I’ve written on this before but the subject is now hot thanks to the New York Times.
Gabriel Schoenfeld has the best response to Levitt’s little stunt. He does a great job pointing out the dangers of such public brain-storming:
Then there was Zacharias Moussaoui, who was encountering trouble in his Minnesota flight school. This deranged fanatic might have only needed scant prompting, perhaps by stumbling across a clever scenario cooked up by Steven Levitt, to find a way to work al Qaeda’s will that was easier than poring through aviation manuals and struggling to operate a Boeing 747 simulator.He also nails Levitt’s overall attitude toward this project:
To Levitt, however, this solemn subject is not solemn at all. He writes about it in a glib and flippant tone, as in his summons to the public to come up with even more lethal scenarios by which al Qaeda might wreak death and destruction on the United States: “I’m sure many readers have far better ideas. I would love to hear them.”There is one other aspect to Levitt’s approach that deserves mention. He and the Times want to pretend that this is a contribution to public discourse and counter-terrorism planning. “Look, here is a Big Brain thinking Deep Thoughts about an Important Subject.” In reality, though, it is just a puffed up pundit pulling stuff out of his backside.
Levitt knows very little about counter-terrorism, police work, or terrorist operations. Nor does he think it important to educate himself before playing Red Cell leader. Instead, his writing is studded with phrases like “I presume” and “I guess”.
Then there is this gem:
Third, unless terrorists always insist on suicide missions (which I can’t imagine they would), it would be optimal to hatch a plan in which your terrorists aren’t killed or caught in the act, if possible.Dr. Big Thinker has apparently missed all the discussion about the role of martyrdom and 72 virgins in al Qaeda ideology and recruitment. Avoiding suicide sounds reasonable to an academic playing around with concepts. But to jihadis, the people most likely to attack us, the suicide is a feature not a bug.
It is really kind of sad. The majesty and credibility of New York Times is just a fig leaf for a lazy pundit who basks in his ignorant knowingness.
What a missed opportunity. We could learn a lot from serious analysis of terrorist scenarios. There were some excellent examples in the wake of 9-11. They served the twin purposes of pointing to vulnerabilities (which can be corrected) and dispelling hysteria.
Levitt is not the first person to ponder the possibility that the Washington could be a model for al Qaeda and others. It’s a shame that analysis was not in his job description.
Here’s a couple of points that seem relevant to his scenarios.
Recruiting and financing twenty snipers will leave a big intelligence footprint. What is the likelihood that the government will get wind of the plot, penetrate it, and roll-up the whole operation?
This happens all the time when amateurs try to hire a hit man to get rid of a spouse or business partner. They end up starring in a police video as they lay out their plan to an undercover cop.
We have also seen this happen repeatedly in terrorism cases.
How much would such an operation cost? Does al Qaeda still have the resources to commit to such a venture?
Most of the information I’ve seen indicates that they have to work on a shoe-string budget in this country.
I’m also reminded of the plotter in the ’93 WTC attack who needed to get the deposit back on the rental truck (the one that carried the bomb and was destroyed in the blast) because he needed that money to pay for his escape.
The Washington snipers were anomalies. Most famous sniper attacks end with the perpetrator killed or captured at the scene. Are mobile snipers a real threat nationwide or did the DC killers benefit from bad policework/policy in Maryland?
Could such a plan survive the capture of one of the snipers? Could terrorists maintain operational security and compartmentalization? Or would the network unravel quickly in the early days?
It’s a tough trade-off. Maintain tight security and your plan takes forever to get underway. That, in turn, means your recruits may lose motivation and drift away. Hurry the operation along and it becomes vulnerable.