It seems that that both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, or in the case of the latter at least, some of their satellite groups or hangers-on, have rediscovered the true value of 'ROI terrorism' - where inflicting a high economic price on the target community is the key objective of the 'attack'. I’m sure that bin Laden understood the economic impact of hitting the Twin Towers just a stones’ throw away from Wall Street. Yet this thought was likely secondary to the cost in human lives and the worldwide visual impact accentuated by the fact that it happened in New York City - the world’s largest media market. The 9/11 event (I call it this since they haven't managed to repeat it yet on US soil) took months of planning and cash according to the report of the US commission setup to investigate it. Any objective observer would surely agree that 9/11 provided a tremendous return on this investment (hence, ‘ROI terrorism’) for al-Qaeda. Somehow they have failed to get similar returns from other subsequent events. The problem is that after 9/11 what we are all watching for in the 'west' is the next big spectacular, with 'spectacular' being the operative world.
Yet the real story of modern terrorism is that it is a mind numbing, daily grind for both the people who perpetuate it and those who try to prevent it. Of course, the terrorists only have to be lucky once whereas defenders have to be lucky all the time but both sides just hammer away continuously trying to find that odd moment that they can call a 'win' - a return on the investment that they have made in carrying out or preventing terrorism. 9/11 and bin Laden's death are both sides of the same coin even if the respective investments of either side are asymmetric.
Still, when one party consistently presses home an attack on the weaker parts of the other it can be a game changer which brings us to the two stories I mention above. The first is the Taliban's attack on the Allied Camp Bastion base in Afghanistan in which 6 Harrier jets were destroyed and a further 2 were seriously damaged. Unbelievably, this was the single biggest loss in American airpower since Vietnam. The full impact of this story was under reported precisely because it took a few days for the full details to emerge and the world had moved on. In fact, the cost of these assets alone is over US$150 million and that's beyond the reputational damage to the allied forces involved. For the loss of just 11-15 Taliban lives this must be considered an ROI win for the terrorists/insurgents.
The second, has even more serious implications in my view. This is the report from the Russian news service that Russia’s security chief has warned that international terrorism is changing and spreading its tactics, from setting fire to European forests to obtaining Weapons of Mass Destruction in Mid-East countries that suffer from internal crisis. The latter is to be expected as al-Qaeda worms its way in behind well-intentioned reformers but the former is really disturbing. As budgets are cut across Europe, terrorist ‘elements’ can cause disastrous results with a just a few matches and little chance of dying or getting caught. If this turns out to truly be a tactical shift, the implications are as serious as they are profound.
This is not new. The IRA recognised the value of economic targets particularly those in the City of London but its remergence as an explicit terrorist tactic seems to me to be a cause for grave concern. My good friend Roger has spent most of his life studying terrorism - both the modern kind and its history. He authors a great blog here detailing all sorts of ingenious schemes that those wishing to wreak havoc have come up with to do exactly that. I have looked at this for a number of years and I now realise that the most effective ones are those that get the best ROI. As an economist, I might be expected to say this but it seems to be self-evident that the longer lasting the economic impact the more likely the terrorist is to cause extensive damage to the morale and psyche of western democracies - which is their ultimate aim.