Sunday, January 24, 2010

Terrorist Tapes

The recently-released tape purporting to be bin Laden claiming responsibility for the failed bombing by a Nigerian of a civilian airplane headed for Detroit offers an opportunity to reflect on the impact of terrorists on the lives of regular Americans.

Where We've Come From
Nearly nine years ago, an organized group of well-funded murderers planned a complex attack that required members to do things like learn to fly aircraft, and travel quite a bit to obtain placement to conduct a coordinated effort from different airports. The result of the attack was an enormous increase in the visibility of a nutball network that preached the end of all things Western. The tangible result was not so much a victory for these nuts, though.

Not only did they utterly blow their capacity to launch such a venture – a fact borne out by the observation that in the following nine years, nothing of the sort has been accomplished since – but they lost more of their own membership that day than they claimed in victims killed. Consider that the United States gains thousands in population each day from births and immigration, after subtracting the number that die of all causes (the leading causes being heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic respiratory disease, and unintentional injuries). Because the birth rate in 2001 was 14.1 per 1000 persons, and the United States population at the time is estimated to be a bit over 278,000,000 persons, it follows that the annual births in 2001 were a bit above 3.92 million persons and that the average daily birth count was nearly eleven thousand persons. However, September is one of the months with the highest birth rate. Even if the population that would have been added on September 11, 2001 would have been only the daily average of 8,000 had four aircraft not created additional unexpected mortality, the unexpected loss of nearly 3,000 lives would have left the United States with a population increase exceeding 5,000 persons. (Consider also that the World Trade Center dead included an estimated 500 foreign nationals from 91 different countries; if the "enemy" targeted by al Queda is broader than the U.S., it's clear the rest of the world grew quite a bit more than al Quaeda.) By contrast, al Qaeda's apparent exclusion of women from its membership seems to indicate that it grows only by recruitment. The ultimate devastation of Osama bin Laden's communication infrastructure and leadership (Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Saeed al-Masri, and others) suggest that the attacks may have had a more negative impact on the organization's health than anything else.

For perspective: in 2001, the undisputed high-water-mark of al Queda success at killing Americans, Americans lost more lives to accidental drownings (3,281) than it did to the violent efforts of their enemies; and drownings, which claimed responsibility for 0.1% of U.S. deaths in 2001, wasn't even a ranked cause of death. (By contrast, deaths due to "malignant neoplasms" – that's medi-speak for cancer – were nearly half a million, and were the second leading cause of death behind one of the causes of death linked to cardiovascular disease.) In all, 2,079,691 died in the United States in 2001.

So, how was such a venture converted into the "victory" of Ameria's enemies? Like the "victory" of Vietnam while losing 20:1 in its most favorable engagements, it was a matter of marketing rather than military accomplishment. But for the incessant harping by members of the media –excited to have something with which to alarm people into staying tuned for advertisements – there would have been little to celebrate in the mountainous wastes the terrorists' leaders called home. However, the for-profit media crowed nonstop about their deeds – a fact that made every sentient being on the planet aware of the attackers, and allowed them to reach an audience they would never otherwise have reached. With greater reach came greater opportunity for recruitment. The result? Many of the nutballs blowing themselves (and marketplaces full of civilians) to pieces in Iraq over the ensuing years were the result of foreign recruitment.

Where We Are Now
Osama bin Laden, having escaped an ugly death in Tora Bora and slipped into the lawless backwaters of Pakistan, can't use electronic communications for fear of being pinpointed by the ceaseless SIGINT effort to identify enemy command and control structures. He communicates, if at all, by sending runners. The lag between events and his knowledge of them may be small in the case of high-profile matters given news airtime – he can receive signals without risking his position, though he cannot transmit – but the lag between his knowledge of a matter and an ally's receipt of resultant instructions has dropped to a time frame last known in another century.

And his effectiveness? The newest tape either proves Osama bin Laden lacks the power to make even one plane explode – while losing an operative with potential knowledge of his handlers – or proves that Osama bin Laden is so weak that he is reduced to falsely claiming the power to lose an operative. Honestly, I'm not sure which is the worse implication for bin Laden: incompetence, or impotence.

The Medium Is The Message
Osama's latest tape – if it is Osama – comes to us from the lips of a news network long sympathetic to Islamofascists, having been delivered in cassette tape format by a runner who received it from someone who would not be capable of being followed back to Osama bin Laden. When, after a failed effort to murder a civilian airplane of holiday travelers, bin Laden attempts to preach gloom and quivering fear to his enemies, what do we really learn? Certainly not that we are quaking in our boots.

He (purportedly) says, "America will not dream of security until we experience it as a reality in Palestine." Yet the message comes to us on a day his operatives have failed to do anything to harm Americans – indeed, it comes after (a) his supposed operative was identified as a threat and law enforcement officers had already planned to arrest him on arrival, and (b) when his plan proved so simple in its design that it didn't require landing in the U.S. to implement, the operative was subdued by unarmed and irate passengers so that he could be turned over, alive, for processing by the legal system. If anything, the message proves that, whatever failings American security may suffer (and we thank you, Osama, for helping us to troubleshoot those systems), the security apparatus delivers security that is sufficient to be effective to thwart the efforts of which bin Laden is currently capable.

In short: bin Laden either lacks relevance because he must claim "credit" for the failed attempts of others, or he lacks relevance because he commands an outfit that is no longer capable of effecting completed attacks. If the best al Quaeda can offer is fools like these, America's security has improved dramatically since we last heard from al Quaeda.

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