By Bilal Y. Saab
How do we assess the global terrorism threat in today’s world? One can make a case that the threat of spectacular, 9/11-like terrorism has decreased because several terrorist masterminds and senior operators including Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden have been killed or captured. But on the other hand, the threat of low-to-mid-intensity terrorism seems to be on the increase because Al Qaeda has re-emerged in hot spots in the Levant and Africa. Has the threat of WMD terrorism worsened over the years or remained the same? It is not clear either. To get a better picture of the severity and map of international terrorism in today’s world, I talk to terrorism specialist Dr. Bruce Hoffman, an old friend. Professor Hoffman is internationally recognized for his scholarship on terrorism and political violence. He is currently Director of the Center for Security Studies, Director of the Security Studies Program, and a tenured professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Washington, DC. Prof. Hoffman previously held the Corporate Chair in Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency at the RAND Corporation and was also Director of RAND’s Washington, D.C. Office. For more about Bruce’s impressive bio, I refer you to his Georgetown profile page. But if I could just highlight one more accomplishment of Bruce, it is his founding directorship of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV) at the University of St Andrews, a center and university dear to my heart. By the time I joined CSTPV in 2004 as Middle East editor and chief officer, Bruce had already left but his legacy endured. With Paul Wilkinson (God rest his soul), Bruce turned CSTPV into a first-rate institution that was internationally known for its terrorism research and scholarship. I find it hard to admit it, but without Bruce, Paul, and Magnus Ranstorp (another old friend), the CSTPV today, though still a very good center with a unique history, is no longer what it used to be.
1- Many scholars, analysts, and government officials have viewed the Al Qaeda threat to U.S. interests as waning after the killing and capture of several terrorist leaders including Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. How do you assess the threat today in light of the historic changes in the Middle East? Is it the same? Worse?
It is dynamic. What we have seen is the decline of Core al Qaeda, but the rise of al Qaeda-ism. In other words, even while Core al Qaeda has suffered since bin Laden’s killing, its ideology and brand have clearly prospered. Today, al Qaeda’s affiliates and associates are present in more places than al Qaeda was ten years ago. And, as the French intervention in Northern Mali has again shown: once al Qaeda entrenches itself, Western intervention is invariably required to remove it. In sum, the historic changes in the Middle East and North Africa of the past two years have created new opportunities for the spread of al Qaeda-ism and, potentially, the resurrection of the threat that al Qaeda poses. In this respect, no al Qaeda affiliate or associate has ever remained completely local: all have eventually become regional players and have internationalized in one respect or another—whether by recruiting Westerners (including Americans) into its ranks or aspiring to attack beyond its local and even regional confines.
2- State capacity, specifically in the domain of counterterrorism, has always been a problem in the Middle East and other under-developed regions around the world. As nonproliferation analysts, we are interested in studying the capacity of Middle Eastern states to implement various measures related to WMD counterproliferation, and particularly United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540, which calls for the prevention of the spread of WMD to non-state actors. Do you see progress in that area or have Middle Eastern states lagged even farther behind given the unrest in the region? What can the United States realistically do to bolster the capabilities of states in the region?
Iran’s continued development of a nuclear capability clearly shows the limits of international counterproliferation efforts in the region. As if that were not bad enough, the threat of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons stockpiles falling into the hands of both radical Sunni as well as Shi’a terrorists (mainly, respectively al Qaeda and Hezbollah) is fundamentally alarming.
3- With Syria burning and Al Qaeda elements actively involved in the fight, is the threat of the terrorist organization capturing chemical weapons and other WMD material overblown or very real? Is this the closest example we have in Al Qaeda’s history of the organization possibly acquiring WMD? What about any episodes of the jihadists’ history in Pakistan?
Yes, this is a real and extremely serious threat. Al Qaeda sees Syria generally and its unconventional weapons stockpiles in particular as offering the best chance for it to revive its waning fortunes and once again become as threatening and consequential as it appeared in the aftermath of the September 11th 2001 attacks. Indeed, I would argue that al Qaeda has pinned its faith and hopes to the demise of the Assad regime and, in turn, its acquisition of deadly weapons from that country’s vast unconventional weapons arsenal.
4- There seems to be some confusion in the media about the dangers of failed states versus weak states. Which ones are worse in your judgment as far as terrorism formation and which ones are more likely to produce long-term terrorist threats? Can you please give us a brief comparison of the two with some real examples?
A failed state is Somalia (or, more accurately, was Somalia). A weak state is Libya, for example, and a failing state is Syria. They all pose dangers of varying kinds and degrees. Failed states have neither the will nor the capacity to police their borders, maintain law and order internally, and fulfill even the most basic requirements of governance. They are generally incapable of receiving international assistance in support. Weak states may perhaps have the will, but not the capacity to discharge these same functions but are often amenable to international assistance and support. Failing states are the most dangerous categories because their only concern is holding onto power at whatever the cost. To survive they must by definition go rogue. Hopefully, as in Libya, the tide of history sweeps along the forces of revolution and reform, who can relatively quickly subdue the existing authorities and begin to establish a new order. Syria, with the external involvement of Iran and Hezbollah, and its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and vast conventional arsenal –on a scale that certainly eclipses Libya and likely surpasses Saddam’s Iraq–presents perhaps the ultimate nightmare scenario.
5- Overall and in your opinion, are we witnessing a resurgence of Al Qaeda in the Middle East and North Africa? It seems that every time we pronounce the organization dead it comes back with a vengeance. Is it more about its own capabilities or simply the result of the crisis conditions that have swept the Middle East since the Arab uprisings began? Or is it both?
Yes, we are witnessing a resurgence of the al Qaeda ideology and brand across the Middle East and North Africa. It is of course limited to a small number of fanatics but that in essence is the appeal of terrorism: you don’t need divisions or brigades to have an impact or arguably even to change the course of history. Rather, a handful of persons can fundamentally do so if they are sufficiently disciplined and able to perpetrate even only one or two dramatic, significant, jarring acts of violence. That is the age-old conceit of terrorists and their driving motivation. What concerns me is that the threat of terrorism seems to have increased rather than diminished in the Maghreb and Levant in particular over the past two years and appears to be growing elsewhere as well. It is nascent today–but far more serious and salient than it was even a year ago. I shudder to think to what extent it may have grown by next year.
Both in answer to the second question. Al Qaeda has always been as opportunistic as it is instrumental. That is, capable of taking advantage of whatever available opportunities for intervening in local conflicts and engaging in terrorism. Across the Middle East and North Africa the movement has demonstrated its ability repeatedly to seize and exploit opportunities either to re-entrench or establish itself in a variety of long-favored or new venues, to capitalize on the instability and uncertainty in the region’s countries, and create local toe-holds that it hopes to transform into regional foot-holds. Whether it will fail or be successful is the most pressing question today. How the US, the West, and regional governments react will determine the outcome.