Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Osama bin Laden is not a Romulan

On TVTropes.com, a Xanatos Gambit is a no-lose scenario, where no matter what the good guys do, win, lose or draw, they end up furthering the villain's plan. (It's almost exclusively a bad-guy thing, because having a hero who's pulling all the strings pretty much takes the fun out of things.)

Here's a simplified example from boxing: I try to punch you in the face. If you don't block it, I punch you in the face. If you do block it, it opens up your midsection so I can smash your liver, which is what I really wanted to do all along.

(There's a whole bunch of variations on Xanatos gambits: One is Xanatos Roulette, where the plan depends on a ludicrous sequence of events occurring just so, and pretty much requires the villain to be omniscient. Season 4 of 24 is a notable example of this. And then of course, there's the Thantos Gambit, where the death of the villain is also part of the bigger plan.)

I was reminded of all this the week before Christmas, hearing the NPR story Intelligence Officials: Al-Qaida Learns From Mistakes, about the printer toner bombs. The way we have terrorists built up in our minds, I think we're automatically ascribing Xanatos Gambit mastery to them. Take the toner bombers -- no matter what happens, you can write it up as a terrorist win:

  • Toner bombs blow up plane in mid-air = Terrorist Win
  • Toner bombs don't blow up plane, get delivered to America, explode in some random FedEx office (because they were addressed to non-existent Chicago synagogues) = Terrorist Win
  • Toner bombs get stopped; air freight gets disrupted as everyone freaks out; West spends untold millions on countermeasures = Terrorist Win

The thing about Xanatos Gambits in real life is that I have to believe they don't occur very often, and when they do, they're mostly retroactive, along the lines of "uh, yeah, I meant to do that" (when we look at our own behavior), or more often, "oh my god, these guys are evil geniuses" (when we're looking at our opponents.)

In the example of the toner bomber, it's only a terrorist no-lose scenario if we overreact to each successful -- and more importantly, unsuccessful -- attack.

Two other things about the toner bomber:

* The other aspect of the NPR story was that it was basically about al Qaeda process improvement systems, which makes me wonder: Does al Qaeda have Six Sigma black belts? Can al Qaeda get certified ISO 9000?

* One thing about the toner bombs (that also held true with 9/11) was that they used the West's infrastructure against itself... it's basically the terrorist equivalent of "Stop hitting yourself!"

The title of this post comes from the reputation of Romulans in Star Trek as being master plotters and practitioners of the Xanatos Gambit. Though, really, a better, but much more obscure example from sci-fi would be Servalan from Blake's 7, or even Cobra Command from the GI Joe comic books (not so much with the TV series... those guys were morons.)

I think we in the West have bin Laden built up as this supreme puppetmaster, where it's probably more accurate to see him as keenly adaptable. For example, (I'm relying on my memory of reading Thomas Hammes' The Sling and the Stone), he pretty much completely blew the West's reaction to 9/11 as a way to move his political objectives downfield; while we know bin Laden is playing a long game, he didn't see the Taliban's Afghanistan knuckling under so quickly (arguably, the US taking our eye off the ball because of Afghanistan is what saved bin Laden's Afghan strategy), etc.

Anyway, like I said, I think the real-life Xanatos Gambit relies on retroactivity, overreaction, and picking the right (or wrong, as it may be) framing device, to make your enemy look a lot more ingenious than he actually is.

(Then again, bin Laden may not be a Romulan, but we are not Vulcans -- we can't all be Bruce Schneier, reacting rationally to terrorism. While I'm name-dropping, let's bring in Dan Ariely, to see how we can apply behavioral economics to counterterrorism.)

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