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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Threat Versus Impact

Given the robust discussion of the relevance/irrelevance of al Qaeda Central, al Qaeda affiliates, the Islamic State, the Khorasan Group (if it is in fact anything but just plain old AQC), it's worth pointing out a fundamental tenet of terrorism, which one could be forgiven for having forgotten, given how much energy we spend fighting terrorism on the big stage. 

Terrorism is asymmetrical. Recruit five guys and their last week's paychecks, and you can make headlines for months. Recruit 20 guys and their life's savings, and you can make headlines for years. All it takes is some creativity, psychology and street smarts about how you approach your attack. Fortunately for us, terrorist groups and individual terrorist actors don't usually tend to apply all three at the same time to accomplish a task effectively.

But the real point is: There will be terrorist plots and successful terrorist attacks in the future, whether from al Qaeda, its affiliates, the Islamic State, the Ku Klux Klan, the Shining Path, or any of hundreds of other groups of various sizes, strengths and degrees of political relevance. We are going to endure terrorist attacks against the United States for the indefinite future, mostly on a small scale, occasionally on a larger scale. Most will fail, some will succeed. This is reality.

The fact that plots are underway or that some of them come to fruition is not the sole determinant of a group or movement's relevance or importance.

The question is what kind of plots and attacks are underway, whether they are realistically constructed, whether plots move from conception to operation, whether attacks succeed consistently, whether consistently successful attacks emanate from a common source, and what effect such attacks have on both broad national security issues and domestic politics in the countries against which they are directed.

The Khorasan Group shows that al Qaeda still has operatives and those operatives would like to do something bad. It doesn't fundamentally transform our understanding of the group or the threat it presents (unless you thought al Qaeda had literally zero resources left, in which case yeah, OK, you need to rethink things).

But the Khorasan Group is ultimately a couple dozen guys trying to do literally exactly the same thing AQAP has been trying to do for years. That's not nothing (I refer you to the second paragraph), and although they have little to show for it so far, that will likely eventually change. But this is not a sea change in the threat environment, nor it does not lend itself to an apples-to-apples comparison to what the Islamic State is currently doing and is likely to do in the future.

Threats require responses, but they are only part of the picture. The Boston Marathon bombing was the most successful terrorist attack on American soil in recent memory, but it hasn't changed much in terms of our approach to terrorism policy. The fact of the threat in that case is clear, its impact on the broader context of the war on terrorism less so.

I would argue the Islamic State's hostage beheading campaign qualifies as a much more impactful terrorist action, even though the group has not yet carried out violent action in the U.S. homeland. And keep in mind, I'm saying that as someone who lives about two miles from where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was eventually captured.

Our assessments and conversations about the direction of the global jihadist movement, including its terrorist and insurgent components, are part of a much larger conversation, one that involves trends stretching over months and years, battlefields and civilian theaters, and most importantly, policy and politics. 

Opinions expressed herein are those of J.M. Berger. Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam and pre-order the forthcoming book by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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