Monday, June 10, 2013

to understand terrorism and threat assessment, look to Aum

Consider, if you please, Aum Shinrikyo, the cult responsible for the terrible sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. And consider what it means for an appropriate response to terrorism.

I've been studying Aum recently, as a way to think through terrorism and the appropriate response to it. It's hard to imagine a more dangerous terrorist organization than Aum. Aum was a highly coordinated organization, with a clear chain of command and effective communication within the organization. It was fabulously well-funded, raking in millions of dollars from its devoted followers and pushing that money into complex and lucrative investment schemes. It had an incredibly devoted collection of followers, who were subject to constant brainwashing techniques and daily tests of loyalty and devotion. The network was vast, with cells and headquarters in dozens of countries. The ideology was mutable and portable, making it easier to spread; the cult's teachings incorporated aspects of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and others, which helped increase its appeal. Its technological expertise and capability were incredible. The cult attracted many of Japan's brightest minds, brilliant scientists from the top universities with advanced degrees in chemistry, biology, and technology. They poured their funds into advanced labs and workshops and gained access to extremely dangerous chemicals and weaponry. They had groups devoted exclusively to weaponry and defense, to intelligence and surveillance, to loyalty and retention. They had large compounds in remote locations, spread out through Japan and in the rest of the world. They had loyalists ensconced in the military, the police, the government, and the media. They enjoyed the protection of being an officially recognized religious group. And as their most basic and cherished belief lay in the imminent coming of the apocalypse, and their religious duty to speed it along, they were absolutely bent on murder and destruction.

In almost every sense, this is the worst case scenario for terrorism. This is what people imagine when they think of the destructive potential of terrorism.

Yet what's as remarkable as Aum's potential for mayhem is how little of it, on balance, they actually caused. Don't misunderstand me: Aum's crimes were horrific, not merely the terrible subway gassing but their long history of murder, intimidation, extortion, fraud, and exploitation. What they did was unforgivable, and the human cost, devastating. But at no point did Aum Shinrikyo represent an existential threat to Japan or its people. The death toll of Aum was several dozen; again, a terrible human cost, but not an existential threat. At no time was the territorial integrity of Japan threatened. At no time was the operational integrity of the Japanese government threatened. At no time was the day-to-day operation of the Japanese economy meaningfully threatened. The threat to the average Japanese citizen was effectively nil. 

Just as important was what the Japanese government and people did not do. They didn't panic. They didn't make sweeping changes to their way of life. They didn't implement a vast system of domestic surveillance. They didn't suspend basic civil rights. They didn't begin to capture, torture, and kill without due process. They didn't, in other words, allow themselves to be terrorized. Instead, they addressed the threat. They investigated and arrested the cult's leadership. They tried them in civilian courts and earned convictions through due process. They buried their dead. They mourned. And they moved on. In every sense, it was a rational, adult, mature response to a terrible terrorist act, one that remained largely in keeping with liberal democratic ideals. 

All of the evidence we've acquired since 9/11 suggests that Al Qaeda is not like Aum. Al Qaeda is not nearly as coordinated. It is not nearly as hierarchical. It lacks basic inter-organizational communication or leadership structure. It lacks clear goals and leaders who can articulate them. It lacks operational infrastructure. It lacks clear sources of funding. It lacks technical and scientific expertise. It appears now to have always been a loosely connected fellowship of groups and sects, often at odds with one another philosophically and practically, lacking the kind of cohesion or leadership necessary to coordinate major attacks. All or most of that was true before more than a decade of international military and legal assaults on the organization. The near-total inability of Al Qaeda to wage large-scale destruction has been seen in the lack of mayhem caused by the group in recent years. The Boston Marathon bombing, waged not by Al Qaeda itself but merely by sympathizers, failed to killed more than three people despite having taken place amidst a literal throng of humanity. Again, a terrible tragedy and a horrific crime. But by any rational, adult estimation, nothing resembling a national threat to the United States.

Yet despite the near-total failure of Islamic terrorists to actually harm the United States in a meaningful way, we learn every day of vast new encroachments on our civil liberties and alterations to our basic way of life, enacted in response to our fear of terrorism. To debate the wisdom and prudence of this is to step into a weird world where claims no longer require evidence and assertions qualify as proof. People tell me constantly: there's vast throngs on terrible terrorists out there, and we have to give up our freedoms to fight them! And I ask: where? Who? In what numbers? Of what destructive capability? How do you know? Where's your proof? Always: nothing. No meaningful response at all. They just know.

That is the definition of irrationality. In the years following the subway attack in 1995, Japan did not live in a post-Aum world. They did not allow their day-to-day lives to be defined by those attacks. A dozen years after 9/11, our national character has been totally consumed by Al Qaeda and fear of it. It underpins everything we do. It has infected our culture. I don't know why so many otherwise rational, sane adults are so incapable of looking at this threat rationally, of disconnecting their legitimate moral revulsion from the sober threat evaluation that is the responsibility of citizens in a dangerous world. We have examples of adult responses to terrorism. Instead, we betray ourselves, in every sense a terrorized, terrified people.

14 comments:

Justin Wade said...

"Al Qaeda is not nearly as coordinated. It is not nearly as hierarchical. It lacks basic inter-organizational communication or leadership structure. It lacks clear goals and leaders who can articulate them. It lacks operational infrastructure. It lacks clear sources of funding. It lacks technical and scientific expertise. It appears now to have always been a loosely connected fellowship of groups and sects, often at odds with one another philosophically and practically, lacking the kind of cohesion or leadership necessary to coordinate major attacks."


Wow, its almost as though 'Al Qaeda', lacking organization, communication, cohesion, outlook, or identifiable goals, is a made up thing.

Freddie said...

Almost!

Big Jim Slade said...

You gloss over the fact that for whatever organizational strengths Al Qaeda lacks, they were far more successful in their biggest attack on the US then Aum was in Japan. With some knives and pilot lessons they brought down the 2 biggest buildings in NYC and crushed part of the Pentagon and left approx. 3000 dead (as if you need me to recount that, but you avoided comparing the biggest results). They had no need of the brightest scientists for that. Regardless of what Aum has and Al Qaeda has not, Al Qaeda has been far more successful at inspiring international violence.

Then you claim that we are suffering vast new encroachments on our civil liberties and alterations to our basic way of life. On the contrary I don't think our nation has acted at all like it has had 2 wars ongoing for the last decade or so. We were told to go shopping to keep the economy going. So I get patted down at airports and they "know" who I've called or emailed since I don't bother with any VPN stuff. It hasn't changed the way I live and I don't know anybody who has really changed the way they live. I agree that our country's response to terrorism has been eye-rolling, but only to a point. Basically, not to the point of inconvenience beyond airport security. Though, like Obama, I welcome a dialog regarding just what sort of information about citizen behavior should be collected by the government. Perhaps unlike Obama, I assume until proven otherwise that this collection of data is a waste. I'm more troubled by this administration's going after journalists and whistle blowers than general communication records.

After Congress' rolling over each time the card of national security gets played, I'm not optimistic they will have an adult response (I agree in general with you about our response to 9/11, just disagree with the degree - "totally consumed" sounds more like media paranoia than how people are really living their lives). I think congress critters will act pretty knee-jerk, weak, self-righteous, intellectually cheap and convenient, rather than serious (let's posture for popularity). They like to quote our founding fathers, but could never take ideals seriously enough to write a constitution like the ff's did.

Freddie said...

You gloss over the fact that for whatever organizational strengths Al Qaeda lacks, they were far more successful in their biggest attack on the US then Aum was in Japan. With some knives and pilot lessons they brought down the 2 biggest buildings in NYC and crushed part of the Pentagon and left approx. 3000 dead (as if you need me to recount that, but you avoided comparing the biggest results). They had no need of the brightest scientists for that. Regardless of what Aum has and Al Qaeda has not, Al Qaeda has been far more successful at inspiring international violence.

Indeed-- they exploited a specific and egregious security hole which began to be patched literally the day the attacks took place. By the fourth plane, the tactic of using airliners as terrorist weapons was rendered moot.


Big Jim Slade said...

Also, I think that Aum's well-structured, heirarchical definability makes it easier to deal with, both policy-wise and mentally. Al Qaeda's vagueness-- which actions are they responsible for? which are done by sympathizers? which are done by other Islamists who just want to target big, bad America?.. ooh, danger could lurk anywhere -- creates a generalized fear. We can't define clearly what the threat is, so irrational behavior is a more, um, reasonable response to this than it would be to Aum. So people start acting like belligerent, paranoid ninnies rather than accept what they can't perfectly define and consider properly handled. Then there are those in the media and in politics that choose to capitalize on this.

Though I still think that this fear gets mostly played out when talking about politics and airport security, then people go about their lives - summer's coming, we have a lot of food to grill and beer to drink.

If the news that has come out about the government's data collection elicits an adult response to terrorism, and some better limits on government's reach, that would be awesome. But I'll believe it when I see it.

marchfornoreason said...

Great post, Freddie.

—ballgame

Paul Hazen said...

"Indeed-- they exploited a specific and egregious security hole which began to be patched literally the day the attacks took place. By the fourth plane, the tactic of using airliners as terrorist weapons was rendered moot."

I'm also pretty sure I've read that prior to 9/11, airlines were reluctant to add locks to cockpit doors because of the costs, so it's not as if this egregious security hole wasn't known in advance.

jcapan said...

Aum was a home-grown domestic attack. The parallel would be the OKC bombings. Trust that the Japanese, terrified every time North Korea is ready to launch a rocket, who think most domestic crime is perpetrated by foreigners, and is currently led by right wing war apologists, would hardly react rationally if international terrorist attacks targeted the homeland. They could only be so lucky to exploit it for their own ends, first and foremost amending the pacifist constitution.

In addition, I'd say it's a more comforting thought to see the US reaction to 9/11 as irrational. As opposed to cold, calculating and endlessly brutal in pursuit of long-cherished geopolitical objectives that have nothing to do with terrorism, as well as the mindboggling enrichment of the defense industry. This latter point is something liberals should talk about as much as possible, especially as it aligns with one of our most important narratives--the huge transfer of wealth from taxpayers to elites. As if our endless wars are paid for by Wall Street financiers.

redscott said...

It's a good point. Based on the undoubted trauma of 9/11, you could forgive all of us a certain lack of perspective and pantswetting for a while, but twelve years on our failure to ask the questions you pose looks less and less understandable and more and more stupid.

Jonathan M said...

"People tell me constantly: there's vast throngs on terrible terrorists out there, and we have to give up our freedoms to fight them! And I ask: where? Who? In what numbers? Of what destructive capability? How do you know? Where's your proof? Always: nothing. No meaningful response at all. They just know."

This is quite a standard of proof to hold people to. Could you provide me with such a level of proof that a bureaucrat is about to use PRISM to commit blackmail or silence dissent?

You call Japan's measured response rational. But say there's some Japanese politician who suggests, after the previous nerve gas incident in Matsumoto, that some PRISM-like system is necessary because they hadn't yet found the culprits. It's certainly possible that they would've found Aum and prevented the 1995 attack, right? Wouldn't that politician have been the rational one?

Alex Davis said...

Big Jim Slade: "I don't know anybody who has really changed the way they live."

Freddie said...

This is quite a standard of proof to hold people to.

It's not, actually, in anything resembling a conventional historical context. If I said that there was an army that was coming to kill us and that we had to suspend our constitutional rights to fight it, you wouldn't ask me those questions?

It's certainly possible that they would've found Aum and prevented the 1995 attack, right?

Probably not, actually, but then it's impossible to port our understanding of a pre-widespread adoption of the Internet attack to modern contexts.

J. Brad Hicks said...

Here via Bruce Schneier, thanks for writing this - and thanks, Freddie, for making the point that one of the only two things we needed to do to prevent another 9/11 was achieved by the heroes of flight 93 before the day was even over.

Do you think that maybe Japan's refusal to be terrorized by Aum Shinrikyo has something to do with why it inspired fewer followers and copycats than al Qaeda has? Do you think that if Japan had freaked out for a decade about the subway attack, there would still be self-proclaimed Aum Shinrikyo "terror cells" and lone terrorists trying to attack around the world? It seems plausible.

Within hours of the 9/11 attacks, I was running around telling people that Americans, collectively, were going to decide over those first couple of days which response predominated: anger, or fear. And I begged my friends, and anybody else who would listen, to be angry. Because nobody ever made an intelligent decision while scared. Instead (probably because we were governed by an entire government full of chicken hawks) we chose fear, and, in my mind, that explains everything that has gone wrong with counter-terrorism since.

Dubya Bee said...

The fact that you are unaware of a PRISM-like response in Japan does not mean that it does not exist.