What is the state of al Qaeda & terrorism two years after Bin Laden? Vote Now!

Two years ago, Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan marking one of the most significant milestones in the history of terrorism and counterterrorism. Two and a half years ago, I began conducting surveys to assess what the impact might be if Osama Bin Laden ever met his demise.  These surveys have since become an annual assessment I generate to gauge public perceptions of the threat of al Qaeda and terrorism in general.  While Bin Laden may be gone, terrorism continues and the past year has demonstrated how terrorist attacks might manifest themselves in a variety of ways from Benghazi to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Today, I’m launching the fifth iteration of the al Qaeda Strategy/Post Bin Laden Survey.  Thanks to those that have participated in versions #1 – Does Bin Laden Matter – Jan.2, 2011, #2 – AQ Strategy 2011-2012 – April 27. 2011, #3 – Terrorism Post-Bin Laden – May 2, 2011, #4 One Year After Bin Laden– May 2, 2012. You can find the results at this link which hosts the results of past surveys.

This poll is shorter and a bit different than past surveys.  Realizing there have been changes in terrorism, I opened the questions up a bit to include new emerging trends.  However, I did repeat some questions verbatim so we can see how our collective thinking has changed over time.

Thanks in advance for contributing to the survey. And anyone is welcome to participate – the more votes the better the results. I’ll begin posting the results and comparisons with past data sets in a few weeks.  Here is the link to the survey if you would like to open it in a separate window: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/2yearsafterBinLaden

And if you would like to just take the survey here, I’ve embedded it in this post.  Thanks for taking the survey!

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1Year After Bin Laden Poll – AQ Plots Decreased – Results #2

In this second published result of the “1 Year After Bin Laden” Poll, I decided to focus on a question that is somewhat relevant to the current debate in the media following recent events in Libya.

On May 2, 2011, several hundred respondents answered a question with regards to what would be the “Chief Consequence of Bin Laden’s death?”. 

Two of the potential responses provided for what might happen in the wake of Bin Laden’s death were:

To examine the efficacy of the crowdsourcing prediction generated on May 2, 2011, I did an assessment with the “1 Year Post Bin Laden” poll executed on May 2, 2012 asking:

“Since Usama Bin Laden’s death, have al Qaeda Central directed plots against the U.S. and its allies increased or decreased?”

In total, 206 people answered this question and the majority of respondents (71%) stated that al Qaeda Central plots against the U.S. had decreased over the past year.

Here are the results in a chart broken down by professional groups.  Below this chart is the breakdown of votes per demographic group and percentage of each.  Note, each professional group depicted in the first chart has a different number of total votes.  For example, there were 30 ‘Private Sector’ voters but only 4 ‘Media and Journalism’ voters so the percentages in the chart will fluctuate greatly with each vote in those professional groups with low cell counts.

For professional groups, here’s what I found to be interesting results:

  • ‘Government-Contractors’ and ‘Government – Non-Military’ were more likely than average to think that plots increased over the past year while ‘Government-Military’ were more likely than average to think that plots had decreased over the past year.
  • ‘Private Sector’ voters were less likely than average to think that plots increased over the past year, yet ‘Private Sector’ voters immediately following Bin Laden’s death were the most likely to select that ‘AQ plots will increase’.

After building the professional group charts, I went through and tabulated the raw vote and percentages for all demographic factors to include professional group, education level, preferred information source and residency.  This produced the most interesting results.  Below is a chart and I highlighted particular lines of interest in different colors.  Those lines in green represent groups that were less likely than average to believe that AQ plots had increased over the past year.  Those lines in yellow represent groups that were more likely than average to believe that AQ plots had increased.  Overall, here is what I found interesting and I’d like to hear what readers think about these results.

  • Those that prefer getting their information on al Qaeda from ‘Social Media’ and ‘Television’ were far more likely to believe AQ Central plots against the U.S. had increased since Bin Laden’s death.  Meanwhile, those reading ‘Academic Publications’ and ‘Newspapers’ were less likely than average to believe AQ plots had increased after Bin Laden’s death.  Assuming the crowd vote of 70% against is correct, this may suggest that social media and television create an amplification effect making every individual attack seem like many attacks.  A common argument about the 9/11 attacks and cable TV news was that the constant replaying of the 9/11 attacks resulted in the public believing terrorism was more pervasive than it actually was. Viewers watching endless replays of the attacks began to subconsciously believe there were more threats than there actually were.  I personally feel this same effect from social media where Twitter, Blogs and newsfeeds create circular, redundant reporting that makes it difficult to determine the severity and frequency of attacks and true strength of threats.  We’ve also seen this with domestic extremism in the States.  Essentially, if one looks for and reads about terror attacks all day, they’ll find a lot of threats – aka “Threat Myopia”. Likewise, I wonder if in depth research findings from academic publications and the broader perspective of newspapers has the reverse effect on the information consumer. All just theories but an interesting result form the survey data.
  • Strangely, those with at least 2 years living outside the U.S. and E.U. were slightly more likely to believe that AQ plots had increased.  I would have expected the reverse, but the difference is very slight and only slightly above the average of all voters.




1 Year After Bin Laden Poll – Respondent Overview – Results #1

On May 2, 2012, I launched the “One Year After Bin Laden” poll asking readers to assess what the effect has been of Bin Laden’s death on al Qaeda and international terrorism.  This survey was the first annual follow up to the “AQ Strategy 2011-2012” and “Post UBL Survey” conducted immediately before and immediately after Bin Laden’s death on May 2, 2011.  Note, this year’s crowdsourcing experiment asked the crowd to assess the outcomes of the collective forecasts made by several hundred respondents in 2011.  The questions for this year’s survey were direct followups to the questions asked one year earlier.

Thanks to all those that took the time to complete the “1 Year After Bin Laden” survey.  Your collective contributions resulted in 274 participants answering some portion of the survey and roughly 185 respondents completing all of the questions.

This post provides a summary of the responses to demographic questions posed during the conduct of the “1 Year After Bin Laden” survey.  This post mirrors the demographic roll up generated during the 2011 surveys in order to compare the makeup of this year’s (2012) crowd to the sample queried last year (2011).  For a comparison to the initial crowdsourcing forecast, see this post from May 10, 2011 (AQ Strategy 2011-2012 & Post UBL Poll Overview).

Here are graphs showing the professional, education and academic focus of respondents to the survey.  Here’s some comparisons to last year’s respondents.

  • Again, the respondents have a high level of education with more than half having a MA or higher degree.  In fact, the distribution of education attainment in the 2012 sample almost matches the 2011 sample exactly.
  • The professional makeup of the 2012 respondents is quite similar to the 2011 respondents.  This year has fewer students and military respondents, but slightly more academia and government contractor respondents.
  • The academic focus of respondent’s degrees in the 2012 sample again almost matches the distribution of degrees from the 2011 sample.
  • The distribution of the demographic samples is quite similar between 2011 and 2012.  Thus, it should be quite interesting to see which academic and professional groups have changed their minds since their collective forecasts immediately following Bin Laden’s death.

Crowdsourcing U.S. National Security: In Progress Review

Those familiar with this blog have likely participated in some of my crowdsourcing experiments.  You may have needed to fall asleep one night and decided to read an article I co-authored on its application in national security issues.  Well, this week, the LA Times published an in-progress update on a recent IARPA study to see if groups of experts can accurately predict future national security events.

In “U.S. intelligence tests crowd-sourcing against its experts“, one finds Dr. Philip Tetlock, the Godfather of Expert Political Judgment, taking on a MITRE team to see if crowds can do better than internal U.S. government experts in predicting future national security events.

The study, known as Aggregative Contingent Estimation, is designed to see whether the 17 agencies in the U.S. intelligence community can aggregate the judgment of its thousands of analysts — rather than rely on the expertise of just a few — to issue more accurate warnings to policy makers before and during major global events.

Tetlock notes that his group of experts:

“In year one, we beat the unweighted average by about 57%, which was big,” he said. A control group, run by Mitre Corp., averages scores without giving weight to participants who tally the best results.

Mark Lowenthal, a veteran intelligence professional, disagrees with the notion of crowdsourcing in the national security forecasting space.

“I don’t believe in the wisdom of crowds,” said Mark Lowenthal, a former senior CIA and State Department analyst (and 1988“Jeopardy!” champion) who now teaches classified courses about intelligence. “Crowds produce riots. Experts produce wisdom.”

Well, thanks to those that have participated in my crowdsourcing experiments (1, 2, & 3). I have my own opinions based on your contributions.  I’ll keep my mouth shut for now, but expect something quite soon that strays from both Tetlock and Lowenthal’s positions as I’m currently analyzing the results of the 1 Year After Bin Laden survey.  Thanks to all of you for contributing, and if new to this blog and interested in seeing what crowdsourcing is all about, click on this link – “One Year After Bin Laden Crowdsourcing“.  Results will be forthcoming at this blog beginning in September.

And to see the results of the first crowdsourcing experiment, see this page with associated highlights.

Last Call For Votes: One Year After Bin Laden, What has happened?

Thanks to all that have participated in the latest crowdsourcing survey here at Selected Wisdom.  We’ve already received hundreds of votes and I’m still looking for more perspectives, so if you have 3 minutes, I’m making a final call for votes to answer the question:

One year after Usama Bin Laden’s (UBL) death, what has happened with respect to terrorism and al Qaeda?

Click on this link to cast your vote:  VOTE HERE- ONE YEAR AFTER BIN LADEN

And feel free to send along this link (https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/UBLayearlater) to anyone that might be interested in voting and up for the challenge of assessing al Qaeda a year after the death of its founder.  I’ll start posting the results in the next week or so.

Thanks for contributing!

Terrorism After Bin Laden: What we thought a year ago

Thanks to those having voted during this week’s survey on the state of al Qaeda and its terrorism one year after the death of its founder: Usama Bin Laden. For those that haven’t seen the survey and are interested in casting your vote, click here to submit your thoughts on what has changed since Bin Laden’s death.  We’ve already gathered several hundred votes and the results in comparison to last year appear quite interesting.

Speaking of last year, for those that did not see last year’s survey and are curious about where this past week’s survey questions originated from, see this survey from last April 2011 (al Qaeda Strategy 2011-2012) and this survey launched the day of Bin Laden’s death.  These questions were the basis for last week’s assessment survey.

For those also interested in what respondents thought about al Qaeda’s strategy and state the week before and the week after Bin Laden’s death in 2011, I’ve compiled a list of results and links from a year ago with respect to each question.  I thought a quick post showing the output of last year’s survey might be useful for those interested in what comes out of these surveys.  I’ll post the links in the order in which they were analyzed last spring/summer 2011.  Again, thanks for voting on this year’s survey and please feel free to forward the survey link (https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/UBLayearlater) to anyone you think might be interested.  The more votes the better!

Here’s last year’s results from surveys launched immediately prior and immediately after UBL’s death:

One Year After Bin Laden: What has happened? Vote Now!

Seventeen months ago, I attempted to use crowdsourcing to survey the ‘crowd’ and see if we could collectively predict what will happen to al Qaeda and the world of terrorism after the death of Usama Bin Laden.  The primary question I asked on January 2, 2011 was:

What will be the chief consequence of Usama Bin Laden’s (UBL) death for the global jihadi movement?

Five months later, on May 2, 2011 (one year ago today), U.S. forces killed Bin Laden in Pakistan.  His death triggered a crowdsourcing experiment which re-issued the same question above gathering several hundred responses from terrorism experts and enthusiasts around the world.  My thanks to all participants as your inputs generated significant insights not only about UBL, al Qaeda and the future of terrorism, but provided the basis for today’s assessment:

One year after Usama Bin Laden’s (UBL) death, what has happened with respect to terrorism and al Qaeda?

A year ago, I presented a complex set of questions to the crowd in hopes of teasing out a collective prediction on many different aspects of al Qaeda’s future without its founder.  Today, I ask you to respond to a survey assessing what has happened to al Qaeda over the past year.  If you have the interest and the time, please click the button here to cast your opinions on the current state of al Qaeda:

Click here to take survey
Again this year, all interested in the topic are welcome to participate.  No experience, education or knowledge is required. Nor do you need to have voted last year. With crowdsourcing, the more the better! What do you get for your contributions? The collective insights of all voters and analytical comparison to last year’s collective predictions.

Unlike last year’s survey, this year’s survey consists mostly of dichotomous questions that directly assess the component questions I asked respondents last year.  I believe this year’s survey will be easier for respondents to answer and much faster to complete (Probably 3-5 minutes). Additionally, After many of these questions, I’ll ask you how confident you are in your response. The goal with the confidence questions is to identify a) what issues we are collectively confident about and b) what questions we are collectively less confident about – suggesting the need for further research.

Lastly, if you know of people interested in terrorism studies and al Qaeda, please forward this link to them.
Thanks to all who contribute and I’ll begin publishing the results in the coming weeks.  Here’s a sample question for those that are curious:

8. Since Usama Bin Laden’s death, has al Qaeda inspired recruitment around the world increased or decreased?

Will the real Sayf al-Adel please stand up?

Yesterday’s Twitter feed went ablaze with news from Cairo that Sayf al-Adel had been captured.  Many might remember Adel’s spike in the press following Bin Laden’s death as he was named the “Interim Emir”.

Well, Egyptian authorities captured instead Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi – a man who for decades has been confused with Adel.  I saw one unconfirmed reference stating Makkawi actually returned to Egypt to prove he was not in fact Sayf al-Adel.  For clarification on this debate, I again refer those interested to review the definitive post on Sayf al-Adel by Vahid Brown at this link.  Vahid brought up this debate nearly 5 years ago in some research he was doing and provides clarity in this quote from May 2011:

Secondly, Sayf al-’Adl is not Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi. Colonel Makkawi is ten years older than Sayf and a number of insiders who knew both men in Afghanistan – including Abu Jandal, Noman Benotman, Abu’l-Walid al-Masri and Yasir al-Sirri – have confirmed numerous times over the years that they are two different people. Both were officers in the Egyptian military; Sayf was a paratrooper and colonel in the Egyptian special forces before his 1987 arrest. Both fought at the infamous battle of Jalalabad in 1989, and around that time Sayf joined Bin Laden’s group and Makkawi remained with Zawahiri’s EIJ, though in the early 1990s he had a falling out with Zawahiri and quit the group. Sayf himself, at the end of the fifth letter in his most recent batch of communications posted on Abu’l-Walid’s blog, also emphatically states that Colonel Makkawi and Sayf are two different people.  The one photo we have and which has become ubiquitous in the press lately is indeed of Sayf, not Makkawi, though since that photo was taken Sayf was injured in his right eye. It is surprising that the Makkawi-Sayf confusion persists, given that Muhammad al-Shafi’i drew attention to this case of mistaken identity seven years ago.

Three points in closing.

  1. It’s nice to know the media, who routinely bashes the TSA for having name confusion on the “No-Fly List”, has just as much trouble confirming identities as those they criticize.
  2. We should all be focusing more intently on the actions of Adel.  As posted here many months back, the al Qaeda operators, not the Internet propagandists, will be the ones to successfully reinvigorate al Qaeda after a particularly dark period.  There’s little coverage of Adel in CT punditry because he doesn’t broadcast himself much and appears to prefer doing more than talking.  My take: worry more about the terrorists you can’t see than the terrorists you can see.
  3. I’m also quite a bit interested in Adel because he appears to maybe be a supporter of  crowdsourcing concepts.



Voters estimate 1,300 al Qaeda members globally; Poll Results

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 initiated many interesting articles on al Qaeda.  The Wall Street Journal published “Shadowy Figure: al Qaeda’s size is hard to measure“.  Following this lead, I launched a crowdsourcing effort a month ago to determine al Qaeda’s size based on the estimates provided by those visiting this blog.  This question, unlike my past surveys, should have been well suited for crowdsourcing (I’ll explain why I believe this in a separate post in the coming weeks.)

In total 54 respondents answered the question “How many people in the entire world are members of al Qaeda?” and collectively arrived at the following estimates for the number of al Qaeda members globally.

  • 3,448 people are in al Qaeda – according to the average of all responses.


  • 1,300 people are in al Qaeda – according to the median response of all responses.


  • 5,000 people are in al Qaeda – was the most common response – the mode.

Personally, I thought some outlying responses made the average too high and the median (middle response of all responses) a bit more realistic.  The mode response of 5,000 didn’t surprise me as I’ve commonly heard the numbers 1,000, 5,000 and 10,000 thrown out in news stories related to al Qaeda.

Overall, the highest estimate was 100,000,000 (an outlier I removed since it skewed all the results). The second highest estimate was 25,000 and cast by a ‘Private Sector’ voter.  The lowest estimate was 100 and cast by a ‘Other’ category voter.  Below is a chart showing the average estimate from each professional group.  Note, the ‘Other’ category combined law enforcement, media and others.



While I don’t know this, I wonder if ‘Private Sector’ voters estimate higher because they watch more television news on al Qaeda?  I’ve always felt news coverage made al Qaeda feel bigger than they are in reality.

I’m most interested in the ‘Government – Non Military’ voters.  The estimate of the nine voters selecting this professional category is substantially lower than the other groups.  I’ll hold on my estimate for now as I have a follow up challenge in my next post directly related to the results of this post.

How big is al Qa’ida?

Ten years ago, I remember sitting with some co-workers discussing how many people were in al Qa’ida.  Recently, J.M. Berger from Intelwire initiated an interesting discussion on “What is al Qa’ida?” which tallied the votes of readers.  The findings were quite interesting.  Following up on “what is al Qa’ida?”, I ask “How many people are in al Qa’ida?”  This question, unlike most of my past survey questions, should be ideally suited for crowdsourcing.  Essentially, if enough people vote, we should, on average, be relatively close to the right answer- or at least that is what crowdsourcing advocates say.

So please cast your vote below.  Use any definition of “al Qa’ida” you prefer and take a guess.  I’ll post the results of the collective estimate in a few days.  I also ask for your professional category so we can see how different groups see the size of al Qa’ida. Click on “Done” after the second question and your vote will be submitted.

    Please enter one number and only one number!

If you enter a range I can’t average the collective answers to come up with a single estimate.

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Please forward this link to anyone you think might be interested in voting: