As everyone with an interest in a healthy surveillance state will tell you, we’ve never been less safe from terrorism than we are now. While a lot of this carries an undercurrent of self-interest, there is some evidence out there that indicates the US government’s policies aren’t exactly making us any new friends.

The controversial extrajudicial killing program utilizing weaponized drones has been a particular point of contention. For one thing, the American public has yet to be let in on the government’s legal rationale for acting as judge, jury and executioner of US citizens suspected of terrorist activity. This undisclosed reasoning has been perpetually on the verge of release for years now. Of course, when (and if) it’s ever handed over to the public domain, it will very likely be redacted to the point of abstraction, rendering it mostly useless.

This largely apocryphal document is only part of the problem. The other issue is the targets of the administration’s “targeted killing” program. As Zack Beauchamp at Vox points out, the government’s strategy doesn’t seem to be making any headway towards mitigating the al-Qaeda threat. (via Slashdot)

The basic premise of the Obama Administration’s drone program is that decapitation, the killing of a terrorist organization’s top leadership, works. Killing al-Qaeda’s leadership should, in theory, limit the organization’s ability to plot attacks on the US and its allies.

But what if that’s not true? That’s the core finding of a just-published study in the prestigious journal International Security. In it, Georgia Tech professor Jenna Jordan takes a look at the history of targeting terrorist leaders and draws lessons for the fight against al-Qaeda. According to Jordan, believing that targeted killing can actually weaken al-Qaeda means assuming al-Qaeda depends on a group of charismatic leaders. But that’s wrong, and that mistaken assumption has led the Obama Administration to pursue a strategy centered on targeting al-Qaeda’s leadership with drones when it’d really be better to cut down on targeted killings altogether.

Without a doubt, simply pursuing this program has done little to engender goodwill in countries deemed terroristic enough to warrant extrajudicial killings. The point has been made previously that these death-from-above attacks may be doing more harm than good by pushing on-the-fence individuals towards anti-American sentiments and actions. That the government remains largely silent on the collateral damage hasn’t helped.

But Jordan’s report goes deeper, suggesting the “cut the head off” approach doesn’t work against a largely decentralized opponent. Rather than throw underlings into disarray, the death of a top-level terrorist simply results in swift reshuffling of the organizational chart. Underneath it all, al-Qaeda appears to function more like a business bogged down in bureaucracy, rather than an efficient killing machine spurred into action by a small group of charismatic leaders.

al-Qaeda has bylaws defining “the group’s goals, principles, voting laws, processes for airing grievances, the importance of reports, details on organizational structure, members’ duties, leadership responsibilities, financial policies, budgetary requirements, and policies for different committees.”

US government assessments and declassified al-Qaeda documents show that these bylaws actually matter. al-Qaeda central in Pakistan exercises some real control over its affiliate groups in other places targeted by drone strikes like Yemen and Somalia. Moreover, those groups have their own internal hierarchies and rules. This is all strong evidence that the group is run bureaucratically, which makes it more able to absorb the loss of individual senior leaders.

An AP report noted this peculiar allegiance to the minutia of bureaucracy in a report late last year. Tracking of organizational expenditures by al-Qaeda operatives borders on the obsessive. The “company motto” may invoke jihad and Allah, but inside the walls, the holy war is fought with ledger books and well-documented petty cash dispersals.

In more than 100 receipts left in a building occupied by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in Timbuktu earlier this year, the extremists assiduously tracked their cash flow, recording purchases as small as a single light bulb. The often tiny amounts are carefully written out in pencil and colored pen on scraps of paper and Post-it notes: The equivalent of $1.80 for a bar of soap; $8 for a packet of macaroni; $14 for a tube of super glue. All the documents were authenticated by experts…

From the get-go, bin Laden was obsessed with enforcing corporate management techniques on his more than 500 employees, according to al-Qaida expert Lawrence Wright, author of a well-known history of the terror group. Workers had to submit forms in triplicate for even the smallest purchases — the same requirement bin Laden later imposed on the first al-Qaida recruits, he said.

As Jordan’s stats note, there’s no correlation between confirmed “decapitations” and worldwide al-Qaeda attacks. If her data is correct, the government’s belief in targeted killing is based more on faith than on any observable impact. That this is partially managed by the same people who claim thirteen years-worth of pervasive surveillance failing to blunt the terrorist threat is evidence that more spying is needed is also a problem. This means any attempts to scale back the killings will be greeted with grave concerns about the growing al-Qaeda threat.

Rolling back a useless program — especially one that contributes to radicalization — would be a good idea, but the ability to sell (and buy into) fear makes this almost an impossibility. No one wants to be the person who signed off on scaling back a very visible (but mostly symbolic, it would appear) counterterrorism program when the next attack hits. No politician or government agency official wants to be scapegoated for reining anything in, no matter how reasonable the decision. So, we’ll most likely be left in a state of fear-induced paralysis, allowing al-Qaeda to improve its efficiency and recovery time.


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