The Al-Qaida Threat: Local or International?

A piece in yesterday’s NY Times Week in Review section examines a debate between two well-known terrorism experts on the current nature of the threat from al-Qaida:

On one side is Bruce Hoffman, a cerebral 53-year-old Georgetown University historian and author of the highly respected 1998 book “Inside Terrorism.” He argues that Al Qaeda is alive, well, resurgent and more dangerous than it has been in several years. In his corner, he said, is a battalion of mainstream academics and a National Intelligence Estimate issued last summer warning that Al Qaeda had reconstituted in Pakistan.

On the other side is Marc Sageman, an iconoclastic 55-year-old Polish-born psychiatrist, sociologist, former C.I.A. case officer and scholar-in-residence with the New York Police Department. His new book, “Leaderless Jihad,” argues that the main threat no longer comes from the organization called Al Qaeda, but from the bottom up — from radicalized individuals and groups who meet and plot in their neighborhoods and on the Internet. In his camp, he said, are agents and analysts in highly classified positions at the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

As it happens, on the same day in the Washington Post, Sageman was outlining his argument. In “The Homegrown Young Radicals of Next-Gen Jihad,” Sageman argues that the United States and its allies are “fighting the wrong foe”:

The version of al-Qaeda that Osama bin Laden founded is a fading force. After a week in which five detainees who allegedly planned the Sept. 11, 2001, atrocities were arraigned before a U.S. military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, it’s worth remembering that the terrorists behind 9/11 were mostly young, well-educated middle-class expatriates from Muslim countries who had become radicalized abroad, especially in the West. Such key 9/11 plotters as Mohamed Atta, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ziad Jarrah and Marwan al-Shehhi met and became radicalized as students in Hamburg, then went to Afghanistan looking for al-Qaeda. But over the past six years, most of the professional terrorists who fit this profile have been eliminated during the U.S.-led manhunt for “high-value targets.” The few that remain are huddled in the Afghan-Pakistani border area, struggling to extend their reach beyond Pakistan.

But Hoffman, in a review of Sageman’s book that appeared in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, says that Sageman too readily dismisses the continuing threat from al-Qaida HQ, if you will. And Hoffman also takes aim at Sageman’s methodology, which he says discounts the literature on terrorist networks in favor of an approach that emphasizes individual psychology:

Given that Sageman was trained as a psychiatrist, it is not surprising that he favors analyzing terrorism from an individual perspective rather than taking an organizational or collective approach. But the benefits of bottom-up versus top-down approaches to the study of terrorism have been debated by scholars for years. Indeed, one of the finest books in the field focuses on precisely this question. Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind, edited by Walter Reich (a psychiatrist, too) and published nearly 20 years ago, is still in print, yet it is conspicuously absent from Sageman’s bibliography.

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs contains a response to Hoffman’s review by Sageman, as well as a response to that response by Hoffman.

I don’t pretend to be sufficiently expert in terrorism to declare a winner in this debate, but common sense says that the threat from localized wannabes in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere, as well as the threat from al-Qaida central in Pakistan’s tribal areas are both real, and not mutually exclusive.

We’ve noted on this blog recently that there seems to be a growing consensus that a Muslim backlash against al-Qaida’s methods has contributed to its weakening, particularly in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. That would seem to argue in favor of Sageman’s view. But on the other hand it would be tendentious to assert that U.S. counterterrorism efforts since 9/11 have not played some significant role in this weakening, and Hoffman’s no doubt correct that the Hindu Kush remains a dangerous haven for al-Qaida and its ilk.

Neither view, it’s clear, provides policymakers with all the answers. The trick is getting the balance between local and international counterterrorism right, and neither underestimating the threat nor overreacting in a way that exacerbates it. And given this sort of terrorist’s demonstrated ability to adapt, the sweet spot is no doubt shifting almost daily.

More World Politics Review