I first heard the term used in correlation with terrorism this summer. It was when I attended a counter-terrorism intensive course at the International Institute for Counter Terrorism at the IDC in Herzliya.
It was during the excellent lectures delivered by Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior advisor to the President of the Rand Corporation. He is also the Director of the National Transportation Security Center at the Mineta Transportation Institute and a world leading authority on terrorism and sophisticated crime. Jenkins is the author of numerous books and publications on the subject. I personally found the blend of terrorism and financial lexicon rather intriguing so I decided to meet with Mr. Jenkins and hear more on the subject.When it comes to terrorism, Jenkins feels, the use of the term “war,” as the American Administration referred to it, created unrealistic expectations. “Americans,” he recently wrote, “see warfare as a finite undertaking” while some in the United States warn that the current conflict bears all the signs of an unending war.
Americans, Jenkins asserts, are impatient. They are “pragmatists who want to see a return on their investment. Fifteen years after 9/11, Americans believe that they should have results or at least some indications of progress. People want to quantify the gains and the losses. Moreover, they want to know whether we are winning or losing. And herein lies the difficulties in assessing this type of challenge. Without defined front lines, it is hard to measure success or failure as there are no obvious metrics. “Warfare itself,” Jenkins believes, “has increasingly become a matter of manipulating perceptions. This is especially true in the realm of terrorism. Terrorist attacks are designed to be dramatic events, calculated to capture attention” and spread panic. This, in return, helps to amplify the strength of the terrorists and the threat they pose. News coverage, likewise, inflates the threat. Unfortunately, assessments are also affected by visions of doom and gloom and not necessarily by what the terrorists have done but rather by what people perceive they might do. “Americans,” Jenkins alleges, “tend to be obsessed with decline and doom. The public tend to see every terrorist attacks as a failure.” This, coupled with the fact that progress with slowing terrorists’ operational capabilities, their recruitment, or the slow rate of impeding their financing, are seen as further proof that counter-terrorism efforts are unsuccessful.In order to assess progress in combating terrorism, one needs to take into the equation a few factors.Firstly, there is the need to identify and define objectives. “In a long war,” according to Jenkins, “the objectives may change over time.” The major concern facing the US and the world following the 9/11 attacks was the prevention of a similar attack.” The U.S. has indeed succeeded in achieving that. However, the broader aim was to destroy those responsible for the 9/11 atrocious attack, prevent further attacks, carry out justice and deter other groups from harboring similar intentions. On that front, Jenkins claims, some progress has been achieved.
Secondly, there is an ongoing debate about the identity of the adversary. “Is it limited to the specific organizations described in the original authorization for the use of military force passed by the Congress, which later included those entities that became al-Qa'ida affiliates?” Jenkins asks. “The enemies’ list has since been expanded to include the Islamic State, a rebellious offshoot of al-Qa'ida, which brought in those professing loyalty to its leader.” Unfortunately, Political correctness has made it difficult to name the enemy. Is it just “radical Islam” or is it Islam itself that must be confronted, as some suggest?Thirdly, changing political environments have created new and difficult foes. Some in the U.S. believe that more political force should have been directed towards toppling Bashar al-Assad and bring down the Iranian nuclear-minded supreme leadership. That, they believe, would have facilitated the U.S. led efforts to destroy the Islamic State as well as other Jihadist groups.Finally, according to Jenkins, one has to understand that the world does not stand still. “We are at a different place from where we started fifteen years ago,” he insists. In the current conflict, some events which can change arenas and strategic calculations, such as the invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein, have been America’s own making. “These actions led to a long bloody insurgency “that distracted attention and resources from efforts in Afghanistan and the campaign against al-Qa'ida while breathing new life into al-Qa'ida's propaganda line that aggressive infidels were bent upon conquering the Muslim world.” “Therefore,” Jenkins further suggests, “the many dimensions and geographic arenas of the campaign against the jihadist global enterprise suggested to me that a summary assessment could not simply say we're winning or losing.” A thorough appreciation of the current situation requires assessing progress in different fields of action and different geographic theaters.” And this is where the Terrorism Balance Sheet, with a Plus and Minus sides as a tool to evaluating progress enter the picture. “A balance sheet,” he further explained, “would better enable me to describe what and where we had achieved progress and where we had not.
It is, no doubt, a very complicated balance sheet as not only does it try to assess a dynamic situation but also because in some areas, “counter-terrorism efforts have been successful; in other areas, less so. And for every plus or minus entry, there is a ‘however.’”On the Plus sides, Jenkins starts with stating that since there has been no more 9/11, our worst fears have not been realized thus far. He also believes that “contrary to the inflated rhetoric of some in the US government, the operational capabilities of al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State remain limited. Another factor that Jenkins includes on the Plus Side of the Balance Sheet is that “Neither al-Qa’ida not the Islamic State has become a mass movement, although both organizations attract sympathy in Muslim countries.” “The constellation of jihadist groups is not as meaningful as it appears to be,” is another component of the Plus side, according to Jenkins. Many of these terrorists may share a banner but their focus is on local disputes rather than global Jihad. Jenkins also believes that on the Plus Side is the fact that “terrorists cannot translate their attacks into political gain as they tend to see their mission to demonstrate their commitment and awakening others.” The fact that the “Islamic State is losing territory and can be defeated couples with the point that al-Qa’ida’s Central Command has been reduced to exhorting others to fight,” has also added weight to the Plus Side. With the coalition’s air support and other assistance, some of the territory previously held by the Islamic State has been retaken. The atrocities committed by the Jihadists effectively advertised on social media seem to have attracted marginal and psychologically disturbed individuals. Finally, measured against other recent terrorist campaigns, the level of violence has been low. According to Jenkins, “continuing calls on local terrorist supporters in the West to take action have thus far produced only a meager response.” On the Minus Side, Jenkins starts by stating that “the targets of the American campaign have survived U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Al-Qa'ida has survived intense U.S.-led campaigns for 15 years, and now the Islamic State has survived them for two years. Unfortunately, the terrorists’ determination, likewise, has not dropped as a result of counterterrorism measures. They believe that god is on their side which, in the long run, will help them prevail. On the Minus Side, Jenkins also includes, the Jihadists’ “powerful ideology that arouses extreme emotion and devotion,” and its appeal to certain individuals who are predisposed to its effect by personal problems. Also on the Minus Side is the fact that the disposition of the Jihadists organization forces the free world also to contend with the sordid reality that its enemies, like the Taliban and the Islamic State, though driven from power will remain a formidable foe, will not be tamed and will not quit. Similarly, Jenkins asserts that the fighting in Iraq and Syria will go on for the foreseeable future as “for local belligerents, the contests have become existential.” Jenkins further adds to the Minus Side his contention that Iraq and Syria “will remain fragile states, arenas of International competition and sources of regional instability and continued violence.” In his grim prediction, he goes on to say that since the foreign fighters who had joined the Islamic State will most likely “migrate to other jihadist formations, try to establish new jihadist fronts, or return home—some traumatized, some disillusioned, but some determined to continue their armed struggle.” Another factor that Jenkins includes on the Minus Side of the Terrorism Balance Sheet relates to the sad issue of refugees. “Refugees,” he believes, “will pose a long term challenge to society and security” since the refugee flow “includes a large proportion of single young men always a problematic demographic and especially so coming from violent environments and having little education” who will not likely to easily find employment and may therefor drift into crime and be targeted for radicalization. Jenkins’ estimate that the United States faces a multi-tiered threat, is another item on the Minus Side to be reckoned with. “The primary threat,” according to him, “will come from the ability of al-Qa'ida and the Islamic State to inspire attacks by self-radicalized individuals, as well as emotionally disturbed persons seeking attention by associating themselves with a terrorist cause.” Last but not least on Jenkins’ Minus Side of the Terrorism Balance Sheet is the state of the American society. Though the U.S. is better equipped and organized to address the terror threat, its citizens remain fearful. That is its greatest vulnerability. He is concerned that “rather than appeal to traditional American values of courage, self-reliance, and sense of community, our current political system incentivizes the creation of fear.” I asked Mr. Jenkins to summarize for me his perception and understanding of the current US state of affairs based on the Terrorism Balance Sheet. His answer, “after 15 years a lot has changed, there has been progress, and Americans are safer. But, no, we are not through it yet.”