Dr. Bruce Hoffman, vice president of external affairs and director of the RAND corporation, spoke on the future of terrorism last night as a part of the lecture series in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Global Conflict and Terrorism class. Hoffman, who works in the Washington, D.C. office is an internationally recognized expert on terrorism who has testified extensively in front of the U.S. Congress.
In his lecture, entitled “The Continuing Threat of al-Qaeda and the Future of Terrorism,” Hoffman focused on the discussion of three main themes: recent and future changes in terrorism and the terrorist threat, the lack of resemblance of the United States’ war on terrorism to its past wars and the increasing difficulty of characterizing terrorism itself.
Recent changes in terrorists’ methods within the past two and a half years are “largely due to successes” in the United States’ war against al-Qaeda, Hoffman said. He pointed to the U.S. forces’ weakening of al-Qaeda’s operational bases as evidence of this success. However, as the U.S. improves its response to terrorism, adversaries show “enormous adaptability,” Hoffman said. He then called terrorism an “enormously dynamic phenomenon,” in which groups constantly find new means to obviate defenses. He warned that the U.S. cannot afford to “rest on past laurels” on matters of national security, with al-Qaeda’s methods changing at least as quickly as response mechanisms.
Hoffman called his second theme a “truism,” showing the contrast between the war on terrorism and past wars. He distinguished the war on terrorism by its lack of a single enemy, the “farfetched” possibility of a truce, and the enemy’s definition of a “war of attrition.”
Terrorism is becoming “exponentially more difficult” to counter, said Hoffman as a brief explanation for his third theme. He pointed to the existence of not only one al-Qaeda, but smaller groups throughout the world, as changing the face of terrorism and contributing to its future threat.
In addressing these three themes, Hoffman divided his lecture into four specific issues.
Hoffman first addressed the current transitioning state of al-Qaeda and described it as “a reflection of a nimble adversary.” Over the past three years, the United States has succeeded in changing targeting patterns away from embassies and military centers such as the Pentagon, but the adversaries’ response has been to “seek out and find new targets,” Hoffman said.
Al-Qaeda remains successful in its “ability to inflict pain at some levels … [with the] tragic loss of innocent life,” Hoffman explained. By not focusing on past high-priority targets, al-Qaeda has broadened its possible targets to include more economic and commercial ones. National defense must be “dynamic and flexible” to deal with these new threats.
Propaganda has also contributed to al-Qaeda’s continuing support base. Hoffman pointed to Iraq to explain this point, mentioning Osama bin Laden’s accusation that the U.S. plans to “return to direct colonialization,” taking control of the Muslim world. He said the “use of deception” has been a hallmark of al-Qaeda to gain support, giving the possibility of its using guerrilla warfare in Iraq as a technique to divert American attention from terrorist actions.
Hoffman next stated that he believed al-Qaeda’s existence would survive even without bin Laden. According to Hoffman, the current al-Qaeda is not a single organization, but rather a “trans-national phenomenon.”
“Many al-Qaedas, a multiplicity of like minded organizations” form the most formidable challenge in countering terrorism today, he said. By fostering and inspiring terrorist organizations that span the globe, bin Laden has ensured the continuation of al-Qaeda after his death.
Hoffman added that bin Laden’s corporate succession plan will also ensure al-Qaeda’s continuance. He compared al-Qaeda to a modern corporation with network of succession and promotion, and presented bin Laden’s academic studies in economics and management as evidence.
Hoffman further explained another aspect of al-Qaeda’s success. One of the organization’s key strengths is rebounding from loss of its top leaders with an established network of succession.
Hoffman then shifted his focus from al-Qaeda to Israel to find the comparative role of terrorism in the future. He gave four “watershed events” in Israel’s history of terrorism, including the increased importance of suicide terrorism and the increased use of poisons in terrorist attacks.
According to Hoffman, suicide terrorism has become an increasingly favored terrorism tactic worldwide. He attributed this tactic’s attractiveness to its simplicity, since its only requirement is “the willingness to kill and die.”
Hoffman described the Palestinian terrorists’ recent strategy of coating bombs with anti-coagulants causing victims to bleed to death as a result.
Although this strategy is not too effective since the 90 percent of deaths occur on impact in explosions, the strategy nonetheless increases fear of terrorism.
Hoffman’s final question addressed the future implications of terrorism’s fundamental changes. He warned of the weakening formal links of terrorist attacks to terrorist groups. Attackers can be “animated or influenced” by terrorist leaders without formal connections, Hoffman said.
He added that a “fundamental asymmetry” exists in the war on terrorism. The ability of terrorists to attack opposes the opposition’s ability to prevent attacks. The United States’ response to terrorism can only be as good as its response to terrorist actions that it has previously seen.
In the continuing war against terrorism and al-Qaeda, the United States can use knowledge of previous attacks to improve their understanding of the issue. The country’s goal should be to avoid a “false sense of complacency” to avoid an “opportunistic attack,” Hoffman concluded.
Archived article by Katie Miller