Stratfor: Terrorism Intelligence Report - August 29, 2006
Airline Incidents: Fear as Force Multiplier
By Fred Burton
During the past month, since British authorities announced the
disruption of a bomb plot involving airliners, there has been a
worldwide increase in security awareness, airline security measures
-- and fear among air passengers. At least 17 public incidents
involving airline security have been reported in the United States
and parts of Europe since Aug. 10. Most of these were innocuous,
but many resulted in airliners making emergency landings off their
scheduled routes, sometimes escorted by fighter aircraft.
The spate of incidents -- each of which rings up significant
financial costs to the airline company and governments involved and
causes inconvenience and delays for travelers -- is a reminder that
terrorism, philosophically, is not confined to the goal of filling
body bags or destroying buildings. At a deeper level, it is about
psychology and the "propaganda of the deed." And as far as al Qaeda
is concerned, it is also about economic warfare: Osama bin Laden
personally has stated that one of the group's strategic objectives
is to "bleed America to the point of bankruptcy."
To say that the governments and industries targeted by terrorism
face difficult choices is a gross understatement. The problem lies
in the fact that decision-makers not only must protect the public
against specific groups using known tactics (in al Qaeda's case,
bombs and liquid explosives) but also must protect themselves in
the face of public opinion and potential political blowback.
Officials naturally want to be perceived as doing everything
possible to prevent future acts of violence; therefore, every
threat -- no matter how seemingly ridiculous -- is treated
seriously. Overreaction becomes mandatory. Politicians and
executives cannot afford to be perceived as doing nothing.
This powerful mandate on the defensive side is met, asymmetrically,
on the offensive side by a force whose only requirements are to
survive, issue threats and, occasionally, strike -- chiefly as a
means of perpetuating its credibility.
The Impact to Air Travel
Following the thwarted U.K. airlines plot, security measures in
Britain, the United States and elsewhere were tightened. These new
regulations have included a ban on liquids and electronic items in
the passenger compartment, more stringent baggage checks and
tighter scrutiny of prospective passengers.
These new security measures already have had a financial impact on
the airline industry. On Aug. 25, Irish discount airline Ryanair
filed the lawsuit it had previously threatened against the
British Department for Transport. The lawsuit represents an effort
to change the new restrictions the department placed on carry-on
items following the disruption of the airline plot. Ryanair
officials have publicly called the new restrictions "nonsensical
and ineffective" and have called for "a return to common sense"
regarding airline security. The company claims it has lost 3.3
million pounds (nearly $5.9 million) in earnings as a result of the
The new measures have placed considerable strains on security
screeners already in place, and governments and airlines have
accrued significant costs as they hire more personnel to help
relieve the burdens and man additional screening checkpoints.
Meanwhile, the ban on liquids and electronics in carry-on luggage
has led to greater volumes of baggage being checked in, and thus
being screened and handled by ground crews. (This is one of the
chief complaints of Ryanair, which encourages passengers to travel
without checked baggage as a way of keeping costs down.) Passengers
also have felt the effects: delayed flights, forced changes to
packing and luggage habits, longer lines and generally more
frustrations in their travels.
The number of publicly reported security incidents appeared to peak
last week, with six incidents on Aug. 25 alone, though more also
were reported this week. Alarms were triggered by a range of
things: disruptive passengers, suspicious smells, bomb threats that
were scribbled on air sickness bags and anonymous phone calls
alleging bomb threats. One Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam
to Mumbai was diverted back to Schiphol Airport after a dozen
Indian men on board the flight were seen talking and passing around
cell phones. That flight was given a fighter escort as it returned
to the airport.
Clearly, the recent government warnings and air travel security
measures have generated greater awareness, but judging from the
unusual rash of incidents, it appears that a certain degree of
paranoia may be in play as well. In some ways, the aircraft
incidents are similar to the public's response to the anthrax
letters incidents in 2001, when "white powder scares" brought many
American businesses, schools and government agencies to a grinding
Terrorism: Psychology as Force Multiplier
With that psychological component in mind, terrorist acts do not
have to be tremendously successful (in terms of physical casualties
or damage) in order to be terribly effective.
About 3,000 people were killed in the 9/11 attacks. That is an
enormous toll, certainly (the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, by
comparison, resulted in only six deaths), but it pales in
comparison to the number of Americans who were killed in highway
accidents in 2005 (more than 43,000) or the hundreds of thousands
who lost their lives in the tsunami that struck Asia in December
2004. The true power in terrorism rests in the ability to commit
spectacular strikes and the psychological impact that such
spectacles can have. In many cases, the "psychological casualties"
far exceed the number of physical casualties that can be realized
with any given strike.
The anarchists of the late 19th century referred to terrorism as
the "propaganda of the deed," meaning that their acts of violence
had an ability to send messages to their friends and foes alike. Al
Qaeda certainly fits this mold: The group has been struggling since
its inception to convince the "ummah," or Muslim people, that the
United States and its allies are not invincible. The group also
spent several years attempting to provoke the United States into
invading a Muslim country -- so that it could launch a war of
attrition against the United States, similar to the way it fought
(and defeated) the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. After many smaller
attempts, al Qaeda succeeded in this goal with the Sept. 11
attacks, which took U.S. forces into Afghanistan. The 2003 invasion
of Iraq provided an even better theater for al Qaeda's war of
attrition against the United States.
Al Qaeda measures its progress in the war of attrition not only by
the number of American servicemen killed, but in terms of American
treasure expended in furtherance of the war. In essence, bin Laden
and his planners adopted a concept that is familiar to Americans:
"It's the economy, stupid!"
Bin Laden outlined this very clearly in his October 29, 2004 ,
message to the American people. In that recording, he estimated
that it cost al Qaeda only $500,000 to carry out the 9/11 attacks,
whereas the estimated cost to the United States from the event and
its aftermath was measured at $500 billion. In the same message,
bin Laden also mused about how easy it was to "provoke and bait"
the U.S. administration. All that was needed, he claimed, was to
"send two mujahideen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of
cloth on which is written 'al Qaeda,' in order to make the generals
race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and
political losses without their achieving for it anything of note
other than some benefits for their private companies." Later in the
same message, he stated: "So we are continuing this policy in
bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy -- Allah willing, and
nothing is too great for Allah."
This theme of economic warfare has been echoed in several
subsequent messages from al Qaeda leaders, and there is no evidence
at this point to suggest that al Qaeda has decided to scrap this
Political Liability: Another Factor
Once the immediate psychological impact of a spectacular terrorist
attack wears off, politicians and government bureaucrats often face
another form of terror: the terror of the public inquest. There is
an expectation that governments somehow must prevent all terrorist
attacks, and when one occurs, there are political investigations
into the cause of intelligence failures -- and on occasion, there
is finger-pointing as well. Though the unstated expectation is not
altogether reasonable, it is a powerful political force -- and,
therefore, politicians (and, to a certain extent, businesses)
cannot avoid reckoning with it.
To avoid the finger-pointing, governments have begun shifting the
way they investigate potential terrorist acts from an approach
based on waiting until a strike is about to be carried out -- and
then "making the big case" -- to an approach based on disruption
and pre-emption (or, in other words, taking action at the
earliest possible stage).
There has also been a shift in the security industry, away from a
risk-management approach toward risk aversion. In practical terms,
this means that nearly every threat, no matter how far-fetched it
seems, is treated as a serious threat. This risk-aversion approach
is behind the new security measures in Britain that have so upset
Al Qaeda long ago took the risk-aversion factor into account, as it
embarked on its war of attrition against the West. In such a war,
what matters most is not how many times a fighter is bloodied and
knocked down, but how many times he picks himself up and returns to
the fight. It is dogged determination not to lose that can lead to
victory. This is, in essence, how the Mujahideen won against the
Soviets in Afghanistan, and how al Qaeda views its contest against
the United States today.
Al Qaeda believes that it can win a war of attrition against the
United States, and the group's leadership has said so repeatedly in
public messages. They do not think that the United States has the
stomach or the attention span to go toe-to-toe in the late rounds
of the fight. As bin Laden noted in a 1996 fatwa: "However, when
tens of your solders were killed in minor battles and one American
pilot was dragged in the streets of Mogadishu, you left the area --
carrying disappointment, humiliation, defeat and your dead with
To wage this war of attrition, al Qaeda's chief requirements are to
survive -- or answer the bell at the beginning of each round --
issue threats and conduct an occasional strike to prove they are
still relevant. The large number of media releases from al Qaeda
leaders this year show that they have indeed survived. The
statements also may be an attempt to overwhelm and exhaust the
enemy. Obviously, the United States and its allies cannot
conceivably protect everything, and attempts to do so take great
tolls on human resources and finances.
Viewed through this lens, the responses to the disrupted airlines
plot may, in fact, be a form of success for al Qaeda, despite the
failure of the actual plot.
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