Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

The Year of Microterrorism

This has been a year marked by economics — the sluggish recovery, the crisis in Europe, the stimulus, tax cuts and budget debates. Foreign policy has made less news. Iraq is dysfunctional but stable; Afghanistan is unstable but no more so than before. Relations between the U.S. and the rest of the world are in reasonable shape. So it might sound odd to call this the year of terrorism. But it was.

"The number and pace of attempted attacks against the United States over the past nine months have surpassed the number of attempts during any other previous one-year period." That's from a May 2010 Department of Homeland Security report. The October 2010 attempt to blow up cargo airplanes using bombs placed in printer cartridges only confirms the point. And this is not simply an American phenomenon. The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reports that terrorist attacks on Russian territory doubled in 2010.

Over the past year we have seen the rise of a new kind of warfare: microterrorism, which can be defined as small-scale terrorism, driven from the local level, whose practitioners choose not the largest or most spectacular operations but those that are likely to succeed. It is being pioneered by elements of al-Qaeda, ideological allies of the original group, though it remains unclear whether Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are directing the effort. But even if they are entirely irrelevant to the phenomenon, that would be no comfort. It would merely underscore a core feature of microterrorism: it is not conducted from on high but rather bubbles up from below.

In al-Qaeda's new webzine Inspire, its editors explain the rationale behind microterrorism. "We do not need to strike big," they say. "Attacking the enemy ... is to bleed the enemy to death," a tactic they dub "the strategy of a thousand cuts." Another essay in Inspire catalogs what it cost to launch Operation Hemorrhage, the printer-cartridge attack: two phones, two printers and shipping costs. Total: $4,200. As the name implies, the webzine's purpose is largely to seduce and recruit young men in the West, especially America, to become operatives — that is, suicide bombers.

Al-Qaeda is making a virtue of necessity. The group had always believed that to be taken seriously as an adversary, it had to plan and execute large operations. Throughout the 1990s, it managed dozens of operatives in several countries, planned for simultaneous bombings (like the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania) and aimed at significant targets like the U.S.S. Cole. All this culminated in the 2001 attacks, which were to have been near simultaneous, in two cities, striking symbolic business centers, government buildings and the headquarters of the American military. (In retrospect, the ambition is staggering.) Now, battered in Afghanistan and Pakistan, its money tracked, its leaders under drone attack, al-Qaeda has decided to focus on disrupting Western life through a series of much smaller attacks.

It's worth noting that this kind of terrorism will probably not produce the kinds of operations that stun the world. Solo efforts, even when successful, can have only so much effect. But such a reassuring thought might be more a reflection of the technology available today than an accurate harbinger of the future. Microterrorism is betting on a powerful force that is sweeping the world: the democratization of technology. Everywhere, we see that power is shifting from large institutions to motivated individuals. Technology allows people to leverage the weight of these institutions against themselves, producing a jujitsu-like effect.

Microterrorism is fundamentally asymmetrical. It uses the power of being small and hence hard to detect or control. It emanates from countries like Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia; when the U.S. tries to go into these bad lands to fight the enemy, it is hard to find. The U.S. agenda quickly morphs into stabilizing the country and giving it some support — nation building. That is by definition a tough slog in these places, which have been chosen by the bad guys precisely because they are black holes of order and development. All the terrorist has to do is hide and post letter bombs.

The greatest disruption and complication comes, surely, when the terrorists involved are Western citizens, often with no previous track record of jihad. If fighting terrorism always requires a complicated navigation between human rights and wartime requirements, the dilemma gets exponentially more complex when dealing with citizens of your own country.

The problem of microterrorism remains small right now; there are few people dedicated to it and thus few successful attacks. But the democratization of technology, access, information and all those good things is also leading inexorably to the democratization of violence. Welcome to 2011.