What if someone came up with a terrific approach to surviving the war on terror and nobody listened? That is the dilemma at the heart of Bin Laden's Legacy: Why We're Still Losing the War on Terror, the new book from counterterrorism expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross.
That's not to say the book won't be read or talked about. Bin Laden's Legacy is a remarkable and laudable work. Gartenstein-Ross has created both a road map and a score card for the 10 years since the 9/11 attacks redefined America's sense of security. In a narrative that somehow manages to be both concise and comprehensive, the author lays out the multiple battlefields and competing strategies of both al Qaeda and the United States.
The American approach, as Gartenstein-Ross describes in unrelenting detail, is defined by extravagance, putting its emphasis on security at all costs -- with cost being the operative word. Because of a combination of missteps, hypervigilance, and political fear, virtually any program, policy, or plan that offers a shred of reassurance to the American public can get funded in this environment, whether it's sci-fi technology for airports or an intelligence community so big that no one knows how many people it employs. This results in vast expenditures for security benefits that are sometimes marginal, sometimes nonexistent.
Al Qaeda's strategy, unhappily, is exactly the same: provoke the United States into profligate spending and interminable military engagements, with a vision of the country's eventual economic collapse. Inspired by Osama bin Laden's romanticized view of the Soviet Union's back-breaking war against the mujahideen in Afghanistan, the terrorist network has defined its strategy as bleeding the United States to bankruptcy. This strategy does not require traditional tactical success. In recent years, al Qaeda has learned that even its most embarrassing operational failures can produce an expensive response.
Gartenstein-Ross is not the first person to point out this conundrum, but his book is the first comprehensive look at the evidence for al Qaeda's success, cutting across security disciplines and niche interests to paint on a broad canvas, while still providing plenty of specific examples. One of the most memorable concerns the October 2010 cargo-bomb plot executed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Two bombs were cleverly disguised as printer cartridges and shipped to the United States via UPS and FedEx. Both were intercepted before they could be detonated.
Approximately 20 days after the bombing was averted, AQAP published an issue of its English-language propaganda magazine Inspire that trumpeted the attack with a banner headline reading "$4,200" -- how much it cost to mount the attack. Inside, the magazine explained that the plot was called "Operation Hemorrhage" because its goal was to cost Western countries "billions of dollars to inspect each and every package in the world or you do nothing and we keep trying again." This, the issue explained, is "the strategy of a thousand cuts. The aim is to bleed the enemy to death."
Although it's obvious that AQAP would have preferred a successful attack, the strategy laid out in Inspire had already been articulated by al Qaeda leaders -- most prominently bin Laden -- in repeated communiqués over the course of multiple years.
Although some will surely quibble about the fine print, the conclusions of Bin Laden's Legacy are impossible to ignore or dismiss. Gartenstein-Ross is apolitical, unsentimental, and unsparing in his analysis of America's missteps, which start and to some degree end with a failure to listen as al Qaeda's leaders cheerfully outlined their "bleed-to-bankruptcy" plan, crowing over specific examples of how it was working.
Bin Laden's Legacy concludes with a series of smart policy recommendations for reducing the amount of money that the United States spends while mitigating the effect of those reductions on actual security. These include using behavioral profiling rather than exorbitant technologies for airport security, avoiding expensive overseas adventures, reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and building resilience among Americans to face future attacks without overreacting. Most importantly, Gartenstein-Ross argues, is depoliticizing terrorism so that Republicans and Democrats are not locked into a race to see who can spend the most money as proof of their "seriousness" about terrorism.