Strategies of Failure

Why would a terrorist claim credit for a failed (sometimes badly) attack?

The botched Times Square plot; Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban”, TTP) claims responsibility.


The Christmas Day “underwear bomber” attempt; Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claims responsibility.

The air cargo/toner cartridges attempt; again, AQAP claims responsibility.

Reuters / Hyungwon Kang

Tactical failures might be seen to have some strategic success when the target or its protectors react in ways that are costly and ultimately futile. In a “bleeding” strategy, they might, in essence, be bleeding themselves.

Al Qaeda had historically tended not to to claim responsibility for even successful attacks (most notably the East Africa embassy bombings). And certainly never for failed attacks or foiled plots (Richard Reid, Jose Padilla, the 2006 transatlantic air plot–which was, incidentally, the seminal event that led to us checking constrained volumes of shampoo and mouthwash in Ziploc bags); all these have been linked to AQ.


Some insight might be gleaned from Usama bin Laden (UBL) himself, in claiming that our response to minor financial and physical efforts on the part of terrorists may cost millions, even billions. A particularly literal reading of asymmetric warfare:

…for example, al-Qaida spent $500 000 on the event, while America, in the incident and its aftermath, lost – according to the lowest estimate – more than 500 billion dollars. Meaning that every dollar of al-Qaida defeated a million dollars by the permission of Allah, besides the loss of a huge number of jobs.

As for the size of the economic deficit, it has reached record astronomical numbers estimated to total more than a trillion dollars.

And possibly, a lesson on measuring the means and goals of our reactions:

All that we have to do is to send two Mujahideen to the furthest point East to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies.

Ultimately, the Times Square attempt, the Christmas Day bomb attempt, etc., were foiled not by law enforcement or military measures, but by ordinary people–street vendors, even. UBL says, “Your security is in your own hands”; I suspect this isn’t what he means, but I’m really fond of Stephen Flynn’s formulation of taking one’s security into their own hands:

There were no federal air marshals aboard the aircraft. The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, could not intercept it; it did not even know that the plane had been hijacked. Yet United 93 was stopped 140 miles from its likely destination—the U.S. Capitol or the White House—because of the actions of the passengers who stormed the cockpit… Americans should celebrate — and ponder — the reality that the legislative and executive centers of the U.S. federal government, whose constitutional duty is to “provide for the common defense,” were themselves defended that day by one thing alone: an alert and heroic citizenry.

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2 Responses to “Strategies of Failure”

  1. Chris April 17, 2011 at 1:23 pm #

    Unfortunately, it might be too little too late in terms of the damage we’ve already inflicted upon ourselves. But I’ve always found a comparison of 9/11 fatalities to other causes in the US to be a relevant measure. For example, gall bladder disorders, asthma, or even just falling down each kill more people in the US each year ( And we’ve managed to double the 9/11 casualties with the lives of our service wo/men. Of course, this in itself isn’t a complete argument for action or prudent, strategic restraint. However, it does make me wonder, at least just a little, if we’d not been better off responding with a National Day of Laughter and a few plane loads of “Is that all you’ve got AQ?” leaflets…followed by a month or two of tactical missile strikes and special operations. The rest of our expenses could have been redirected towards schools and financial industry reform.


  1. 9/11 Plus 10 (gestaltist) - September 12, 2011

    […] puts me in mind of a prior Gestaltist post on strategic failure where I quoted Stephen Flynn on resilience. It’s worth quoting again: […]

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