By Ashley Rhoades, Reporter
On Thursday, November 13, the Center for Security Studies hosted a special event for the release of Dr. Bruce Hoffman’s latest book, The Evolution of the Global Terrorist Threat: From 9/11 to Osama bin Laden’s Death. Written in partnership with Fernando Reinares, a senior global terrorism analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid and a longtime friend of Hoffman’s, the book presents 25 case studies that demonstrate that al-Qaeda, far from disappearing after 9/11, has played a vital role in nearly every major terrorist attack in the period between 9/11 and Osama bin Laden’s death in May of 2011. Dr. Hoffman, himself a leading authority on terrorism in addition to his role as Director of the Center for Security Studies, contributed a chapter on the July 7, 2005 bombings in London, and co-authored the book’s introduction and conclusion.
During the event, and in an interview with the GSSR prior, Dr. Hoffman provided insights into his inspiration for writing the book, the book’s central argument, and its place within the community of counterterrorism scholars and policy-makers.
Hoffman and Reinares began working on the book in 2009, galvanized into action by a raging debate within the terrorism community about whether terrorist organizations still mattered. “There was a debate in the terrorism community in 2008-2009, much as there is a discussion today, about whether terrorism had become a bottom-up rather than top-down phenomenon driven by ‘lone wolves’ or ‘bunches of guys,’ by self-radicalized, self-selected, self-motivated people carrying out attacks, and, if this was true, whether terrorist groups and terrorist organizations still mattered,” Hoffman explained. “This played into the argument that al-Qaeda had been defeated during the ‘War on Terror’ and had ceased to exist as an organizational or even an operational entity, and that Bin Laden was just a figurehead.”
The book set out to prove that organized, rather than “leaderless,” terrorism is still the order of the day, as Hoffman’s own research had pointed him in this direction. “After the 2006 failed bombing plot in London, I started looking much more into incidents in the United Kingdom, and finding, especially in my chapter, which is on the 7/7/05 London bombings, that al-Qaeda was up to its elbows in these terrorist plots,” he said. “And yet, even up to this day, people deny it. I was at a conference two years ago, and one of the most senior counterterrorism officials in the United States said that the biggest threat we face is a bunch of guys getting on a train from Leeds to London and just deciding to blow themselves up, like they did in London in 2005. And I’m thinking that if even people at the highest levels of government believe this, we’re not going to get our policies right, because our analysis is wrong.”
The implications of this conclusion are profound for policy-makers grappling with how to effectively combat terrorism, as Hoffman and Reinares challenge the conventional notion that the terrorist attacks of the last decade or so have been perpetrated by “lone wolves” or “bunches of guys.” In describing the scope of his book, Hoffman said, “Fernando and I both felt we had a stake in this debate, because we wanted to find out what the answer was, and because we recognized that it went beyond any personal rivalries, that it was a serious policy issue. We decided to look at terrorism not only in the West but outside the West, in areas of conflict in the Middle East and South Asia and Africa, and we got the best experts from these various locales to look at the most important terrorist plots or attacks during the decade following 9/11 and to assess whether they were top-down or bottom-up. And what we found was that, of the 25 case studies, all but one had an organizational dimension. There was only one that really was bottom-up, was bunches of guys, but the rest of them had only one or two degrees of separation from al-Qaeda, showing that al-Qaeda remained extremely active in these post-9/11 plots.”
In Hoffman’s view, what makes the book unique to any he has encountered in his nearly 40 years of studying terrorism is that it takes “a systematic, very rigorous analytical look at the entire al-Qaeda phenomenon, including the affiliates, the associates, the franchises, the resonance of the al-Qaeda message, and the power of its brand.” He challenges the notion that terrorism is driven by people who “wake up and suddenly decide to become violent,” arguing instead that terrorism is propelled by organizations that deliberately radicalize and recruit individuals and “feed them propaganda to encourage them to commit violence.” He points out that the trends presented in the book foreshadow the rise of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (which he identifies as franchises of al-Qaeda), supporting his argument that terrorist organizations are not only still active, but are at the forefront of perpetrating acts of terrorism.
Hoffman also states that the case studies in the book demonstrate a clear evolution in terrorism, and that we must be constantly adapting to effectively combat these new and changing threats, as terrorism is a moving target both in its infrastructure and goals. In describing the changing nature of the fight against terrorism, Hoffman said, “Al-Qaeda has traditionally had a strategy of near enemy and far enemy, sometimes attacking local rulers they thought were insufficiently Islamist or apostates, and then, of course, the West. Now, however, you can say that it is first and foremost a sectarian war between Sunni and Shia, and the perception is that this is yet another phase in this age-old struggle between Arab and Persian that’s been going on for centuries that created this division in Islam. Then, al-Qaeda resents the West and the US because they feel that, not only did they play a hand historically in creating this conflict by drawing the map of the Middle East after World War I, but they are still constantly interfering with this dynamic, and to a certain extent, they’re right.”
Applying this knowledge to the policy decisions facing the Obama administration today, Hoffman said, “this is why I think any kind of overt or formal alliance with Iran could be a disaster, because even though Iran and the US, as the President’s recent letter suggested, have very common security aims, sectarianism is such an important part of the struggle that this alliance could be absolutely inflammatory.”
In addition to delving into the content of the book, Hoffman also briefly described the process of putting it together, crediting a handful of SSP students (who had been his research assistants during the book project) with playing an “enormous and pivotal role” in the extensive editing process and pointing out that Columbia University Press had (in a rare case) printed the Georgetown Center for Security Studies seal inside the book.
After answering several questions, Hoffman concluded the discussion with a call to action. Referring back to an anecdote he had shared earlier in the discussion about passing the Thomas Jefferson Memorial every day on the way to work, Hoffman invoked a quote by Jefferson to illustrate his point: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Jefferson’s words remain applicable today, Hoffman argued, because “no matter how jaded we are with the war on terrorism or how strongly we desire the war to be over, the reality is different. Terrorism is constantly changing and evolving, and our thinking about it has to keep pace if we’re going to stay safe.”