Judging from recent headlines, things are going pretty well in the
war on terrorism. In his State of the Union address, President Bush
declared, "We have the terrorists on the run. We're keeping them on
the run. One by one, the terrorists are learning the meaning of
American justice." Several months later, Attorney General John
Ashcroft unabashedly claimed, "We are winning the war on terrorism."
Praise is also flowing from outside the government. Writing in the
Washington Post, David Ignatius portrays an Al-Qaeda that is
intimidated, divided, demoralized and reduced in both capacity and
morale. Apparently, even the long-term looks bright. Max Boot
contends that "the prospect of spending the rest of their lives in
Guantanamo Bay may even dissuade some of the more faint-hearted
Islamists from taking up arms." Highlighting this progress was the
March arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohamed--the latest, and perhaps most
devastating, of a series of deaths, detentions and disruptions that
Al-Qaeda has suffered.
A closer look, however, leaves room for skepticism, or at least
caution. The United States has made considerable--even
surprising--progress in defeating a skilled and vast enemy.
Nevertheless, the job is far from complete. The May 2003 terrorist
attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco provide painful proof that
Al-Qaeda remains a lethal threat. More importantly, Al-Qaeda and the
ideology it promulgates remain strong, and the Middle East in
particular will remain fertile ground for anti-U.S. radicalism for
many years to come. As a result, for years and perhaps decades
Americans must live with the risk of large-scale terrorist violence.
The Perils of Measuring Success
Successful counter-terrorism is notoriously difficult to measure.
Unlike a conventional military campaign, there is no enemy capital to
capture or industrial base to destroy. Even a divided and demoralized
terrorist organization still has the capability to lash out and kill
To gauge success, it is tempting to rely on a "body count" approach.
In their public statements to Congress on February 11, 2003, FBI
Director Robert Mueller III, CIA Director George Tenet and other
senior officials emphasized the number of arrests and disruptions.
Mueller testified that "We have charged over 200 suspected terrorists
with crimes", while Tenet noted that "more than one-third of the top
Al-Qaeda leadership identified before the war has been captured or
killed." President Bush himself reportedly keeps a "scorecard" that
notes which Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders are dead or in custody.
A body count approach is appealing because it provides a concrete
measure of success and failure. Yet this approach is deeply
flawed--and it is not, by the way, something new in the annals of
American thinking. A body count can be misleading because the size of
the terrorist cadre is often unknown, and many of those killed or
captured are low-level recruits who can easily be replaced. More
importantly, it fails to reflect the impact on the adversary's
morale, recruitment, fundraising, and residual ability to conduct
Serious data problems, however, put a more comprehensive and
sophisticated approach to measuring success nearly beyond reach. It
is difficult to gauge precisely the morale or skill of Western
military forces, let alone those of shadowy terrorist organizations.
Most of Al-Qaeda's money comes from private sources--and some of the
donors do not know that they are supporting terrorism, believing that
their contributions are for charity. Even recruitment is difficult to
measure. There is no easy way to determine the size of Al-Qaeda, the
number and scale of its affiliates and proxies; or who its donors,
active supporters and potential sympathizers are. Local governments
often do not know, deliberately conceal, or may at times exaggerate
the Al-Qaeda presence in their countries.
Despite these limits, it is still better to struggle with less
precise categories and poor data than to rely exclusively on a body
count approach to the problem. Five genuinemeasures of success stand
One concerns the freedom terrorists have to operate. If terrorists
have secure areas in which they can organize and plan with little
fear, they can wait to strike at their pleasure. Counter-terrorism
officials can at best stop an individual operation, but they will not
be able to shut down the network as a whole. Curtailing terrorists'
freedom of operation requires both ending obvious havens and working
with allies to prevent terrorist activity in their countries (as
well, of course, as in our own).
Second, a high level of domestic support for counter-terrorism is
also vital. The fight against Al-Qaeda and similar radicals may last
a generation. The American people must sign on for the long haul to
pay for intelligence budgets and security assistance to allied
regimes. They must themselves also contribute to fighting terrorism.
In Israel, local police, bus drivers and other ordinary citizens are
often the first to notice suspicious activity, helping to prevent
numerous attacks or minimize their lethality. This fight is not
restricted to soldiers and government officials.
The third measure consists of taking stock of the status of an
adversary's leadership and command structure. Some terrorist groups
have quickly folded when their top command was compromised: the
Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey and the Sendero Luminoso in
Peru both essentially collapsed when their leaders were captured.
Groups such as Al-Qaeda, however, have a much deeper and more diffuse
leadership structure that reaches far beyond even a charismatic and
skilled leader like Osama bin Laden. Like Hizballah, which has lost
numerous leaders to Israeli attacks and infighting in Lebanon,
Al-Qaeda's bench is deep.
This is why, for a group like Al-Qaeda, disrupting recruitment is a
vital fourth measure of success. It is not enough to stop the current
group of terrorists if they will simply be replaced by another
generation of eager and skilled recruits. It is even plausible that
if Al-Qaeda itself is destroyed as an organization, similar groups
will rise in its place. Leftist groups in Europe collapsed not only
because of good police and intelligence work, but also because
Marxism in general became discredited, reducing the allure of that
particular sort of radical ideology. It is essential to win the
hearts and minds of would-be radicals to the point that they do not
support or join the cause. But if hearts and minds cannot be won,
deterrence is essential: both radicals and their would-be followers
must be convinced that the costs of warring against the United States
and its allies are too high.
The fifth measure of success--the one that matters most to U.S.
citizens--is whether a terrorist adversary is committing attacks.
Indeed, this measure not only reflects the overall threat the group
poses, but also the group's very viability. To continue to attract
recruits and raise money, terrorist organizations (like political
causes of all types) need to demonstrate that they are active and
relevant. If an organization goes too long without any action,
potential supporters will look to others to carry the banner--or will
go looking for something else to do with their lives. Yet all attacks
are not equal. A group capable of orchestrating simultaneous
hijackings is far more menacing than one that is only able to shoot a
tourist or a missionary. With these five measures in mind, let us
review how well we are really doing in the war on terror.
Less Freedom to Operate
With regard to the first measure of success--Al-Qaeda's freedom to
operate--the first six months after September 11 witnessed several
major U.S. victories. Most obviously, the United States and its
Afghan allies ended Al-Qaeda's sanctuary in Afghanistan. Although it
appears that Osama bin Laden sought to draw the United States into a
debilitating and bloody conflict there, the United States and its
Afghan allies quickly routed the Taliban with few losses and killed
or dispersed much of Al-Qaeda's cadres.
Some skeptics contend that such dispersal has little impact, since in
the information age Al-Qaeda can still use computers and cell phones
to plan and organize attacks from anywhere in the world. This misses
the point. Afghanistan was a haven for training and recruitment as
well as for planning. Al-Qaeda and its supporters sent thousands of
radicals to Afghanistan, allowing the group to choose the most
skilled and dedicated to help with operations. In addition, in
Afghanistan Al-Qaeda members enjoyed relative immunity from attack,
reducing the stress inherent in the life of a radical revolutionary.
In short, the United States and its allies now have the initiative.
Before the fall of the Taliban, a senior Al-Qaeda planner or
organizer could quickly flee to Afghanistan whenever the heat grew
unbearable. Eight senior Al-Qaeda members charged with plotting the
1998 embassy bombings in Africa (including bin Laden) were believed
to be in Afghanistan, outside the reach of justice. Similarly,
Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader 'Ayman Zawahiri went to Afghanistan to
avoid arrest and detention in Egypt. The Congressional September 11
Inquiry quoted one counter-terrorism official as stating that
Al-Qaeda's haven in Afghanistan gave it the initiative and prevented
the intelligence community from doing more than reacting to its
constant plots. In this official's eyes, the United States was
"trying to chop down a tree by picking the fruit." Now Al-Qaeda
members must be constantly on the run, unable to relax or to vet new
recruits with the same thoroughness.