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The Terrorist Talent Pool

The New York Times reports that new terrorists are rising up to replace those who have been killed or arrested:

Using computer records, e-mail addresses and documents seized after the arrest of Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan last month in Pakistan, intelligence analysts say they are finding that Al Qaeda’s upper ranks are being filled by lower-ranking members and more recent recruits.

“They’re a little bit of both,” one official said, describing Al Qaeda’s new midlevel structure. “Some who have been around and some who have stepped up. They’re reaching for their bench.”

While the findings may result in a significant intelligence coup for the Bush administration and its allies in Britain, they also create a far more complex picture of Al Qaeda’s status than Mr. Bush presents on the campaign trail. For the past several months, the president has claimed that much of Al Qaeda’s leadership has been killed or captured; the new evidence suggests that the organization is regenerating and bringing in new blood.

The implicit criticism is one you hear often about the war on terror: we should just give up, because by fighting terror, we enrage people and enlarge the pool of new recruits to the anti-American cause.

It’s an interesting practical concern. Surely if the Hydra grows a new head every time one is removed, then you’re simply wasting resources swinging your sword. Better to try some other technique.

But the criticism misses an important point about the distribution of terrorist talent. The criticism assumes that the guy on the bench is just as good as the first stringer. But I assume terrorism is like anything else—some are better at it than others. Getting rid of the best means that the ones who replace the best are not as good. It’s like saying that if the top 50 pitchers in baseball decided to become basketball players, new pitchers would come along to replace them and there would still be major league pitchers. Yes, there would still be major league pitchers. But they wouldn’t be as good.

The same argument is often applied to the potential capture of Osama Bin Laden. He’s just a figurehead. He has many lieutenants. You also hear that if we kill him, then he’ll become a martyr to be replaced by another leader who will come along. True. Sort of. Bin Laden has unique skills to motivate and organize terror. His death or capture would weaken Al Qaeda, at least in the short run. The longer run is a little more complicated. There you can make an argument that the next generation may have equally skilled murderers. But in the short-run, forcing Al Qaeda to replace their best leaders with second-stringers makes us safer.