USC Price School of Public Policy

Expert Evaluates bin Laden’s Legacy

Expert Evaluates bin Laden’s Legacy

By Matthew Kredell

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross Counterterrorism author Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, left, discusses the economic toll that al Qaeda operations have taken on the United States, with USC CREATE Associate Director Erroll Southers.
Photo by Srdjan Simonovic

Osama bin Laden is dead, but the former al Qaeda leader’s strategy for defeating the United States survives and – contrary to popular belief – continues to be effective, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross warned.

He is the fourth expert to be featured by the Distinguished Speaker Series offered by USC’s National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE), jointly housed at the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development (SPPD) and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

Author of the forthcoming book Bin Laden’s Legacy, Gartenstein-Ross examined the evolution of al Qaeda’s strategies and analyzed the U.S. missteps in fighting the threat.

“Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, our enemies are correct to see the United States as weaker, economically troubled, militarily exhausted and politically divided,” Gartenstein-Ross said. “Although it is difficult to precisely measure al Qaeda’s contribution to America’s economic woes, it is certain that core errors [by the United States], coupled with al Qaeda’s ingenuity, has made America’s war against the jihadi group incredibly costly.”

The goal of CREATE’s Distinguished Speaker Series is to provide a forum for noted counterterrorism experts from around the world to share their insight into the challenges presented by the transnational threat of terrorism and discuss possible interdisciplinary solutions.

“Daveed Gartenstein-Ross lived up to his reputation as a rising star in the counter-terrorism community,” said Erroll Southers, associate director of CREATE. “The audience was able to get a glimpse of his thinking into his forthcoming book and better understand the past, present and future of the al-Qaeda threat.”

Fully titled Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror, the book was released Aug. 30.

The previous speaker in the series, author and former CIA operations officer Marc Sageman, had said in April that, since 9/11, there had been 59 attempts of neo-jihadi terrorism against the West and that only seven were successful. He defined success as causing a single injury.

Gartenstein-Ross offered a differing viewpoint of what al Qaeda leaders consider a success. In October 2010, the ink-cartridge plot targeting Jewish houses of worship in Chicago apparently was foiled when the explosive-packed printer cartridges were discovered on U.S.-bound cargo planes and removed without incident in Great Britain and Dubai.

But a plot that cost just $4,200 for al Qaeda to carry out caused billions of dollars in new security measures for the United States and other western countries.

A key facet of bin Laden’s anti-American warfare always has been economic. In the first interview bin Laden gave to an Al Jazeera journalist following the 9/11 attacks, he focused more on the economic damage of the attacks – estimating they would cost the United States $1 trillion – than on the death count or physical destruction.

Gartenstein-Ross said that bin Laden gave al Qaeda two core goals, to bleed the U.S. economy and make its conflict with the U.S. as broad as possible. After the September 2008 collapse of the U.S. economy, this strategy evolved into what bin Laden called a “strategy of a thousand cuts.” To bring down America, the terrorists didn’t need to strike big. They could use smaller attacks that involve fewer players and less time to launch, circumventing the security barriers the U.S. worked so hard to erect and feeding into the security phobia that was sweeping America.

The strategy of smaller yet more frequent attacks was designed precisely to drive up the burden to U.S. security, and the U.S. response played right into al Qaeda’s hands.

“In part because of a failure to understand al Qaeda’s strategy, the U.S. ended up with a system for fighting the militant group that is, in many ways, almost precisely backward,” Gartenstein-Ross said. “There are a great deal of resources devoted to the fight against terrorism in an incredibly inefficient manner.”

Gartenstein-Ross cited the most visible example of this inefficiency as airport security, where someone like former Vice President Al Gore can end up being strip-searched twice during a trip to Wisconsin.

As a possible solution, Gartenstein-Ross suggested that the U.S. move to an airport security system focused on passengers most likely to pose a security threat. He doesn’t think this should be done by racial or ethnic profiling but by behavior, nervousness, evasion, age, gender and inappropriate dress (like a large winter coat during the summer) to assess who might pose a greater risk.

“I enjoyed his part about the behavioral detection program, where you address the risk rather than subject everyone to the same security,” said Tony Huynh, a second-year Master of Public Policy (MPP) student at SPPD. “It seems like common sense, especially in a time of fiscal restraints, that a risk-based approach would be better.”

Other suggestions from Gartenstein-Ross include for the U.S. to figure out how to undertake more efficient police measures for a lesser cost and for the U.S. to be more hesitant to use military force when there are no national interests at stake, something which he would argue was the case with the country’s intervention in Libya.

Gartenstein-Ross asserted that, despite constant claims by politicians and U.S. security officials that the country has al Qaeda on the ropes, the U.S. is in a weaker position relative to al Qaeda than it was 10 years ago.

“The present system is something we need to take a good look at,” Gartenstein-Ross said. “Bin Laden’s strategy for defeating the United States most definitely survives his death. If we don’t understand what this strategy is, how it developed and how America’s responses have been so ill-suited to defeating al Qaeda, bin Laden may be even more damaging to the U.S. in death than he was in life.”

Established in 2004, CREATE is an interdisciplinary national research center funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and based at SPPD and USC Viterbi. CREATE’s mission is to improve the nation’s security through the development of advanced models and tools for the evaluation of the risks, costs and consequences of terrorism and to guide economically viable investments in homeland security.

“It was a very informative speech,” said Jason Jacobsen, a first-year MPP student. “I think it is important to take advantage of the opportunity for improvement in homeland security. I’m glad guys like Daveed can advise policymakers to make the appropriate adjustments.”