When is a first strike not a first strike?
When it's Anticipatory Retaliation.

August 17, 2004

Terrorism and Elections

Bravo Romeo Delta

Although truly accurate, I still sometimes recoil at the now famous dictum of the 1992 Clinton campaign - "It's the Economy Stupid." First and foremost, because it seems to be an unfortunate testament to the following quote:

"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been 200 years. These nations have progressed through this sequence: 'From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From liberty to abundance; From abundance to selfishness; From selfishness to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage.'"

Alexander Fraser Tytler (later Lord Alexander Fraser Woodhouslee), in "The
Decline and Fall of the Athenian Republic," published 1776.

But it does shed an interesting light on the target selection list implied by the recent windfall of intelligence information captured from Al Qaeda. The salient characteristic of the targets they select is that they are all financial targets.

Now there are those that claim that Bush is too valuable a tool for Al Qaeda propaganda purposes for them to want Kerry in office, while others contend that Kerry will not show the resoluteness to continue the War on Terror.

Well, the target selection is interesting indeed, and speaks to the Al Qaeda objectives and gives a few glimpses of what might be affecting their current operational mindset.

If we start breaking down the possible target types that could be targeted (and this is all assuming they don't pull off some sort of nuking or something), is that you can, at first pass, break things down into what are called counterforce and countervalue targeting. In short, counterforce target seeks to directly attack an opponent's warfighting capabilities: from troops in the field to missiles in silos to command centers at the Pentagon, these are all directly related to affecting warfighting capabilities. Countervalue, on the other hand, seeks to attack the soft underbelly of the military-industrial complex, the political will of opponents, and the very fabric that holds an opponent's society together. Sherman's March to the Sea, the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo were all countervalue strikes, in essence.

Given all this talk about asymmetry in the War on Terror, there is a tendency to assume that those other folks specifically focus on countervalue targeting, which just ain't true. You can ask any one of a number of Marines in Najaf about that.

But, when it turns to exporting their war beyond their traditional regions of strength, al Qaeda tends very much to shift to countervalue targeting. Now, when evaluating the effect of attacks on the upcoming election, we can pretty safely throw out the effect of most likely counterforce attacks in Iraq, simply because, in terms of political effectiveness, they seem to have overshot their culminating point of success.

So, instead we look at the possible merits of countervalue strikes as means to influence the election. And this is where their target selection gets really interesting. At a this level, I think that there are a number of things these folks could look at, in terms of rating the value of targets:

  1. Symbolic value
  2. Body count
  3. Economic impact

To be sure, there are a lot of other factors affecting their selection of target type, but these are the big ones with respect to affecting the outcome of the November election. The choice of financial institutions is truly interesting.

For the most part, after a few notable things like the World Trade Center, most Americans don't place great symbolic value on financial institutions. So, the focus on financial institutions really isn't well suited to have great symbolic impact when things like the Sears Tower, Statue of Liberty, or the White House beckon. The body count would be reasonable, but it could be a bit difficult for them (pending method) to equal the 9/11 tab. If nothing else, there are certainly far richer targets available on that front, such as nuclear reactors. So we have to look at financial impact. But here's an interesting twist: the inclusion of Citibank, Prudential, the IMF, and the World Bank speak to two very different sets of priorities. The first two would have a financial impact that, while global in reach, would be focused primarily in the US and it's still-recovering economy. The second two would have just about zero effect on the US, although it would play hell with foreign bond markets - but has a much stronger symbolic import for non-Americans and people who won't have a say in the election.

That last bit is of interest, as it would be a target that would have little direct impact on the US elections (and to me appears to be a Plan B for that reason), but would be good press for al Qaeda in Europe, the developing world and elsewhere. This is an interesting contrast to doing something like hitting Wall Street or the Chicago Board of Exchange, which, while being extraordinarily symbolic, could have significant global economic blowback effect in addition to possibly doing some ugly things to the American economy.

But you will notice that none of the targets are geared to really cause fear and panic in the US on any major scale - they're geared towards hitting Americans in the pocket book. Now, if they had gone for something symbolic and superficial (Statue of Liberty or the Washington Monument), I think that the result would be a pro-Bush swing. If they had something else geared towards generating stacks of dead folk, I also think it could be a large pro-Bush swing.

However, if they wanted a strong pro-Kerry swing, hitting the economics makes a lot of sense - to a point. If they did something like hitting two or three major credit agencies and their backup data storage facilities, they could cause a pretty massive hiccough. Which could backfire by showing just how darned evil those bad guys are. Knocking out a Prudential or Citibank would be enough to make the markets anemic, but without providing much of a fig leaf for the Bush Administration on the existential threat front.

So, in choosing between symbolism or body count and economics, they seem to be of a more pragmatist bent - and this may have a great deal to do with the fact that the American response to 9/11 resulted in Messrs Karzai and Alawi assuming positions of power in place of Messrs Omar and Hussein. But it leaves us with the question of the interest in body count.

Now, as I've mentioned before, much of the significance of 9/11 was not the 3,000 dead or $100 billion in economic losses, so much as it was a great, bloody, big signpost that the previously understood rules of terrorist violence for political ends had changed, and changed radically. If they were still stuck on this motif, they probably would be looking for a bigger body count, but the fact that they aren't going simply for corpses points to a more sophisticated understanding of American politics than they are normally credited with. The American response to 9/11 may have surprised them quite a bit (as it has other America watchers I've spoken too) - so they may view Bush as being a bit of an aberration that has to be outlasted before they can get back to the serious business of tearing down the Great Satan.

This would tend to imply that they view this as sort of a prepatory bombardment that they'll need to undertake in order to soften us up enough that when they do start going for the throat again, they'll get a desirable political impact from their efforts. Conversely, they may have shucked the body count model altogether, and may be pursuing something like the terrorist equivalent to smart bombs - lower collateral damage from precisely targeted attacks. This doesn't quite ring true either, as there are some truly bloodless ways to hobble the economy that can be quite effective indeed.

Granted, this all just speculation until the other shoe drops, but the strong focus on this target set means some something is going on inside their devious little heads. Any one of the recent "big" terrorist attacks have been very specifically terrorist - witness Madrid. This time around they seem to be skipping flat-out terror for leverage. But they still don't seem to be taking that to it's logical conclusion in obtaining maximum leverage at the sacrifice of some sort of body count. Very peculiar, but whoever the hell it is who's hanging out in caves in Waziristan certainly has been spending some late nights thinking about this stuff.

Launched by Bravo Romeo Delta at August 17, 2004 06:01 AM
Letters from New York City Retaliates with: Of Terrorism, Targets and Elections

Retaliatiory Launches

An interesting comment:

"The American response to 9/11 may
have surprised them quite a bit
(as it has other America watchers
I've spoken too)..."

It was von Moltke (the Elder I think)
who noted that no plan survives contact
with the enemy.

God forbid there is another attack. But
it is a certainty that our response, by
either Bush or Kerry, would be one that
is unexpected.

With good luck we will never know.

Posted by: pragmatist at August 18, 2004 08:26 PM

Great post! To be sure the targets seem designed to do maximum damage against Bush so that they can get back to their real goal under Kerry - creating stacks of bodies.

I say we disappoint them on all fronts.

Posted by: MartiniPundit at August 18, 2004 09:37 PM

That's a really good post.

Posted by: Jane at August 19, 2004 12:22 AM

You hit some interesting points regarding their targets. I also used that quote block as a basis for a recent post of mine.

But I don't think their motivation of target choices was driven by the current election. Considering their initial surveilance was 3+ years ago, I suspect they were looking for follow-up targets after 9/11. GW's aggressive response was probably unexpected, as they were most likely intending to continue targeting sites in order to create chaos within the US.

At this point, I think they'll take anything they can get.

Posted by: _Jon at August 19, 2004 05:22 AM

First, thank you for responding to the question I posed in an earlier comment. I really did appreciate you taking the time to share your views and assessment with your readers. I found your post to be incredibly interesting and thought provoking! In fact there was much to have a dialogue with that a lengthy comment in your site would have been inappropriate so, I did a post of my own at: lettersfromnyc.mu.nu

Thanks again.

Posted by: michele at August 20, 2004 03:43 AM

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