Terrorism: It's Time to Get a Grip

"Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror." --FDR, 1933

American public policy shouldn't be made by 19 reactionary right-wing fundamentalists with box-cutters or some Saudi culture warrior holed up in a cave in Pakistan, and it shouldn't be based on the public's basest emotional responses. But for the past five years, that's largely been the case.

Of course, that assumes that sound policy, based on realistic analyses of the issues, is lawmakers' primary goal. It's not. That would only be in the interests of ordinary people. Terrorism has become intensely politicized, and fear is now an organizing principle for the right.

Last week, journalist Mathew Stannard wrote about a new study by Columbia University researchers that showed empirically what many of us have long known intuitively: The Bush administration hypes the threat of terrorism, the media embrace that hype, President Bush's approval ratings rise and the cable news channels get their ratings.

University of California scholar Mark Juergensmeyer told Stannard, "This public panic benefits the terrorists, whose work is made easier by an overactive government response that magnifies their efforts. In an odd way, this puts the government and the terrorists in league with one another," he said. "The main loser, alas, is the terrified public."

Aside from the political consequences of a freaked-out populace, the constant drumbeat of fear has been used to justify the detention of U.S. and foreign citizens without trial, warrant-less surveillance of Americans and an unprovoked war of aggression against a sovereign state that has proved to be disastrous. It's also been used to justify the greatest expansion of military spending since the start of the Cold War, paid for with large deficits and deep cuts in domestic priorities.

For all of those reasons, we have to put the threat of international terrorism in perspective. That doesn't mean denying that Islamist terror is a real threat -- it certainly is -- but it does mean evaluating how great that threat is, and questioning whether the strategies that the U.S. has adopted to counter it are the appropriate ones.

With that, here are some things you should know to put international terrorism in the proper perspective.

The advent of "spectacular" terror attacks belies the fact that international terrorism is in the midst of a long decline

Terror statistics are notoriously unreliable and, under the Bush administration, highly politicized. Last year, according to government figures, there were over 11,000 incidents of international terrorism worldwide -- a record number -- and the administration would have you believe that this is evidence that we're engaged in a deadly and worsening "war." But a significant increase in the tally comes from two factors: the instability in Iraq and, more importantly, a new official definition of terror that captures all sorts of political violence -- including violence in the midst of civil wars, violence against security forces (but not soldiers) and even political vandalism that results in property damage valued at more than $10,000. The Center for Defense Information, a respected strategic think tank, notes that it's "useless for any analytical undertaking to examine the motives behind three high school students vandalizing cars with the letters "ELF" (Earth Liberation Front), just as it is useless to count every act of politically motivated violence as terrorism."
... how the government counts international terrorism incidents profoundly affects the credibility of the Bush administration's claim that the United States is engaged in a "Long War" against international terrorism. [The National Counterterrorism Center's] accounting methods, which show that international terrorism is rapidly getting worse, motivate government officials eager to promulgate their theatrical vision of the conflict in which the United States is now mired. Omitting the NCTC's more questionable incidents -- those in the conflict zones of Iraq and Kashmir -- shows terrorism reached its zenith in the mid-1980s and has been declining since.
9/11 should never have happened

Over the past five years, a series of disclosures have shown that the U.S. government had ample reason to believe that a major attack on the United States -- using hijacked aircraft -- was imminent but took no significant steps to increase the nation's airport security. If it had acted on the warnings that it had, the attacks most likely would have been foiled.

In the weeks and months before 9/11, the Bush administration was warned of an imminent al Qaeda attack by the intelligence agencies of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Russia. Even a senior member of the Taliban warned the United States of an impending attack. Among those communications were specific warnings about al Qaeda's using "suicide pilots" and turning "commercial aircraft into missiles." New York and Washington were cited as specific targets. Military intelligence, the CIA and the FBI all had leads on the plotters (see here for details and sources). Newsweek reported that on Sept. 10 that "a group of top Pentagon officials suddenly canceled travel plans for the next morning, apparently because of security concerns." But despite all of these warnings, airport security was not raised to the point where even one out of 19 swarthy and no doubt nervous young men with box cutters was detected on Sept. 11.

This is, of course, a key ingredient fueling the proliferation of conspiracy theories around the attacks -- four in ten Americans suspect that the government has at least covered up information about the attacks. But aside from putting that phenomenon into context, it's important to understand the failure for two reasons. First, it indicates that the best defense against terrorism is good intelligence and law enforcement. It also shows that Islamic militants are not supermen capable of eluding our most sophisticated defenses at will. They are, ultimately, zealots with limited funding, technology and expertise in comparison with our own professional security forces. A review of media accounts shows that, over the past six years, Western governments claim to have foiled at least 37 large-scale terrorist attacks.

If 9/11 had been prevented, we'd consider international terrorism to be a very minor issue indeed

In the lead-up to the 2004 election, John Kerry was pilloried by the right for suggesting that the goal of U.S. anti-terrorism policy should be to "get back" to the point when terrorism was "a nuisance." It was, the Republicans asserted, a sign of how "unserious" the Democratic nominee was about the threat of terror.

But the truth is that if those planes had been stopped on that morning five years ago, terrorism would barely even rise to the level of nuisance.

In every one of the 10 years before the invasion of Iraq except for 2001, more Americans died from lightning strikes in the United States than were killed worldwide in terror attacks. Aside from the attacks on Sept. 11, eight Americans were victims of international terror in 2001. Aside from that one terrible strike -- one that never should have happened -- no more than 40 Americans were killed worldwide in terrorist attacks in any of those ten years.

In each of the last two years, 56 U.S. citizens were victims of terrorism, but the bulk of them were contractors, journalists and aid workers in Iraq. 2004 was one of the deadliest in recent decades, and fewer than 2,000 people worldwide were killed in "significant acts of international terrorism."

This is not to minimize the tragedy of losing a loved one to violent extremists. But it's an important bit of perspective -- it gets to the question of priorities. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz estimated that the long-term costs of the Iraq war and occupation could reach $2 trillion, which is six times the proposed cost of the Apollo Project for energy independence, with enough left over to do things like footing the $3 billion yearly bill to wipe out malaria, a killer of between 700,000 and 2.7 million people each year (most of them children), for the next six decades (and Stiglitz's figure didn't include the increase in spending on military hardware, intelligence or homeland security).

"They" aren't coming after "us"

A new book by über-conservative (and clearly insane) columnist Mark Steyn, America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It, predicts that "Someday soon, you might wake up to the call to prayer from a muezzin." He sees a future in which "liberals will still tell you that 'diversity is our strength' -- while Talibanic enforcers cruise Greenwich Village burning books and barber shops, [and] the Supreme Court decides sharia law doesn't violate the 'separation of church and state'…"

Sadly, this kind of paranoia is relatively widespread. Fortunately, the truth is that there is obviously no widespread global "jihad" against the West. Many countries have a significant problem with terrorism, but not the United States, Canada or Western Europe.

In 2004, more than half of all significant international terrorist attacks occurred in Southern Asia, and about 40 percent occurred in the Middle East. There were 13 in the Western hemisphere -- all in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 24 in Europe and Eurasia -- only one of which occurred in Western Europe. Last year, even including deaths in Iraq, U.S. citizens made up 0.4 percent of the worldwide death toll.

The overwhelming majority of terror attacks last year occurred in a handful of countries. Forget the duct tape -- if you want to avoid becoming a victim of terror, the best strategy is to stay out of the disputed Kashmir region, Colombia, the Occupied Territories and Iraq and Afghanistan.

Terrorists are not as terrifyingly capable as we've been led to believe

President Bush has described al Qaeda as "cunning and sophisticated" and able "to change their methods and their tactics with deadly speed." To an extent, this may be true, but the image it creates is one of endless resourcefulness and a capacity to wreak havoc that is undiminished after the U.S. onslaught in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Another pernicious fear is of al Qaeda cells in deep cover across the United States, poised for a signal to launch their deadly strikes. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft once boasted about how his Justice Department had unearthed over 1,000 terrorist cells in the United States -- a frankly ludicrous assertion that the media reported with little skepticism. He later said that al Qaeda could "hit hard" in the United States at any time, and warned in May of 2004 that 90 percent of the arrangements for a major attack were complete.

The idea of a wily, omnipresent enemy has been deeply embraced by the American public and has contributed greatly to its sense of insecurity. Every poll conducted since 9/11 has found a majority of Americans believing a major attack in the United States was likely in the immediate future (in the most recent Time Magazine/ Discovery Channel poll, three out of four respondents thought an attack in the next year is "somewhat" or "very likely").

But terrorism experts are questioning these assertions that provide such a crucial rationale for the U.S. "war" on terror.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Ohio State University's John Mueller wrote that it is likely that "almost no terrorists exist in the United States and few have the means or the inclination to strike from abroad."
If al Qaeda operatives are as determined and inventive as assumed, they should be here by now. If they are not yet here, they must not be trying very hard or must be far less dedicated, diabolical and competent than the common image would suggest ... The evidence so far suggests that fears of the omnipotent terrorist ... may have been overblown, the threat presented within the United States by al Qaeda greatly exaggerated. The massive and expensive homeland security apparatus erected since 9/11 may be persecuting some, spying on many, inconveniencing most, and taxing all to defend the United States against an enemy that scarcely exists.
While the evidence seems to bear out Mueller's analysis, his focus is only on the United States, and terrorism is a global issue. But even those who disagree with Mueller concede that al Qaeda as constituted on 9/11 has largely been destroyed. The consensus is that it has been replaced by a widely dispersed ideology that's spawned home-grown al Qaeda wannabes in a number of countries.

That's good news and bad news. On the one hand, citizens of countries like Spain and Britain have been radicalized by the war on terror, and they can't be stopped at the border. The good news is that thousands of hardened, well-trained and experienced fighters have been killed or captured since 9/11 -- mostly in Afghanistan -- and their destruction has impacted the sophistication of the terror groups that remain. The recent "jetliners plot" -- in which British nationals of Pakistani descent were said to have been in the final stages of a plan to hijack and destroy a dozen jets over the Atlantic -- shows both sides of the coin. On the one hand, these were middle-class and supposedly well-assimilated British citizens. On the other, the group -- many of whom were teenagers -- clearly had no idea of what they were doing; they were a large group with no concept of "operational security" -- they had communicated via cell phone and email, and were easily detected by the intelligence agencies that closely monitored their activities for months before their arrests.

True international terrorism is extraordinarily rare

For years, the State Department tracked incidents of "international terror," the definition of which was any act of terror that involved a foreign national (or the property of a foreign national). If, for example, an American anti-abortion zealot were to bomb a Planned Parenthood clinic just down the street from his home, and a Canadian tourist were unfortunate enough to walk by at that moment and be injured, it would count as an act of "international" terrorism.

The truth is that real international terrorist attacks are extraordinarily rare. Aside from individuals crossing the borders of Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Kashmir, virtually all terrorism in the past decade has been perpetrated by citizens of the country where the attacks took place -- 9/11 being the notable exception.

The metrics are in -- we're creating more terrorists than we're capturing or killing

In 2003, in a Rumsfeldian moment of reflection, the secretary of defense wrote a memo in which he despaired that "we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror." He wondered whether we were "capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists" than are being recruited into extremist organizations.

Among Sunday talk show pundits, that question is still debated, but among actual security experts the question is all but settled: The "war on terror" -- and especially the occupation of Iraq -- is creating a new generation of violent radicals.

Britain's International Institute for Strategic Studies released a report claiming that Iraq has provided a "potent global recruitment pretext" for al-Qaida and has likely increased worldwide terrorism. "Christian nations' forcible occupation of Iraq, a historically important land of Islam, has more than offset any calming effect of the U.S. military withdrawal from Saudi Arabia," the IISS said.

Studies by the Saudi government and an Israeli defense think tank "painstakingly analyzed the backgrounds and motivations of hundreds of foreigners entering Iraq to fight the United States [and] found that the vast majority of these foreign fighters are not former terrorists and became radicalized by the war itself."

As the Christian Science Monitor's Tom Regan noted, "the respected Royal Institute of International Affairs, known as Chatham House, and the Economic and Social Research Council, have said that British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan 'have put Britain at a greater risk of attack.'"

Foreign Policy surveyed 100 top American foreign policy experts, 87 percent of whom (including seven in ten identified as conservatives) said that the occupation of Iraq had made a negative impact on the "war on terror."

We're losing the "war on terror" because of a fundamental disconnect: the widespread belief that it's a literal, military war when in fact it's a media war, a war of perception. We have two strikes against us in that fight because of historical realities: We do have a long history of propping up repressive governments in the Middle East, and we have shown time and time again that our rhetoric about democracy and human rights takes a backseat to assuring stable oil supplies. Nevertheless, the fact that millions of people around the world "hate" us is of little consequence; the International Institute of Strategic Studies estimates that there are as many as 18,000 potentially violent Islamic extremists worldwide, and a central goal of U.S. policy should be to keep that number from rising. Iraq, prisoner abuses in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay -- the "war on terror" itself -- all of it is capable of moving people from the "hate us" column into the "violent extremist" category. It would be hard to imagine a more counterproductive approach to containing terrorism than the Bush Doctrine.

We're not doing what should be done for our security

Terrorism would be a great, existential threat if extremists could get their hands on weapons of mass destruction.

Last year, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report, "based on a compilation of commentary by 85 expert groups on nonproliferation," that estimated that there's a 70 percent chance of a nuclear, biological or chemical attack in the next decade.

The Nunn-Lugar program was established at the end of the Cold War to secure and dismantle Russian 'WMD.' Sam Nunn, the former senator and co-sponsor of the program, told a C-Span audience that the program could be completed -- and expanded to other countries -- for $20 billion to $30 billion.

But President Bush's 2006 budget request for the program was just $415 million. That's down more than 10 percent from what Clinton requested in his last year in office. We can secure the world's most threatening materials for a tenth of what we've spent to "democratize" Iraq, but instead we're approaching the task with a 15-year plan.

At a public hearing on counterterrorism in 2004, Nunn testified that: "We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe, and the threat is outrunning our response."

Much of that is because it's dismissed as "foreign aid." A statement on the website of Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, cuts to the heart of the issue:
... [F]rom the beginning, we have encountered resistance to the Nunn-Lugar concept ... motivated by false perceptions that Nunn-Lugar money is foreign assistance or by beliefs that Defense Department funds should only be spent on troops, weapons or other warfighting capabilities.
Measures like Nunn-Lugar are not as exciting as watching glowing green bombing runs on CNN. But while taking an intelligent approach to the issue of terrorism may not be as gratifying for some people as the sense that we're fighting a great global war, doing so is a matter of national security. And a sound approach starts with getting some perspective.
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