"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The best of all possible worlds

I'm working on a piece about sectarian violence and the possible influence of foreign fighters in Yemen, and how they can expand, distort and possibly ultimately destroy AQAP's missions, but in the meantime I'd like to give you this year's most ridiculous, optimistic, half faux-tough half dreamily Panglossian spin, found thanks to the LATimes.  Bob Drogin has a fine article about Inspire, though I think the article and the analysts might give it too much credit by half.   Here are some examples.

"It's like the Vanity Fair of jihadi publications," said Bruce Hoffman, director of security studies at Georgetown University. "It's glossy and snarky, and is designed to appeal to Generation Z."
"It's Madison Avenue, terrorist style," agreed Yonah Alexander, terrorism specialist at the nonpartisan Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va. "It's much more sophisticated than what we've seen before."
It might be my fault, having no real conception of what Generation Z is, other than some term used to describes kids who tweet or something (and won't get off my goddamn lawn!).   But appealing to computer-paled slackers isn't the same as marshaling them into an effective jihadi force.   I don't doubt its technical sophistication- it is one of the finer looking pamphlets I have ever seen, and cousin, I've seen em all.  But here's the thing- glossy, snarky, Generation Z, hip, fun, jam-packed with cold disses- these are all well and good, but who are they going to recruit?  The cream of the crop, or people who are easily susceptible to snark and sarcasm and who, let's be honest, aren't exactly going to smuggle weapons-grade plutonium across the Rio Grande?

The "Madison Avenue, terrorist style" is accidentally more instructive than it is intended.  Who the hell trusts Madison Avenue?  It is a byword for dishonesty  and artifice.  Be yourself, and drink Coke.  I don't doubt that Inspire might push some already-teetering loner into an act of jihad, which, but for motivation, we would have labeled a crime.  The kind of people who will fall for this slick emptiness are not going to be a serious force for jihad.  It might be a threat, but a small one, and dressing it up with awesome buzzwords needlessly inflates the danger and gives Inspire the publicity it shouldn't have.

And yet these aren't the wort quotes of the article- indeed, they aren't wrong, just kind of misleading.  The worst comes from the opposite spectrum, strangely.   In full.

Larry Johnson, a former CIA analyst, said the latest magazine mostly shows that Al Qaeda is a spent force that is trying to make the best of a failed attack.
"This is spin worthy of a Washington pundit," he said. "I think they're trying to maintain their image of being a ferocious, deadly organization. But at the end of the day, they just showed they were incompetent."

Looking at this charitably, one could say Johnson's first sentence was just setting up his second as an example, what someone might say if they were trying to spin.   But, pretending it is not self-aware, this is absolutely ridiculous.  I've seen this formulation here and there- an attack wasn't successful, this shows they are dead, over-reaching in an attempt to promote a false image of relevance.  And then we see it after the next attack.

The incompetence thing is extraordinary.  No, nothing blew up, but as many have said we are reacting and spending in exactly the same way we would if the planes did go down.   And it was cheap, for them.  The idea that they are incompetent is incredibly self-cenetered, ignoring everything AQAP has done inside Yemen.  It is wishful thinking, a candyland of analysis.   This is the kind of statement that one should run away from.


  1. Could we one day look back on this failed plot as a 1993 World Trade Center bombing? Or ARE people looking at it like that, and that’s why there is so much reaction to it?

  2. Larry Johnson has failed to grasp the important distinction between tactical and strategic success. Tactically, AQ's efforts in/from Yemen have resulted in more near misses than hits, but the strategic impact has been immense.