With the latest alarming non-alert (or was it a non-alarming alert?), the other political scientist and I got into a conversation about what Al Qaeda is actually likely to do next. He can correct me if I misrepresent areas of consensus but here is what I remember us agreeing on:
1) Predicting what Al Qaeda will do next is really at the heart of the "War on Terror." Far more important than adventures in Iraq or other "rogue states" which may or may not have any direct links to Al Qaeda.
2) Predicting what Al Qaeda will do next depends on our understanding of what Al Qaeda's goals are. Or at least what the goals of its leaders are.
Here is what I remember us more or less agreeing are major factors contributing to Al Qaeda's goals.
1) Organizational survival. Remember that Al Qaeda's raison d'etre was opposition to Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. When the USSR pulled out and then collapsed, Al Qaeda (and Osama Bin Ladin) were out of a job. It was only then that Al Qaeda transformed itself from an anti-Soviet to an anti-American organization. One can view this as politically opportunistic or entrepreneurial depending on your perspective. In either case, this view of Al Qaeda would mean it’s ideology is actually secondary to its activity. The continued operation of the organization is the goal.
2) Furthering the personal ambition of Osama Bin Laden to be a “big shot” in the Arab world. In this view, Al Qaeda is an organization devoted to increasing the political profile and prestige of Osama Bin Laden. Again, in this view any ideological concerns would be secondary.
So what does that suggest?
1) Osama Bin Laden’s audience is NOT primarily the US or Western public. Rather, he is most concerned with impressing people in the Arab/Muslim world. Either because doing so brings in recruits or because that is the community in which he seeks to have political influence. In this context the point of terror attacks is not simply to maximize the casualty numbers. Rather it is to maximize media sensation in the Arab media. This suggests that attacks against smaller towns and cities in the American Midwest or South are not as likely as many Americans fear, it would take too much to explain what the targets are to the intended audience. Instead, Al Qaeda will continue to try to make the “big score” type attacks. So that would be good news for Austin or Columbus but bad news for New York, D.C., Chicago, L.A. and other cities with more fame outside the USA.
2) Questions about who Bin Laden wants to win the US Presidential election are pointless. Bin Laden probably doesn’t care who wins the US elections so long as he can claim in the Arab press to have been a factor.
Comments? Disagreements? Additions?