Super terrorism after Osama bin Laden

by Marko Beljac 

From the end of the cold war to the death of Osama bin Laden the prospect of acts of super or mass casualty terrorism, by means of weapons of mass destruction, has been one of the most salient global security issues.

The death of the founding emir of al Qaeda serves as a useful reference point to review just how significant this prospect really was. Much could be said in any such analysis, but surely a discussion of the terrorists own ideology and grand strategy would figure highly.

The interesting thing here is that the existing literature on the topic is dominated by works coming from the arms control and non-proliferation community. Unsurprisingly this literature focuses on the analytical strength of non-proliferation studies, namely nuclear and biological security. What it does not focus on is the terrorists themselves.

Most of the discussion on this score in the existing literature thereby has a tendency to be rather bland and, at worst, hyperbolic. For example, it is often stated that terrorists with "global reach" are predisposed to super terrorism but there exists no discernible logical correlation between the geographical scope of a group's terrorist activities and the scope of violence employed by that group.

To be sure it might be possible to argue that terrorists with "global reach" are more capable of super terrorism than geographically circumscribed groups, but even here there is no real correlation why this must be so in reason and, plainly, this observation should not be used, in slippery slope like fashion, to conflate capability with intent.

The overriding reason why the terrorists have been neglected is that intention has been, for the most part, simply assumed. Doing so enables analysts to quickly move on to discuss plutonium disposition strategies, neutron cross sections and the like. These are the bread and butter issues of non-proliferation studies, all of which are critical and quite interesting.

It is rare, nonetheless, to come across a study in the genre that seeks to closely grapple with the question of intent.

Thankfully, the terrorists have been studied thoroughly within political science and this for the most part, within our context, with respect to nuclear terrorism. It is possible to discern three waves of anxiety about nuclear terrorism during the nuclear age.

Those being during the McCarthy era in the 1950s, concerns about the implication of an expansion in the use of nuclear power in the 1970s and the supposed advent of a new terrorist age in the 1990s, a wave that has especially achieved prominence since the September 11 attacks.

We still very much find ourselves situated within the third wave. The 9/11 attacks did not usher in the third wave, although they did have the effect of elevating the level of concern and entrenched a new consensus in the political study of terrorism.

The main analytical virtue of the second wave of concern about nuclear terrorism is that as the debate on the topic progressed the terrorists themselves, especially their most basic drives and motives, became the focus of discussion. That is not how matters began, however.

Initially the concern revolved around implications that a perceived imminent wide scale expansion in the use of nuclear energy would have for nuclear security. It was the repercussions that a widespread expansion in the reprocessing and recycling of plutonium would have for nuclear security that exercised the imagination. It was feared that a "plutonium economy" would eventuate where large stocks of weapons-usable plutonium would accumulate and be transported globally. Given the operative assumption that nuclear weapons are relatively easy to design and construct, and that safeguards and physical protection measures were weak, it did not take much of a leap to conclude that the prospect of nuclear terrorism was very real should nuclear materials proliferate.

A high panel 1977 study developed for the Office of Technology Assessment of the US Congress asserted that,

"The historical record shows that in no single incident in the past 50 years have terrorists killed more than 150 people, and incidents involving more than 20 deaths are rare. This is not because of lack of capability. Terrorist groups could have acquired the means to kill many more people than they have, even by using only conventional explosives."

The dichotomy between what terrorists were capable of and what they had actually wrought was seized upon by those less exercised by the prospect of nuclear terrorism. Brian Jenkins, a leading terrorism analyst from the RAND Corporation, was the standard bearer for those who based their position on nuclear terrorism with reference to this gap. As he observed in 1975 the dichotomy between capability and outcome can be readily explained for "terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead." Nuclear terrorism is highly unlikely because "drawing attention to themselves and their causes, creating alarm, and thereby gaining some political leverage – which have been typical objectives of terrorists – may be achieved by undertaking relatively unsophisticated actions."

Rational terrorist groups animated by political objectives are able to achieve their operational objectives, not to be confused with ideological or strategic objectives, either in whole or in part, at low levels of violence. Ratcheting up the level of violence would be counter-productive for that is the road to isolation and ruin.

For politically motivated terrorists the very nature of their objectives, in being political, creates a certain band or spectrum of tolerable violence. Such groups can only go "thus far and no further" without jeopardising their raison d etre. For terrorists there exists an "event horizon" beyond which there can be no turning back. Because most, if not all, terrorist groups that had arisen after 1968 were political we should no more expect an act of mass destruction from the terrorist than we should from the corporation, even though many of the latter are quite capable of developing a nuclear weapon.

How did the third, current wave, of concern about nuclear terrorism arise? To be sure concerns about nuclear security played an important role in the rise of the third wave. The interesting feature of the third wave is the discernment of an evolution in the character and scope of terrorism itself.

It is quite clear that the consensus position that emerged during the second wave does not sit well with the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but nor does it sit well with terrorist attacks, such as the Oklahoma City bombing, the Aum Shinrikyo Tokyo nerve gas attack and al-Qaeda attacks in Kenya and Tanzania, that had, or potentially could have, inflicted hundreds of casualties.

For advocates of "super" or "catastrophic" terrorism the trends in terrorist violence prior to 9/11 demonstrated that the observation made by Jenkins in the 1970s during the first wave, which had become orthodoxy amongst political analysts of terrorism, no longer applied. As Walter Laquer put it, "there has been a radical transformation, if not a revolution, in the character of terrorism, a fact we are all still reluctant to accept." After 9/11 that reluctance all but disappeared.

For Bruce Hoffman, the most sophisticated political analyst of terrorism that subscribes to the new wave school, it is the sacramental aspect to religious based terrorism that makes it conducive to large scale violent acts. Because the practitioners of religious terrorism see their activities as reflecting a "divine duty" the modes of legitimisation or justification differ from that of the secular, more political, terrorist.

Religious terrorists assume "a transcendental dimension" which leads to their violence being directed towards the elimination of "broadly defined categories of enemy." Given this, it is easy to imagine that terrorists motivated by a divinely inspired duty might contemplate large scale acts of violence for the target itself is not a central political authority, an occupying military or police and the like but an entire category of people.

Such transcendental terrorists appeal to no constituency and they do not seek to influence the constituency of the enemy, in the manner that political terrorists do. For such terrorists the gravitational force that limits the violence of traditional terrorism does not apply.

It is often argued that the evolution in the ideological conception of jihad fits this pattern. The salafi jihadi movement, not to be confused with the salafi movement more broadly, had initially seen jihad has been focused on the secular or otherwise apostate regimes of the Arab world. Osama bin Laden, in contrast with widespread popular conception, did not arise from that Islamist current. Bin Laden was a devotee of Abdullah Azzam, killed by a car bomb attack in 1989, who sought to shift the jihadi emphasis back on defence of Muslim territory from external aggression.

Jihadi thinkers such as Abu Musab al Suri had characterised the 1991 Gulf War as an "earthquake" that shook the jihadi movement. It is not hard to see how the US-Saudi alliance could be construed by someone like bin Laden, with the emphasis on territory derived from the example of Azzam, as a casus belli against both the United States and the now apostate Saudi regime. In Osama bin Laden's construal of jihad, crucially, any American anywhere, both civilian and military, was a legitimate target.

This most expansive conception of legitimate jihadi action does fit the super terrorism narrative.

What is interesting, however, is to observe what has happened to al Qaeda.

The 9/11 attacks had horrified and disgusted the Islamic world as much as it did the rest of the world. Overwhelmingly Muslims rejected bin Laden's jihad and the spike in terrorist violence following 9/11 can be attributed to the invasion and occupation of Iraq rather than an intrinsic attraction toward al Qaeda ideology and strategy. Within Iraq itself the shocking level of violence directed toward Shia Muslims by al Qaeda further alienated whatever reserve of support bin Laden was able to gather following the invasion.

As political revolutions and uprisings, motivated by social and economic grievances, sweep the Arab world it is interesting to see that al Qaeda observes events from afar both impotent and obsolete. US action has severely degraded al Qaeda, to be sure, but such action has had devastating effect because al Qaeda became isolated from the ummah and failed in its objective of using anti American grievances to develop a social movement. In military parlance al Qaeda was cut off from its supply lines and so was ripe for encirclement.

Let us assume for the moment that the approach adopted by Hoffman and others is correct. We should see that even if accurate the events of the past twenty odd years actually reinforce rather than disprove the Jenkins thesis.

Following the Oklahoma bombing there was a discernible drop in support for extremist right wing identity politics in America, now being repeated in Europe post the Oslo killings, Aum Shinrikyo is no longer what it was, and al Qaeda has surely failed.

A key reason for failure in all three cases was that the terrorists were too violent for their own good. They had overstepped the bounds of violence that Jenkins had identified and have accordingly suffered the consequences.

At a minimum, thereby, we can state the following. Even if some of the arguments that appear in the super terrorism literature are correct, nonetheless the trajectory of terrorist groups that moved beyond the terrorist event horizon demonstrates that there does exist very powerful political forces that limit the scope of terrorist violence for all types of terrorist; to move beyond the boundary is to be isolated and crushed.

As such super terrorism did not, and cannot ever become, a new norm.

This conclusion is one of the more important intellectual findings of political science in the last 40 years.

Marko Beljac has been awarded a PhD at Monash University and he has taught at the University of Melbourne. He is interested in the interface between science and global security and currently is writing a book on nuclear terrorism. He maintains the blog Science and Global Security and is co-author of An Illusion of Protection: The Unavoidable Limitations of Safeguards on Nuclear Materials and the Export of Australian Uranium to China.

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