Will al Qaeda continue to pursue WMD? The results of successful CVE

Immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001, many worried about al Qaeda’s pursuit of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) for use in an attack against the West.  The panic surrounding this topic has dimmed as of late.

However, in 2006, I was continuing to slog away on my labor economics application to terrorist group recruitment and began working on the tradeoffs between capital and labor for groups like al Qaeda.  In my final of three posts from the working paper, “Jihadists Seeking Challenging Martyrdom Opportunity; Will Travel”, I’ll post a somewhat counter-intuitive theory as to when al Qaeda might accelerate their pursuit of WMD.

In two past posts, I discussed the price for recruiting a person to extremism as the sum of tangible and intangible benefits dictated by the 1) recruit’s role within the terror group and 2) the region from which the terror recruit is recruited. The rationale suggested that successful CVE strategies would raise the price for each recruit resulting in a net loss of recruits for the extremist group.  But, what if the West is successful in countering violent extremism (CVE) and deterring recruitment?

Currently, the price for recruitment into al Qaeda (AQ) appears quite high from the terror group’s perspective.  Recent news reporting suggests that for most potential recruits the perceived benefits of joining AQ are less than the benefits earned by participating in a new Arab Spring government or joining a local jihadi group that may or may not have strong connections with AQ.  If recruitment is down for AQ, does that mean AQ is done – maybe, but probably not.

Using basic economic theory, I constructed a factors of production diagram below which shows the combination of labor (people) and capital (technology) used by AQ to execute their terrorist attacks assuming resources remain constant (important point I’ll discuss below).  In Line A, we see a labor heavy AQ where they use lots of men to execute low technology attacks (Example: Conventional attacks and suicide bombings, think AQ in Iraq 2006-07).  The red curve (cost curve for econ geeks) shows the production point of attacks for the terror group   In Line B, we see the effects of decreased recruitment on AQ terror attack production.  With fewer recruits, AQ has less labor to execute their attacks and their production decreases to where the red curve hits Line B.  Line B might represent current day where AQ still executes attacks but not at a pace considerable to their peak.  So what does AQ do?

Economic theory says, assuming financing remains constant, that AQ will take it’s resources not being invested in new recruits (labor) and will shift it to capital acquisitions – more advanced technology.  In Line C, AQ acquires more capital technologies (Example: WMD) and uses this new tech and fewer men to execute an equal or higher level  of terror attack production. (note: terror attack level = combination of frequency and intensity) So would a decrease in AQ recruitment mean AQ might increase their efforts to acquire WMD?

Is AQ aggressively going after WMD?

Probably not.  While I’m certain AQ would take any opportunity to acquire WMD, the underlying assumption of this model is that resources remain constant. Not only is AQ’s senior leadership weakened and suppressed in Pakistan, but they are also likely lacking sufficient funding to aggressively pursue WMD.  Likewise, this model does not address the issue of acquisition and implementation of more advanced capital.  As research has borne out in recent years, acquiring WMD still remains quite difficult for AQ and moving and initiating the device remains a complicated task.  Looking at the WMD options for AQ, only radiological attacks (“dirty bomb”) seem feasible operationally for AQ as a widespread WMD event and even then, developing and implementing one of these attacks would prove quite costly in terms of labor, capital and time – all things AQ globally seems to be lacking at the moment. In this same line of thinking, AQ could choose to pursue other damaging tech capabilities such as cyber threats.  But, cyber terrorism, even if executed well by AQ, seems to lack the flare and punch AQ needs in a time of their decline with respect to other jihadist groups.

Why talk about this now?

While AQ recruitment may be down and I believe the U.S. should feel better about its current place in the terrorism fight, this economic theory shows that any terror group or lone terrorist intent on killing Americans and sufficiently resourced can still execute a spectacular attack regardless of their size.  Thus, our successes in CVE or global circumstances mitigating recruitment (Arab Spring) should not convince us that AQ is done.  Instead, we might think about what AQ would do when recruitment is down.  Maybe, AQ will look for a more advanced technological method to achieve their goals.