Paris, France - As this recent plot demonstrates, Al Qaeda stubbornly defines its targets and then gradually improves its means. The goal: to inspire terror and paralyze the economy. Indeed, stock market fluctuations show a temporary link between mind and burse. But over the long term Al Qaeda's tactics fail.
One of Al Qaeda's lasting fascinations is with hijacking planes and using them as weapons. In December 1994, Ramzi Yusuf, one of the planners of the first World Trade Center attack, detonated a small bomb in a Philippino plane killing one passenger. Then one month later in January 1995 the organization planned to capture eleven planes travelling from South Asia to the United States and crash them into specific American targets, including the World Trade Center. That plot failed, but Al Qaeda kept trying. This persistance is both good and bad news.
The organization aims at highly symbolic targets from the White House to the Eiffel tower, at big cities and at mass transportation systems. It has a preference for spectacular results, relayed all over the world by television. Relying on a combination of ragtag outcasts and professional experts using makeshift devices and sophisticated material, the organization makes full use of the democratization of technical knowledge, using newly affordable technologies hitherto available only to states, big companies or universities.
But in repeating itself Al Qaeda often proves itself unable or unwilling to go beyond "propaganda by deed" by building a true political movement with a military branch. Al Qaeda is trapped by the vision it has of the West: a fragile, demoralized, materialistic world that can be put on its knees by the representation and the anticipation of terror. But the mid-term resilience of the market and the success of classic anti-terror actions (intelligence and judicial cooperation) show that maturity and cold-blood are the best defences for the West. It will take some years -- and much blood -- for the young, would-be terrorists and the surviving old-guard of Al Qaeda to realize that their current strategy simply will not work.
Olivier Roy is a senior researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research. He has written extensively on terrorism and political Islam. His most recent book, Globalized Islam was published by Harvard University Press.
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