The Terrorist Threat Today

Although I substantially agree with John Mueller’s skepticism and his warnings against alarmism, I would be even blunter in arguing that though the U.S. mainland is safer than it was on September 10, 2001, we are not that much smarter in how we handle terrorism. We have turned a struggle with a murderous band of extremists who used Afghanistan as a sanctuary into an expensive and counterproductive worldwide crusade for democracy. And it is due to the counterproductive nature of this crusade that we probably face a larger terrorist population today. I will try to unpack this assertion.

What is the Terrorist Threat?

The best estimates of the current terrorist threat seem to suggest that the threat is getting wider without being deeper. Although there appear to be more extremists who are willing to use violence against Western innocents, they belong to organizations that appear to be less capable of masterminding mass casualty events (i.e. deaths in the thousands) than Al Qaeda. A hard look at the structure and practices of the three London groups, the Toronto group, and the Madrid group more than suggests that these were little more than violent gangs with little actual experience in killing. They are not the Irish Republican Army or Baader Meinhof, let alone international secret armies. There is evidence of widespread training in Al Qaeda camps with manuals, etc. But in the field, so far as we can tell from the public record, these recruits are not forming the kind of militaristic groups that would be needed to mount a serious military threat to the U.S. mainland. Instead we are seeing internet chat rooms and local sports clubs displace dusty terror camps in Central Asia as the primary means of recruiting and training young terrorists in Western and allied cities.

Besides showing that these groups are less transnational than classic Al Qaeda, the evidence confirms that this broader Islamic threat is neither unified nor likely to become so. As Fareed Zakaria put it so well in a recent Newsweek column, violent Arab and Islamic extremism comes in various flavors: Sunni extremism (Arab and non-Arab), Shiite extremism (Persian and Arab), Baathist revanchism and Salafist. These movements have different objectives and rarely, if ever, coordinate their activities. They usually hate each other as much as they hate us.

Is This a War?

With the latest arrests of terrorists in urban centers in Europe, Australia, and North America, it is a fair question to ask whether the war analogy works anymore. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we went to war against a small, but highly dangerous, transnational organization and the regime, the Taliban, that gave it shelter. What was called a War on Terror was then primarily—and correctly—a war on Al Qaeda and its affiliates. But if the greatest threat now comes from self-recruited extremists in our midst, then this is an intelligence and police problem. We did not go to war against Soviet agents in the Cold War.

The two exceptions are the two war zones: Afghanistan and Iraq. The first is unfinished business in the war on Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The UN-backed government of Hamid Karzai has never really controlled much outside Kabul, but in recent months the Taliban seems to be re-gathering in its former bastion around Kandahar. Historians will likely note that in 2003-2004 the U.S. got distracted and gave the Taliban an opening.

The other war zone was the reason for the inattention in Afghanistan. The situation is now so bad in Iraq that the U.S. and its Iraqi allies are building a wall around Baghdad. This is the first time since 1961 that a great power has built a wall to protect its allies in a city. Khrushchev ordered the building of the Berlin Wall out of weakness and the same is true today.

Weakening and then destroying Al Qaeda was the most important strategic imperative after 9/11 and the Bush administration and its allies deserve some credit here, even though Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri remain at large. But a second goal was to deny terrorists any sanctuaries and, as I just noted, the score card for the Bush administration in 2006 is not good. Perhaps there is some good news to report as a result of U.S. paramilitary operations in Somalia and some of the other ungovernable areas in the world, but the public record is scanty. A third imperative was to discourage new recruits to violent extremism. Here, too, the Bush administration has been largely incompetent. Since mid-2005 some discordant voices in the National Security Council have argued that we should stop calling this a War on Terror because of the implication that we are at war with Islam. The recently released national counterterrorism strategy also suggests a greater appreciation of the political and psychological dimension of the struggle. But U.S. outrages at Abu Ghraib, Haditha and Guantanamo, all of which were used by Islamicists to brainwash young recruits, should have focused the official mind in Washington even more on the need to show that we Americans fight differently from terrorists and respect the culture of Islam. But that hasn’t happened yet.

What Are the Immediate Dangers?

How dangerous is this broader, more diffuse terrorist threat? Only good intelligence can provide a solid answer. Yet the search for WMD in Iraq and the public discussion of Iran and North Korea’s nuclear capabilities proves that our intelligence services are quite bad at estimating the existence of WMD. Indeed U.S. policymakers are so aware of this weakness that they tend to assume the existence of WMD because of the difficulty of proving a negative. Should outside experts also accept this worst case estimate? One of our dirty secrets is that we have a history of loose nukes here. For years the Department of Energy and its predecessors routinely “lost” plutonium. It is not that it was siphoned off but our accounting systems were so poor that no one really knew where it all was in the system. Now if we couldn’t manage our own nuclear stockpile, think of the likelihood that the post-Soviet world or the new nuclear states like India and Pakistan can. Perhaps China and Israel can.

The problem of loose nukes is the overriding reason why we need to take diffuse terrorist organizations extremely seriously. But taking them seriously is not the same as seeing these groups as the reincarnation of the U.S.S.R., with the potential of wiping us off the face of the earth. We are talking now about very bad events that could kill tens of thousands. But this is not a War of the Worlds with any potential for a civilization-ending event. A source of optimism is that these new terrorists appear to lack the organizational skill and discipline to acquire and deliver even one WMD. Indeed the record of terrorist attacks since the Tokyo gas attack in 1995 indicates that our WMD terrorism fears have been exaggerated. But with so much bad stuff floating around, we need to continue paying special attention to this problem and include terrorist groups in our general efforts at nonproliferation. Again this is not a matter of warfare but of good intelligence, police work, and diplomacy. The Bush administration could show improvement in all of those areas.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Five years after 9/11, are we any safer? In the lead essay of this month’s Cato Unbound, Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller offers a set of provocative reflections on what that question might mean. Along the way, Mueller argues that the terrorist threat to American lives is overblown, and that the attempt to protect ourselves against any possible attack is impossible, and a waste of taxpayer money. “It would seem to make more sense,” Mueller writes, “to substantially abandon the quixotic policy of seeking to make everything (or even a lot of stuff) safe, and then use the money saved to repair any terrorist damage and to compensate any victims.”

Response Essays

  • Clark Kent Ervin, Director of the Homeland Security Initiative at the Aspen Institute, and author of Open Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Attack counts himself among those who “strongly disagrees with both [John Mueller’s] premises and his conclusions.” Ervin stresses al Qaeda’s repeated intention to again attack the United States, and the alleged proliferation of terror cells in the United States and abroad. Ervin takes issue with what he calls Mueller’s “argumentum ad statisticum”–comparing terrorist murder to accidental death–and maintains that in a context of uncertainty about future attacks, “I’d rather err on the side of the believers. The downside of being wrong is so much smaller!”

  • Veronique de Rugy, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that the $271.5 billion devoted by the federal government to homeland security since 9/11 has not been well spent. “Not only are we over-investing in homeland security,” de Rugy argues, “but most times we spend too much money in the wrong way and on the wrong things.” The consequence is that we are no safer. “Bad security is often worse than no security at all,” de Rugy writes. “By trying, and failing, to make ourselves more secure, we make ourselves less secure.”

  • Timothy Naftali, author of Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism, argues that “the threat is getting wider without being deeper,” with new terror recruits failing to form “the kind of militaristic groups that would be needed to mount a serious military threat to the U.S. mainland.” Naftali argues that though the Bush administration deserves credit for weakening Al Qaeda, it has otherwise been “largely incompetent” in denying terrorists sanctuaries, and discouraging recruits to violent extremism. The main danger, Naftali contends, is that a terror group acquires a loose nuke, and the U.S. needs to attend more to this specific problem.