What Really Worries Me About the Terrorists

Monday, August 14, 2006

I was reflecting over the weekend on Kung Fu Monkey's fantastic piece about the well-timed and wonderfully-executed nab of the 23 or so terrorists in Britain and Pakistan last Friday. There was one part of his blog that really struck me:

The fact that these wingnuts could have been rolled up, at will, at any time, seems to have competely escaped the media buzz.

This is terrorism's A-game? Sack up, people.
Actually, I think this is a small part of the terrorists A-game, and this is what worries me the most.

To begin: I am unaware of any comprehensive study of the economic "cost" each time we either foil or succumb to a terrorist plot. For example, what did last Friday cost America and the U.K. in terms of cancelled and delayed flights, business transactions thusly cancelled or delayed, extra dollars put towards increased human and mechanical resources at airports, and the like? And more importantly, what are the long-term costs and how long-term are they. As KFM points out, there is no measurable winning-point. Given that, how do we determine the economic cost of fewer air travellers (due either to fear or the increased hassle of flying), less flights, resultant layoffs, etc.

I am absolutely not saying that we are not responding properly. I don't really care if I have to keep taking my shoes off in security lines (which in and of itself presents a significant biological threat to those down-wind) or if I have to pack my shampoo instead of carry it on. No big deal. This question...my real worry...isn't about that.

Back to the quote from KFM above, and my thought process: This is the terrorists A-game? Sort of. I think the real war here is an economic war, not a war of attrition. If the terrorists do happen to take out a few hundred or a few thousand Brits or Yankees, I am sure that suits them just fine. But their real victory comes in the exploitation of our greatest strength, which in this case is our flexible and fluid economy.

By way of example, for as much of an amoral book as it is, it has good points, consider: the 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. One of Robert Greene's laws is to attack your opponent's strengths. Nothing new to anyone who has read Sun Tzu or Karl Von Clausewitz. But on his blog today, he talked about Karl Rove's use of that particular law in the defeat of John Kerry. Nobody attacks someone's military service, least of all the Bush camp, who really didn't have a leg to stand on. It was a great strength of Kerry. But attack it they did...and how'd that election turn out?

So how are the terrorist going to beat such a foe as the U.S.? They certainly can't take it to us in a Western-style war. Eventually, given the fluidity of our military, even the insurgency in Iraq will be hard-pressed to keep going (once we stop treating them as a Western Heirarchical leadership framework - kill the head and the rest dies - which isn't working so well). Coming over here to kill our citizens adds fuel to our fire and really makes Hulk maaaaaaaad. But they can - and will - hamstring our economy.

This is why I want to see if there is a good study out there, not just some dreamt-up figures from the ABC News Senior Economic Correspondent, but a real, bona-fide study from a whole ton of nerds in a nerdery somewhere, on the real and estimated future impact of our responses to terrorist threats. This is because I think we have to start looking at our enemy as fighting our economy, and when we spend billions in a single day in response and lose billions over a short period of time from the business and government impact of our response (and the long-term ramifications that fear produces), I have to think that we are being nickled-and-dimed to death.

So 9/11 and last Friay's broken-up plot are not an end. They are means to an end. It wouldn't matter to the Al Queda leadership if either of those attacks were or were not successful. What matters is the damage to our "way of life" those attacks and attempts mean, where "way of life" means our ability to move our economy forward, rather than have it crumble to the point of wheelbarrows full of cash to pay for loaves of bread or day-long waits for basic amenities. Case in point: a knuckle-brained dimwit with an IQ of about 6 1/2 made us take our shoes off at airports and cost the travel industry probably millions over the course of a few weeks. So imagine hundreds of these attempts every year, but don't imagine them in terms of success = explosion. Think of them as success = a major dip in the stock market, a few thousand layoffs and a .1% increase in unemployment.

I think that if our security planners understand these attacks for what they actually are, it will allow us to devise and execute a strategy to counter the attacks and turn the tables, rather than spend upwards of 70 years (which is the time NBC Nightly News said last night it would take to put state-of-the-art bomb sniffers in all major U.S. airports) simply reacting to the attempts and attacks.

It is a very different form of warfare when your opponent sees killing you as a possible byproduct of their attack, but not its true intent. But if we understood how an attempt or an attack impacts our economy, how do we armor ourselves against that kind of outcome? While we respond with the obvious - fight - are we missing the real attack? I am afraid we are. So indeed, KFM, this is the terrorists' A-game. It's just not what we thought.


Thrillhous 5:41 PM  

Very interesting angle. Definitely alot to think about.

I definitely agree that the terrorist attacks do hurt us economically, and I'd like to see an analysis of the dangers as well. However, I don't know if Osama and co. are intentionally targetting our economy. I think the economic effects of terrorism are just a "bonus" side effect of what the terrorists are trying to do.

It seems like the gov't and the pundits really don't think the terrorists have planning meetings and stuff. It's all "they hate freedom, they'll do anything to stop democracy." But they're not all foaming-at-the-mouth zealots. Some of them sit around and make sophisticated plans.

It ain't no state secret that you could very easily cost us a whole lot of money without much organization or even risk. The last five summers have seen terrible wildfires out west, hundreds of millions in damage. Terrorists could easily have lit more fires, lit up whole western states almost, but it didn't happen.

The sniper we had in DC has been reckoned to have cost gov't agencies and businesses hundreds of millions of dollars, and that was just a man and a boy in an old car. Yet terrorists haven't copied it.

Either it's much harder to pull off terrorist acts than we think, or else the terrorists aren't (yet) targeting us on a widespread basis. Maybe they're just sticking to spectacular, symbolic attacks?

Smitty 7:50 PM  

Very true. I had considered them to be a sophisticated foe, as you point out, and indeed the weakness in my theory is that they could easily light a fire, shoot a dude at random or spread a nasty computer virus into our banking system. But they don't.

So it must be a melding of the two. I do believe that our economy is indeed our target, but they pick really only the most symbolic targets, vying essentially for a two-fer every time. A forest fire is a forest fire. But 23 jets is a much bigger deal, and the psychological impact hurts our economy even more than they psychological impact of a forest fire, for which, as a guy in a state completely surrounded by shitloads of water, has less meaning for me. But I do fly.

The undermining of our economy, and the ruin that comes with it, is the most effective way to subjugate a nation. Look at Lebanon: the only people giving basic infrastructural items to the people of South Lebanon (water, food, medicine, security) was Hezbollah. Palestine is the shining example of how a terrorist organization can take over and rule because it becomes the only source of government and ammenities there is. They're trying in Iraq.

So..granted, in America, that'd take a looooooooooong time. And we still may not be completely subjugated...we're not exactly the type (well...). But we would cease to be any threat to the areas they do wish to become a part of their caliphate.

Just a thought.

Bob 10:08 AM  

The media glosses over what could have been the biggest target of terrorist, one that impacts both lives and our economics.

I think Osama wanted to influence our political system as much as any other target. And he succeeded.

There is little doubt that Bush's reelection helps Osama's recruitment efforts and helps to align the reputation of the United States with what fundamentalists having been calling us for generations. By pushing us into a war against brown people, Osama wins the hearts and minds of Middle Easterners. By us spending tons of money on it, Osama wins the economic war. Furthermore, by Bush trying to keep us scared instead of standing up and being a leader by saying, oh something like "…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" makes Bush an accomplice in terrorism.

Smitty 10:32 AM  

He was also successful, in terms of influencing our political system, in pushing us farther towards own own Islam-hostile theocracy of sorts, which helps play into his endgame.

I don't necessarily begrudge a military response, but again, I think this is a wholly different kind of war we're looking at, with way different rules than either the Cold War or standard western-style warfare are fit to handle.

Besides for being an economic war (which is tough for us to win, because we have no other economy to break, like we had Russia's, other than "no" economy), it is an ideological war that does not require us to be "opposite." At our best, we assimilate it, and we do so by attacking its ideological strengths with our own ideological strengths, not our big huge guns (which are big and huge and terrifically fun, actually).

Thrillhous 11:49 AM  

Great point about Lebanon and Hezbolla's basically running the economy in s. lebanon. Now that you put it that way, Hamas has been playing a similar role in Palestinian territories, with lots of the funding coming from Iran.

The two-fer does make sense to me, though. The whole point of terrorism is to terrorize, and something spectacular is going to do that a lot better than something mundane (though punishing).

And like Bob says, the media has opted for the overly simple "they want to kill us because they are evil" gov't line instead of the real issue: our gov't has been trained by Osama like Pavlov trained his dogs, conditioning both the gov't and the press to respond in predictable ways, ways that help terrorists way more than they help us.

Thrillhous 11:54 AM  

I don't necessarily begrudge a military response, but again, I think this is a wholly different kind of war we're looking at, with way different rules than either the Cold War or standard western-style warfare are fit to handle.

I whole-heartedly agree. The military option has to be in play, but the whole point of asymmetric warfare, and the whole reason terrorists use it, is it's so hard for a military force to combat. As we've seen in recent days with the London airplane thing, the "police work" that the Bushies so derided in the '04 election is far more effective in operational terms.

I also agree w/ your assessment of assimilation as a "tactic" to use against extremists. It was the modus operandi of the Roman empire for hundreds of years (not that we need to replicate their empire; it did fall of it's own hubris, after all)

B Mac 11:57 AM  

I think our leaders make a mistake when they confuse 'why they hate us' with 'what they plan to do to us'. It's easy to look at people who just "hate democracy and hate us for our freedom," and to draw from that idea that we're facing a bunch of raging, flailing idiots hell-bent on breaking the first thing they see.

Like Thrillhous was saying, I'm guessing al-Qaeda has had a couple of strategy sessions here and there. After all, when they get together for the Annual Terrorist Convention, the "Why We Hate the Infidels" session can't last the entire time. At some point, they have to separate into brainstorming groups to discuss what to do to said infidels.

My guess (and its only a guess, as I wasn't invited to the Conference this year) is that, like 9/11, this attack was designed to do two things: it serves as a powerful symbolic attack (frighten the West, demonstrate power, recruit more terrorists), but it also puts tremendous pressure on the American economy. Specifically, it targets a weak and vulnerable segment of the economy; the airline industry. Even in failure, it will certainly decrease passenger volume, much like 9/11.

Smitty 3:09 PM  

I think our leaders make a mistake when they confuse 'why they hate us' with 'what they plan to do to us'. It's easy to look at people who just "hate democracy and hate us for our freedom," and to draw from that idea that we're facing a bunch of raging, flailing idiots hell-bent on breaking the first thing they see.

Absolutely. It's a huge mistake to minimize your enemy. It works in political campaigns, and is the most common tactic therein; my opponent is a flailing fuck. But a tried and true lesson we learned in the Marines...or anyone in the armed services for that matter...is that you never ever ever underestimate your enemy, because then you stop trying. You assume they're chumps, and you treat them like chumps. And when that happens, 23 dudes get on jets with inflammable explosives.

Bob 2:42 PM  

OK. I posted. Couple items even. Bite me.

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