Playing “Whack-Em” Ball with Al Qaeda

Connections between the Christmas Underwear Bomber and the Ft. Hood massacre to a radical cleric in Yemen have once again returned that desert country to the center of the ongoing contest against terror and its most notorious emblem, Al Qaeda. It is, of course, not the first time Americans (including much of the media) have scrambled to their Wikipedia or World Almanac to find the country on the southern end of the Arabian peninsula guarding the egress from the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean: a Yemeni port was, after all, where the USS Cole was attacked, and the Yemeni desert was where one of the first and most publicized instances of the CIA using drone-carried Predator missiles against an Al Qaeda target. The desperately poor country (it has no discernible oil) has long been a hotbed of Islamic radicalism and a source of concern with Saudi Arabia, with whom it shares a long and mostly undemarcated border.

The new-old Yemeni problem has, predictably, resulted in a shrill debate over what to do about the threat. At one extreme are those who favor military action and retaliation, although it is not clear what that means beyond dispatching a few more Predator-armed drones into the desert. At the other, the situation seems to indicate the futility of the effort and to call for attempts to better understand and ameliorate the causes of Muslim rage that are directed at this country. Although any real answer probably lies at some undetermined point between the extremes, the situation reminds us that the United States (and everybody else) really has no effective strategy against the terrorist threat, and raises particular questions about the current direction and trajectory of efforts.

As Rick Sanchez suggested yesterday on CNN, the current approach seems to be a variation of the old arcade game, “Whack-Em.” For those too young or sheltered to remember that game, there is a board with holes in it, and the player is given a mallet. Figures surface through the holes, and the object is to whack them with the mallet as a means to subdue them and win the game. The problem, of course, is that as soon as one hits a particular object, another pops up somewhere else on the board, making it very difficult, of not impossible, to subdue the intruder altogether.

U.S. efforts against Al Qaeda do resemble a Whack-Em game in some respects: Al Qaeda emerges somewhere (Afghanistan) or is alleged to (Iraq), and the response is to whack the location with the mallet in the form of American military force. The result is to expend a lot of time, energy, and resources, only to find Al Qaeda popping up somewhere else–in this case, Yemen. Should the U.S. move to whack Al Qaeda in Yemen, is there any doubt that they will pop up somewhere else soon thereafter (Somalia is always a good candidate)?

Those in the terrorism community understand that part of the problem of Al Qaeda (and international religious terrorism generally) is that it is no longer a single, integrated, and centralized entity (to the extent it ever was), but rather a whole series of independent “franchise” operations in countries around the world. Its hydra-headed nature is akin to the “demons” under the Whack-Em board: subdue one and another pops up somewhere else to take its place.

“Whack-Em” as a strategic principle will not work to solve, or even to manage effectively, the problem. Anyone who has ever played the game knows it is fun and even stress-relieving to smash those little devils when they pop up on the board, but doing so ultimately does not solve any problems or provide strategic success.

I do not know the strategic answer to Al Qaeda and terrorism generally, but I do know (or think I know) that Whack-Em, while tempting, is not the solution to the problem.

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