Thursday, May 10, 2007

Jihadis -- Professional and Amateur

No sooner had the FBI thwarted a terrorist plot by six Muslims in New Jersey to attack Fort Dix, then commentators of all persuasions began taking the opportunity to advance their various agendas. I might was well weigh in with my own unoriginal thought. The lesson I would take from this episode is that most jihadis are not all that bright or competent. How stupid can jihadis be? Well, these ones came to the attention of the authorities when they asked a local photo shop to put one of their terrorist videotapes onto DVD! The terrorists who planted a in the World Trade Center parking garage in 1993 were caught when they went back to reclaim a deposit on the rental truck.

I highly recommend the linked Christopher Dickey column that expands on this idea. Dickey argues, in effect, that terrorists may generally be divided into the amateurs and the professionals. The amateurs are the local recruits, angry, alienated and violent, but no smarter or more skilled than ordinary criminals. The professionals are graduates of terrorist training camps, smart, skilled, and deadly. The 1993 attack on the World Trade Center is a good illustration. The pros built the bomb, a job that called for skill. The amateurs planted it, a job that did not. (Although a little common sense might have been useful). Amateurs can graduate into professionals, but the time and expense of recruiting the most promising local talent, smuggling them into distant training camps, giving them a full terrorist training, and them smuggling them back home again ensures that the professionals will always be a small portion of the total.

Making this distinction offers some important insights into dealing with terrorism. One is that it makes a difference whether a terrorist attack is purely a local endeavor or whether the terrorists in question have ties to Al-Qaeda or have visited other training camps. It is the difference between bumbling amateurs and the truly deadly. Another insight is that from a terrorist planner's perspective amateurs are a whole lot more expendible than professionals. It is better to keep the few pros who know how to make powerful bombs out of harm's way and let local recruits be the ones to blow themselves up. This means not only that the amateurs are far less dangerous without professionals to guide them, it also means professionals will become less effective without local recruits to do their grunt work. (There are exceptions. September 11 called for the suicide of four members skilled enough to fly planes, and required all suicide participants to be sophisticated enough to blend inconspicuously into US society. But Al-Qaeda will end up harming itself if it has too many of its top talent kill themselves).

Finally, it offers the answer to the whole question of war versus law enforcement. The War on Terror has always been an uncomfortable fit because it deals with something that is more than crime but less than war. I would say, use the war paradigm in dealing with the training camps that make the pros. Use military force to take out the training camps, and jihad central will lose its ability to train professionals capable of waging war on us. Law enforcement is quite sufficient to handle the amateurs.

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