat

Lots of people have been been extracting and propounding lots of conclusions about terrorism and counterterrorism from the warnings and closures of diplomatic missions the past few days. That's probably inevitable; the story commands attention. It's not every day, or even every year, that several U.S. embassies get closed like this, perhaps for as much as a week. But the factual basis for most of the extracting and propounding is exceedingly thin. All that those of us outside the government have to go on are a few backgrounded or leaked morsels, as well as cautiously worded official statements and the public comments of members of Congress who have been briefed on the matter. The episode is another instance, which has been seen repeatedly before, of over-interpretation of terrorist incidents or other scattered data points having to do with international terrorism.

Let us review some of the principal ways in which commentary stimulated by this latest episode has gone way beyond the publicly available evidence.

The topic addressed most often in the commentary is the overall magnitude of the threat from international terrorism, or more specifically from whatever goes under the label al-Qaeda. One hears comments such as, “Didn't the president say just a couple of months ago that al-Qaeda is washed up? Then why are we seeing such a big deal threat now?” Actually, the president did not say anything like that, although he did make a very sensible speech explaining why we need to get away from a boundless “war on terror.” Regardless of what he or anyone else has offered in the way of an overall appraisal of the continuing threat from al-Qaeda or international terrorism generally, the news of the past few days provides barely any basis for appraising the appraisals. What we are seeing this week is a response to information that evidently was at least somewhat stronger than the stuff that government counterterrorist analysts routinely see every week, with respect to the likelihood and imminence of a planned terrorist attack. It is a tactical response to tactical information. This is very different from the strategic question of the overall threat that al-Qaeda or anyone else is posing these days. Plans for individual attacks come and go, but that does not mean that a correct strategic assessment of the threat gyrates up and down as they do. Nor does it gyrate up and down as intelligence services happen to succeed or not succeed in collecting information about individual terrorist plots. We simply do not have any significant new basis for saying that terrorism ought to rank higher among national security concerns this week than it should have last week, last month, or last year.

A related topic concerns the relationship between the core and the periphery in the radical Sunni conglomeration called al-Qaeda. Reportedly a key piece of information underlying the embassy closures was a message from Ayman al-Zawahiri to the head of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula “ordering” an attack. But what may look like an order, and what the person issuing it would prefer to sound like an order, may actually be more of an exhortation. In the current case there is good reason to believe it was more of an exhortation. What has been publicly revealed about the material captured at Abbottabad, Pakistan in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden demonstrated that during at least the last couple of years of bin Laden's life he was doing much exhorting but commanded little and thus wasn't in a position to order many people to do anything. Zawahiri is unlikely to have established command relationships that bin Laden did not have. The events of this week are not grounds for revising the judgment that the core al-Qaeda group is a shadow of its former self and that most of the initiative in the movement for terrorist operations is coming from associated groups on the periphery.

In the wake of controversy over NSA collection programs, another reaction we hear to the story this week is that if such terrorist communications are still being collected then there must not have been much damage from Edward Snowden's revelations. Saying that makes about as much sense as saying that the fact you did not get lung cancer this month means the advice you got last month to stop smoking was unsound. That something does not destroy everything does not mean it does not damage anything. In any event, no one in officialdom has given any indication that the particular NSA programs that are the subject of controversy had anything to do with information collected about the current threat.

Other commentary has focused on the theme that closing the embassies was an overreaction. Maybe it was, and indeed much of the story of America's reaction to terrorism, especially during the past twelve years, has been one of overreaction. But how can any of us not privy to the classified information, and therefore not in a position to compare an evaluated threat against the costs of the response, make that sort of judgment about the particular case at hand at the moment?

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