Critical success factors for terrorism

Over the last four years an enormous amount has been written about the attacks on September 11, 2001 and terrorism generally. The 9/11 Commission in their report concentrated on recounting the actual events, evaluating post-occurrence government performance, and making suggestions for improving that performance.

Other commenters have focussed on the root causes, the most basic reasons for the attack which, if eliminated, would prevent recurrence. The most commonly mentioned of these root causes is poverty but there’s precious little evidence for the claim. The counter-arguments for the claim seem pretty compelling to me: the terrorists themselves do not appear to be the desperately poor but, rather, the elite. I think the most compelling counter-argument is that more poverty does not produce more terrorism: if it were so we’d be seeing much more Chinese-on-Chinese terrorism or Hindu-on-Hindu terrorism since China and India both have enormous numbers of desperately poor people.

Others have argued that Islam is a root cause of terrorism and here, I’m afraid, the case is a better one. The counter-arguments are quite similar to the arguments against poverty as a root cause: not all poor people are terrorists and neither are all Muslims. Additionally, some terrorists are not Muslims. However, it does appear to be the case that the more Muslim a country is, the greater its support for terrorism e.g. the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. I think the jury is still out.

A problem for those who are bitterly opposed to the notion that Islam is a root cause of terrorism which includes both people with whom I almost completely agree e.g. Dean Esmay and people with whom I almost completely disagree e.g. Juan Cole, is that whether the term “root cause” is being used in the philosophical sense i.e. essentia or the project management sense, they’re misusing it.. For something to be a root cause does not require that “All A implies B” but rather that “Not A implies Not B” which is a very different proposition.

Yet others have suggested that occupation (Robert Pape) or our policy in the Middle East (Michael Scheuer inter alia) are the root cause (or a root cause) of terrorism. If you define “occupation” or “our policy” broadly enough, I think I agree with this. The definition would include overthrowing the Mossadegh regime in Iran, military aid to Egypt, trade with the KSA, invention on behalf of Kuwait in 1991, and containment of Saddam Hussein, and tourism in Egypt. We can’t undo the overthrow of Mossadegh (whether it was necessary is another issue altogether). And if aid, trade, and tourism with the Middle East must be ended to end terrorism, I think we’re going to have to learn to live with it: we’re not going to completely disengage from the Muslim world.

I think that the search for root causes is something we should be doing, something we must do, and that we must address the root causes of terrorism. But a much more urgent necessity is identifying the critical success factors in the attacks on 9/11 and terrorism, generally. As I noted in my observations on the 9/11 Commission report,
I was disappointed that the report did not go farther in identifying the critical success factors for the attack. Here’s the definition of a critical success factor that I’m using. Critical success factors are

“key areas of activity in which favorable results are absolutely necessary to reach goals”.

Several recent posts have inspired me to re-visit this issue. The first was Gerard Vanderleun of American Digest’s recent re-posting of a post of his from 2004, “What It Would Take — A Simple Scenario”. In this post, Vanderleun plots out what is very nearly a critical success factors analysis for a terrorist attack on the New York transit system. The second post that inspired me was a recent post from Jay Tea of Wizbang, “The root causes of terrorism&#148. In this post Jay Tea examines what may be a single critical success factor for terrorism at almost the right level of abstraction.

The third post (actually a series of posts) that inspired me was John Cole of Balloon Juice’s fabulous series examining l’affaire Plame/Wilson/Novak. From July 10 through July 18 John, one of the most reasonable guys in the blogosphere, adroitly constructed a consensus opinion on the scandal (if it is a scandal).

So here’s what I propose: let’s see if we can come up with the critical success factors for a terrorist attack on the United States. The level of abstraction we’re seeking is something between the level that Vanderleun went after (quantities of explosives, maps of the subway, etc.) and the level that the root causes discussions have taken (poverty, human nature, the will of God). We’re only looking for real critical success factors—factors that are really necessary.

Why bother? If you consider the notion of a critical success factor there are two reasons. First, in order to eliminate the threat of terrorism (or at least substantially reduce the threat), we must interfere with or intercept one or more of the critical success factors. Second, no plan that does not interfere with or intercept one or more of the critical success factors can really succeed.

I recognize that I’m punching above my weight class with this project. John Cole gets more comments in a typical week than I do in a couple of months. But none of the really big guys have addressed this topic in a meaningful way so it’s up to us. Leave your ideas in the comments section or post them on your own blogs and trackback here. When we’ve gotten a little input I’ll post the first follow-up so we can explore the issues raised in more depth.

10 comments… add one
  • I don’t know if this is a critical success factor, but it may be a root cause: humiliation. And humiliation not inflicted by others necessarily, but to which people are predisposed, hypersensitive, paranoid, by virtue of living in an honor/shame culture. Much of Islam is an honor/shame culture, but I have the impression that it’s a pre-Islamic, Arab tribal cultural trait that persisted into Islam and in some cases fused with it. I think this is a factor working on the young men (mostly) who become suicide bombers.

  • First, mate, I’d check your assumptions re poverty and elite. They don’t bloody work.

  • Could you expand on that, Collounsbury? I think you’ll find that, unlike many in the blogosphere, I’m absolutely open to being convinced by a good argument.

  • Cllounsbury is correct. Osama is college educated as are/were the majority of his minions. They are/were secularists and most had scientific or engineering degrees.

    Do they use the poor? Of course. In fact, they absolutely need them. But their nihilistic, death-dealing world view comes from hatred. As far as I’ve been able to see, it’s an infantile hatred that is bred in the bone in the Arabic/Muslim family structure.

    Hatred and scape-goating. What a lethal combination. I agree with Hirsi Ali. Islam needs weaning.

  • Dymphna, since I’m very skeptical that poverty causes terrorism and that’s what I tried to say, I took it that Collounsbury was disagreeing with that. That’s why I asked him to expand on it.

  • The first requirement for terrorism is a nihilistic, death dealing world view. After that is set in stone, all you need is competence.

  • Sorry, I was away.

    As to the issue at hand, yes, I am disagreeing.

    First, of course, in regards to the profile of actual operators, focusing on those who pulled off overseas events introduces significant selection bias – the poor and illiterate generally have a hard time travelling. Domestically as in Casablanca, Sharm esh-Sheikh, certainly the socio-economic profile has been different. The poor, the impoverished and the ‘marginal.’ Great Britain provides a mixed case.

    Then of course the idea of causation in re because some percentage of operatives come from educated backgrounds (not the same as middle class etc – one has to locate one’s analysis in the actual societies, not off of North American assumptions) and even relatively (emphasis on the relative, see again not importing silly North American socio-economic presumptions) well-off backgrounds does not mean poverty in the society is not a significant driver behind motivating anger. Frustration with declining opportunities, above all economic, and attendant social problems (e.g. as in Morocco, widespread prostitution driven by poverty – signs of “moral dissolution” and exploitation) need not be directly experienced to motivate radicalism. The example of the emergence of secular-left radicalism in Europe in the 19th century (esp in the rather more unpleasant countries, Russia e.g.) driven by very real revulsion over fellow citizens’ abasement should alert you to how analytically bankrupt overlly simplistic “well the operatives are not all poor ergo poverty is not a driver” analysis is.

    Of course none of this means poverty is the sole driver or even always the primary driver. However, the economic malaise in the MENA region in my experience is a very clear driver for radicalisation of young men, frustrated by lack of oppotunity, etc.

    Now, young men’s frustrations under such circumstances can go in a lot of different directions. Rather clearly the unhealthy modern nihilism of the extreme Takfiri Salafistes provides a route that responds to the package of frustrations, largely in my opinion socio-economic, but of course not entirely. Otherwise it might be emmigration or football or hard left radicalism, etc.

    Your statement then regarding precious little evidence strikes me as based on myopic, often politically driven analyses.

    Of course, I am allergic to monocasual sweeping judgements as a general matter.

    Now, re the reference supra to our Somali Dutch poster girl, I have merely scorn. The woman’s alienation from her (former) religion may be understandable, but it is infantile, to use a word, to expect this has any generalisable policy implication or lesson (other than Ex anything in re believers tend to jump to extremes and tend to be rather unhelpful in terms of lessons on how to engage their former compatriots).

    I’d note that most “traditional” cultures globally are shame cultures, nothing particular to Islam, I find it tedious, pedestrain and largely Islamophobic in a particularly uninteresting way to whinge on about that angle or talk about the religion’s characteristics in such context.

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