Successful deterrence of Al Qaeda would be taking place if the organization decided not to take action because they feared retaliation by the United States against assets that they held dear. Deterrence works if an actor refrains from attack because they calculate that the cost of the adversary’s response would outweigh any benefit from the initial strike.
But that’s not in the U.S. strategy. Instead, what U.S. officials appears to be doing is decreasing the likelihood of a successful attack — by sowing confuson, interdicting logistical support, and reducing sympathy for the organization. The closest one could come to deterrence is if one defined Al Qaeda’s reputation as a tangible asset that would face devastating consequences after a successful attack. Even here, however, the U.S. strategy is primarily to weaken Al Qaeda by increasing the odds of an unsuccessful attack.
Contra Drezner the best description of the tactic is neither deterrence nor containment but fourth generation warfare. We’re attempting to get into the enemy’s decision-making loop and the NYT article is a very interesting description of that process:
A primary focus has become cyberspace, which is the global safe haven of terrorist networks. To counter efforts by terrorists to plot attacks, raise money and recruit new members on the Internet, the government has mounted a secret campaign to plant bogus e-mail messages and Web site postings, with the intent to sow confusion, dissent and distrust among militant organizations, officials confirm.
At the same time, American diplomats are quietly working behind the scenes with Middle Eastern partners to amplify the speeches and writings of prominent Islamic clerics who are renouncing terrorist violence.
At the local level, the authorities are experimenting with new ways to keep potential terrorists off guard.
The methods described are all excellent method of getting into the enemy’s decision-making process and it’s about damned time. More, please.
I do spot one problem with the NYT’s article. In their description of yet another interesting strategem:
So American officials have spent the last several years trying to identify other types of “territory” that extremists hold dear, and they say they believe that one important aspect may be the terrorists’ reputation and credibility with Muslims.
Under this theory, if the seeds of doubt can be planted in the mind of Al Qaeda’s strategic leadership that an attack would be viewed as a shameful murder of innocents — or, even more effectively, that it would be an embarrassing failure — then the order may not be given, according to this new analysis.
The emphasis is mine. The problem I see with this is that the appeal to honor through highlighting the likelihood of failure is only more effective than an appeal to honor through highlighting the innocence of the victims if you discount a commitment to religious values as a motivator.
Just because you’re a modern secularist doesn’t mean that everybody is and assuming that they are is a serious error.