RAND’s citation of increased al-Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tunisia, Algeria, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and the United Kingdom after 2001 as proof of growing strength is devalued by the curious fact that there have been no significant attacks against the United States homeland since 9/11. If al-Qaeda were indeed gaining capability over that period — which the increase in the number of attacks is intended to prove — then why should it expend most of its ferocity upon Muslim majority countries or European countries with large Muslim populations rather than upon its hated enemy, the United States? One alternative hypothesis to explain the same data is that al-Qaeda was fighting to maintain support among Muslims who were less confident of global victory after observing the American response; that the attacks on Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and the United Kingdom were attempts to keep their base in line even as it proved unable to strike at the American homeland.
There is other evidence to suggest that military action has had some political effect on al-Qaeda. Carl Ciovacco‘s study of the evolution of al-Qaeda’s policy toward attacking noncombatants describes how al-Qaeda went from punctilious observance of noncombatant immunity in 1991 to declaring American civilians as legitimate targets in 1997 during the period before the American military response. He notes the moment when Bin Laden declared it was licit to attack US civilians.
This phase begins in March, 1997, with a CNN interview of bin Laden in Afghanistan. In a dramatic change to bin Laden’s view of noncombatants, he hints that civilians may not be as shielded as they were in the past. …
By 1998 al Qaeda declared it was not only permissible for attack civilians, it was actually their holy duty.
Bin Laden moved from lukewarm approval of noncombatant immunity to overtly declaring that noncombatants were legitimate targets. On February 22, 1998, bin Laden released a signed statement on behalf of the World Islamic Front. … In this statement, bin Laden, and the rest of the alliance, not only sanctioned the killing of civilians, but also elevated it to level of a holy duty, or fatwa.
By June, 2002, before the invasion of Iraq, every vestige of restraint for taking civilian life was already gone. Suleiman Abu Ghaith, al Qaeda’s official spokesman, said in an essay on al Qaeda’s web site al Neda:
We have the right to kill four million Americans – two million of them children – and to exile twice as many and wound and cripple hundreds of thousands. Furthermore, it is our right to fight them with chemical and biological weapons, so as to afflict them with the fatal maladies that have afflicted the Muslims because of [Americans'] chemical and biological weapons. America knows only the language of force. America is kept at bay by blood alone.
Al Qaeda went to increasingly high levels of ferocity even when faced largely with a political and intelligence response. These developments took place before the invasion of Iraq. In fact, September 11 happened before the first military response to al-Qaeda had taken place. But amazingly it was al-Qaeda’s sad combat experience in Iraq that pushed them to reverse its policy towards unlimited attacks on civilians. Ciovacco, a former officer in Iraq who holds a Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School described the political effect of the contrast between US military operations and indiscriminate terrorist attacks on al-Qaeda’s image in the Muslim world.
there is considerable evidence that al-Qaeda’s attacks on noncombatants are having a deleterious effect on al-Qaeda’s support base both within the organization and the mainstream Muslim community. The number of ex-jihadists and formerly supportive Muslim clerics speaking out against al-Qaeda has increased in the last several years precisely because of its targeting of civilians. After al-Qaeda’s former chief in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, began targeting noncombatant Shia, support for al-Qaeda within the greater Muslim community dropped precipitously. Al-Qaeda’s increased suicide attacks on civilians within Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have also caused its supporters to leave in droves. In fact, a recent Terror Free Tomorrow poll in Pakistan shows that support for bin Laden has plummeted from 46% to 24% and backing for al-Qaeda has dropped from 33% to 18% in the past six months. In another survey from 2005, when suicide bombings against noncombatants first peaked, the number of Pakistanis believing that suicide bombing was justified dropped from 73% to 46%. …
In 2005, Zawahiri directed al-Qaeda in Iraq to stop killing Shia noncombatants because it was hurting al-Qaeda’s greater cause. Furthermore, a top al Qaeda strategist, Abu Yahya al-Libi, has written to al-Qaeda in Iraq telling them that its killing of “too many civilians” was undermining al-Qaeda’s global strategy.
Ciovacco cites the same attacks on Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that RAND does, but reaches another conclusion from the evidence. This paints a somewhat different picture from the portrait offered up by RAND. While it doesn’t discount the importance of intelligence and police work, these bits of evidence suggest that military action indeed has a legitimate role to play against terrorism. First, military and diplomatic action is required to neutralize state sponsors of terrorism, something which law enforcement cannot achieve. Second, military action is necessary to protect policemen and intelligence agents in lawless parts of the world, in failed states where terrorism is commonly to be found and where it would be too dangerous to venture otherwise. Finally, military action sends a signal which police work cannot equal. And this last may prove vital. If Samuel P. Huntington correctly predicted a long-term Clash of Civilizations the world may need more than cops and intel agents to deal with it. The RAND study has only looked at terror groups that existed since 1968. The Jihad has been in existence for more than a thousand years.
Maybe a more prudent announcement might be: Paging James Bond, Mr. District Attorney and Sergeant Rock. Please report for duty against Islamic terrorism. Even that may not be enough.