About this Issue
Terrorism is not an entity; it is a method. Even confining ourselves to militarist Islamic groups, the divisions are frequently more significant than an outsider is likely to assume. Individuals, groups, causes, and ideologies all come and go. Following the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, al Qaeda and its associated groups underwent a profound transformation, one that led to the rise of ISIS – the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The players and the stages of the movement both diversified and became more fragmented. This month Cato Unbound is pleased to welcome renowned counterterrorism expert Ali Soufan, who has written a lead essay discussing the changing face of these violent organizations.
Joining him to discuss are the Cato Institute’s own Christopher Preble and Seth G. Jones of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Comments are open through the end of the month, and we welcome readers’ feedback.
How to Beat Salafi-Jihadi Terrorism
In my recent book Anatomy of Terror (Norton, 2017), I argue that one of our most potent weapons against terrorism is empathy; not in the colloquial sense of sharing another person’s perspective, but in the psychological sense of being able to see the world through another person’s eyes, whether or not you agree. To defeat the terrorists, I maintain we must first grasp, in detail, their worldview, their motivations, and their ideology.
Such an understanding has become critical in light of al-Qaeda’s evolution since 2001. On 9/11, the organization existed as a close-knit hierarchy of around 400 extremists based mostly in Afghanistan. Today it has mutated into a string of terrorist franchises spread like a rash across the Muslim world. Collectively, these franchises boast tens of thousands of members. There is evidence that al-Qaeda’s wayward progeny, the Islamic State, may be heading down a similar path. Even as it suffers crushing defeats in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has been building up a network of so-called “provinces” around the world; already, Islamic State fighters from the Middle East have begun showing up in conflicts as far afield as the Philippines.
What binds the members of such groups together is no longer their shared experiences in bin Laden’s training camps, but something more intangible: a common commitment to the jihadi ideas. That commitment is a renewable resource, allowing for the recruitment of potentially limitless ranks of new members. Such diaphanous and self-replicating networks cannot simply be bombed into submission. Alongside intelligence gathering, Special Forces raids, drone strikes, and the training of local security services—all of them valuable tools in their own way—we must focus on degrading the terrorists’ most valuable asset: their extremist ideology.
Of course, that is easier said than done, for bin Laden, his successors, his imitators, and their followers are masters at the darkest forms of propaganda. Over the course of more than two generations, al-Qaeda and its offspring have successfully peddled the view that the West is engaged in a “war against Islam” in which it enjoys the active connivance of client rulers across the Muslim world. This opinion is by no means confined to a handful of extremists. On the contrary, millions of Muslims have come to believe that the United States is deliberately suppressing their religion and stifling political change in order to keep repressive secular governments in power.
Unfortunately, we are doing almost nothing to correct this misperception. Indeed, the United States has too often fueled the narrative, for example by invading Iraq (and thus apparently fulfilling long-standing Salafi-jihadi prophesies of an apocalyptic battle for Mesopotamia), by imprisoning hundreds without charge at Guantánamo Bay, by mocking Islamic taboos in order to humiliate prisoners at Abu Ghraib, by failing to avoid civilian casualties from air strikes, by doing little to end repressive sectarianism in Syria and Iraq, by trumpeting U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, by restricting travel to the United States from Muslim countries, and in myriad other ways.
Even more insidiously, terrorists exploit a widespread sense of grievance among young Muslim men. Again, this comes down to psychology. Fundamentally, people need to feel that they are in control of their destinies, that they are part of a broader whole, and that their lives mean something. What is on offer in the depressed cities and neighborhoods from which the Islamic State draws most of its recruits—be they in the Muslim world or the West—is just the opposite: a life of mediocrity, isolation, and tedium. So it is no surprise that, in its propaganda videos, the Islamic State goes out of its way to depict its recruits as enjoying lives of action, excitement, and comradeship—while downplaying strictly theological messages. Having enticed their novices in with the blandishments of history-making adventure, these groups proceed to imprison them in ideological echo chambers in which every new piece of information is interpreted as evidence supporting Salafi-jihadi messages. If the Islamic State suffers a defeat, it must be because of the heretics or Shia treachery; on the other hand, if the Islamic State wins a victory, that is evidence of God’s favor. In such an environment, the truth has little purchase.
How can we push vulnerable young people off the treadmill of radicalization before it carries them into the jihadi echo chamber? We can start by exposing the basic hypocrisy of a movement that lays claim to true Islamic piety even as it routinely bombs mosques—including, in 2016, the world’s second-holiest, the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. While we are laying bare these lies, we must craft a true story to drown out the false one terrorists tell. It is not a question of trying to match Salafi-jihadi claims tit for tat with bare denials, but of creating an entirely new narrative—ideally one with even greater appeal, because it is based not on lies and despair but on truth and hope. Mere boilerplate messages about how “killing is un-Islamic” or “the West is not at war with Islam” are too vague and too easily dismissed. The new narrative will only take hold if it is tailored, not just from country to country, but down to the level of individual communities. The reasons people join groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State vary widely from place to place. Security officials in the United States found users of extremist websites in that country especially drawn to the idea of taking up arms to “protect” fellow Muslims. In some African nations, there is evidence that economic reasons factor highly, alongside ethnic and familial motives. Elsewhere, the touchstone might be sectarianism, ethnic chauvinism, or tribal rivalries. Terrorists have understood this for years, and have adjusted their messages accordingly. Our counter-strategies need to be similarly focused.
The identity of the messenger is equally critical. People are likely to dismiss messages they see as coming from the West or from a local government with a reputation for mendacity. Where terrorists recruit using religious ideology, for example, clerics or Islamic scholars may be the ones best placed to deliver a counter-narrative. For example, scholars working with Singapore’s Religious Rehabilitation Group preach the importance of moderation in Islamic practice. By contrast, when extremists target would-be recruits through local or tribal grievances, community elders should head up the moderate response.
With the current iteration of the Islamic State well on its way to disintegration in Syria and Iraq, thousands of foreign fighters are seeking to return home. Several hundred have already returned to Europe and North America. As outlined in a recent paper from The Soufan Center entitled Beyond the Caliphate, not all of these returnees pose the same level of risk; while some certainly plan to bring the fight home with them, others have been left disillusioned or traumatized by what they have seen. For some, we should hold open the possibility of eventual rehabilitation, after an appropriate period of punishment. Rehabilitation programs have been shown to work; over the last decade, Germany, Singapore, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and others have each realized some measure of success. To be clear, rehabilitating terrorists is not a question of altruism; repentant “formers” have the credibility to debunk the idea that terrorism is an honorable or exciting lifestyle, as they have done to great effect as part of the UK’s strategy in Northern Ireland.
Prevention is better than cure, however. If we seek to inoculate populations more permanently against the virus that is extremism, the international community should work to treat the underlying factors that make its propaganda so appealing to so many.
First, we should come together to end regional conflicts in the Middle East and beyond. Such conflicts have always been central to bin Laden’s ideology, providing opportunities for what the Salafi-jihadi literature calls “the Management of Savagery”—the process of exploiting governmental collapse to create chaos, then turning that chaos to one’s own advantage in order to seize power. Groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Nusra have used this method to carve out sizeable territories for themselves in Yemen and Syria respectively—territories that may soon become launch-pads for a renewed campaign of violence against the West. Meanwhile, as a result of these same conflicts, millions of Muslim children are growing up as refugees, in circumstances that make them acutely vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist groups. Shutting down these power vacuums and restoring order would go a long way toward cutting off terrorist recruitment.
Second, we should confront countries in the region whose actions help fuel the extremist narrative, directly or indirectly. Repression, corruption, and sheer governmental incompetence have long been endemic across the Muslim world; the West should help governments to improve their records on each of these counts—and withhold favors from those that do not. Increasingly, intolerance and sectarianism are also rife. One U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, uses its oil wealth to spread an intolerant version of Islam via fundamentalist mosques and madrassas; tellingly, schools run by the Islamic State tend to use Saudi textbooks—often printed directly from Saudi government websites. Meanwhile, the Kingdom’s hardline policies against Iran are fueling Sunni-Shia animosity, most acutely in the intractable proxy war in Yemen. While developing a comprehensive strategy to counter Iran’s growing reach in the Arab world, the United States should confront the Saudi government and demand an end to both fundamentalist teaching and sectarian foreign policy.
Third, and perhaps most fundamentally, we should give people in the Muslim world the tools of critical thinking to resist false narratives and identify true ones. Generations of substandard education have made too many Muslim countries fertile ground for extremist groups whose leaders distort religion, twist the truth into a conspiracy theory, and demand blind obedience to their orders. It is no coincidence that Salafi-jihadi terrorists frequently target institutions of learning; the very nickname of the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram (officially the Islamic State in West Africa) literally means “Western education is forbidden.” Salafi-jihadis routinely target schools and universities, as well as campaigners like the Pakistani educational advocate Malala Yousafzai. They do this because they know that, for backward extremists like themselves, modern education is kryptonite. If we want to lay the ghost of bin Ladenism for good, therefore, we could do worse than to bankroll the building of schools and the training of teachers.
Two governmental resources will be critical to the strategy I have advocated here: one is diplomacy and the other is the intelligent use of overseas assistance. So it is distressing to see the present administration denigrating the role of the State Department and proposing to slash funding for foreign aid. These are short-sighted policies that should be reversed. In contrast to America’s highly militarized approach to terrorism over the past twenty years, the methods put forward in this essay amount to a gradual chipping away of extremist ideology over a period of years or even decades. To be sure, such methods are unlikely to generate eye-catching headlines. Adopting them will require a great deal more patience on the part of the Western public. But when one is dealing with a problem as fanatically stubborn as terrorism, patience is the only way.
The Local Struggle against Extremism
The Islamic State has – at least for now – lost most of the territory it once controlled under its self-proclaimed “caliphate.” But it is more important than ever to examine long-term counterterrorism efforts against Salafi-jihadist groups, including against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Ali Soufan argues that policymakers need to understand the extremist ideology, worldview, and motivations of Salafi-jihadists in his essay, “How to Beat Salafi-Jihadi Terrorism.” He calls this “empathy” – seeing the world through the eyes of extremists – as the term is used by some psychologists.
The timing of Soufan’s essay is important. The recently released, unclassified portion of the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy downgrades the significance of terrorism, announcing that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” Still, the strategy notes that terrorism remains a problem: “Despite the defeat of ISIS’s physical caliphate, threats to stability remain as terrorist groups with long reach continue to murder the innocent and threaten peace more broadly.”
Since September 11, 2001, U.S. policymakers have frequently underestimated the ability of terrorist groups to resurge or establish a sanctuary. After the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, President George W. Bush gave a triumphant speech on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln with a “Mission Accomplished” speech in the background. Yet Salafi-jihadists never received the message. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who later pledged bay’ah (loyalty) to Osama bin Laden and established al-Qaeda in Iraq, orchestrated a lethal campaign against the United States and its allies beginning in 2003. In 2010, President Barack Obama announced an end to the war in Iraq, promised that the “tide of war is receding” thanks to U.S. counterterrorism efforts, and pulled U.S. military forces out of the country by 2011. But Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had other ideas, orchestrating the 2014 Islamic State blitzkrieg into Iraqi cities like Mosul, Ramadi, and Fallujah.
Like it or not, the struggle against Salafi-jihadist groups, which has ebbed and flowed since at least the 1980s during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, is a generational one. Soufan rightly argues that the United States needs to better recognize that we are involved in a struggle of ideas. “Alongside intelligence gathering, Special Forces raids, drone strikes, and the training of local security services—all of them valuable tools in their own way—we must focus on degrading the terrorists’ most valuable asset: their extremist ideology.” U.S. efforts have been mixed at best. Instead, Soufan outlines several new strategies.
First, he argues that the United States and its allies need to create “an entirely new narrative – ideally one with even greater appeal, because it is based not lies and despair but on truth and hope.” It is debatable that the answer is to create “a new narrative” – but rather multiple narratives depending on the country and local context. The challenge for Salafi-jihadists is that the movement – or, perhaps, more appropriately, the movements – are so decentralized and fluid that there is no center of gravity. These movements can be divided into at least four categories:
- Islamic State: Leadership in Iraq and Syria, along with their provinces (or wilayahs) in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, and other countries.
- Al-Qaeda: Leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan, along with their affiliates in Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and other countries.
- Other Salafi-Jihadist Groups: Organizations that have not pledged bay’ah to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, but adhere to Salafism and violent jihad.
- Inspired Networks and Individuals: Informal networks and individuals that are motivated by the ideology of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
These Salafi-jihadist groups, networks, and individuals cover such a broad area – from West and North Africa through the Middle East and into South Asia and the Asia-Pacific – that a strategy to beat them requires a nuanced approach. It is impossible to talk about one narrative. Nor, in many cases, will the narrative necessarily be “new.” Instead, an effective strategy will likely require supporting local narratives that are more powerful and legitimate among the population. During Operation Serval in Mali, for example, French and Malian government efforts severely weakened al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and allied forces using a combination of military, ideological, and other instruments. On the ideological side, Mali’s mostly tolerant, Sufi culture largely rejected al-Qaeda’s extremism. Numerous local communities in Mali bristled at efforts to impose a harsh, Salafi version of sharia (Islamic law) in AQIM-held areas, making it difficult for AQIM to sustain support.
Second, Soufan emphasizes the importance of inoculating populations against extremism by ending regional conflicts in the Middle East and beyond, confronting countries whose actions help fuel the extremist narrative, and giving people in the Muslim world the tools of critical thinking to resist false narratives and identify true ones. These are important points, though it is a bit idealistic to believe that the United States or its allies will be able to end regional conflicts. At the very least, an important near-term step should be helping local governments and communities deal more effectively with grievances and governance weakness that fuel extremism. In particular, U.S. policymakers need to better understand the specific ideological, political, economic, and other factors that have allowed Salafi-jihadist groups to establish a foothold, as well as to focus U.S. diplomatic and development efforts on better addressing them.
Take Iraq. Sunni Arab disenfranchisement has been among the most important sources of recruits and inspiration for the Islamic State. While U.S.-backed military efforts have been effective in undermining Islamic State control of territory, there has been limited success in ameliorating local grievances. Sunni, Shi’a, Kurdish, and other local actors are vying for control of liberated cities and villages, and regional powers like Iran are attempting to expand their influence through proxies like the Popular Mobilization Units. What’s more, the military campaign to defeat the Islamic State has caused over $45 billion in damage to Iraq’s education, health, and power infrastructure. A failure to quickly rebuild will almost certainly create visceral anger among Sunni Arabs and other populations. Consequently, U.S. diplomats and development experts need to be proactive in helping the Iraqi government address local grievances and preventing yet another resurgence of extremism in the country.
Another example is Libya, which lacks a competent central government and is the center of gravity for Salafi-jihadism in Africa. The Obama Administration helped orchestrate the overthrow of the Muammar Qaddafi regime in 2011, but failed to devote sufficient resources or attention to establish a functioning government. The United States, its European allies, and regional powers need to coordinate efforts to help establish an effective national government, train and equip security forces, counter radicalization, strengthen border security, and target remaining Salafi-jihadist networks. Over the long run, more effective governance in Libya is critical to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State and other Salafi-jihadist groups.
In addition to these steps, there are others that are important to supplement Soufan’s recommendations. Among the most important is undermining the Salafi-jihadist use of the Internet and social media for propaganda, recruitment, financing, and other purposes. The United States and its allies need to redouble efforts to work with the private sector to shut down social media accounts and Internet sites that advocate terrorism. Several social media companies, like Twitter, have been more active in suspending Salafi-jihadist–linked accounts that have violated terms of service. The United States should continue to work with the private sector to develop trusted flagging mechanisms, algorithms, and robust hashing software that helps analyst identify extremist content online and flag it for removal.
There are other productive avenues of partnership between the government and companies. Google, Facebook, and other major companies thrive by tracking their users for advertising and revenue purposes. Some of the same techniques that enable targeted advertising to everyday users can be repurposed for identifying Internet-use patterns associated with potential Salafi-jihadist recruits and, once identified, serving them pinpointed counter-messages and information about off-ramp options. One example is the “redirect method,” which uses technology to direct would-be extremists that are on-line to more productive sites. Some of these efforts appear to be successful. YouTube reports that they now remove 98 percent of violent extremist videos using more aggressive policies and machine-learning technologies. Facebook claims that it has removed 99 percent of al-Qaeda and Islamic State terror content before it is reported through artificial intelligence and other automation. Through collaboration and trust-building, the United States can more effectively promote the notion that companies have an ethical and security responsibility to counter the extremist use of their services.
These and other steps are critical to undermining the ideology of Salafi-jihadist groups, an argument at the core of Ali Soufan’s “How to Beat Salafi-Jihadi Terrorism.” Perhaps the most significant challenge, however, will be continuing to weaken extremist groups in an environment where U.S. interest in counterterrorism appears to be declining.
 Summary of the 1018 National Defense Strategy of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, 2018), p. 1.
 Michael R. Gordon and Isabel Coles, “Defeat of ISIS in Iraq Caused $45.7 Billion in Damage to Infrastructure, Study Finds,” Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2018.
 Written Testimony by Juniper Downs, Director of Public Policy and Government Relations at YouTube, Senate Commerce Committee, Hearing on “Combating the Spread of Extremist Propaganda,” January 17, 2018. Available at: https://www.commerce.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/620b4168-3db3-4108-…
 Written Testimony by Monika Bickert, Head of Product Policy and Counterterrorism at Facebook, Senate Commerce Committee, Hearing on “Combating the Spread of Extremist Propaganda,” January 17, 2018. Available at: https://www.commerce.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/a9daccb8-5f07-42a6-…
Before We Cure Others of Their False Beliefs, We Must First Cure Our Own
It is an honor to participate in this discussion with Ali Soufan. I am grateful to him for his contribution, and I concur with much of what he has to say. As usual, he spells out the nature the challenge posed by Salafi jihadism clearly and without emotion.
Where we part ways is on the mechanisms for addressing the problems that he identifies, and our relative faith (or, in my case, lack thereof) in the U.S. government’s capacity for doing so. I also doubt my fellow Americans’ ability to evince the empathy of which Soufan speaks.
First, the areas of agreement. When it comes to the war on terrorism, we need to try something new. What we’re doing isn’t working. Al Qaeda and its progeny have evolved from “a close-knit hierarchy of around 400 extremists,” Soufan observes, to a “string of terrorist franchises [that] boast tens of thousands of members.” This small and weak band of zealots has grown through masterful propaganda, especially their ability to peddle “the view that the West is engaged in a ‘war against Islam.’” Many Americans, Soufan notes, have been taken in by this al Qaeda’s narrative – and have even fueled it.
Soufan is hardly the first to doubt that American bombs and bullets are the key to defeating the Salafi-Jihadist narrative. In one of his many famous “snowflake” memos, George W. Bush’s Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld – hardly a dove – pondered whether the United States was creating more terrorists than it was killing or capturing.
The evidence is in. My colleagues Erik Goepner and Trevor Thrall note the grim counterinsurgent math in a recent Cato blog post:
60,000 = the number of bad guys the United States has killed since 2015 [the number allegedly killed since 9/11 must obviously be much higher]
109,000 = the number that fight today.
“32,200 - (at least) 60,000 = 109,000” means that Rumsfeld was right to question the utility of military tools in the so-called war on terrorism.
Alas, so far U.S. officials aren’t learning the right lessons from such data. President Donald Trump has expanded the conflicts that he inherited and has now set the American people on course for an open-ended war in Syria that could pit U.S. troops against both Arab Muslims and European Christian Russians.
I part ways with Soufan on the practicality of shaping a new narrative of truth to “drown out the false one the terrorists sell.” Ideally, this new narrative would be tailored to individual communities. The U.S. government will struggle mightily here.
And Soufan concedes this point. “People are likely to dismiss messages they see as coming from the West,” he writes, “or from a local government with a reputation for mendacity.”
This echoes the findings of the 9/11 commission from well over a decade ago. The panel of Americans tasked with uncovering the truth behind the 9/11 attacks, and recommending steps to avoid a similar catastrophe in the future, called on the United States to “encourage reform, freedom, democracy, and opportunity,” within Muslim communities around the world, but admitted that “our own promotion of these messages is limited in its effectiveness simply because we are its carriers.”
That report appeared as U.S. troops were becoming mired in a costly war of choice in Iraq, sold, in part, on the false claim that Saddam Hussein’s regime was somehow behind the 9/11 attacks. That war killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and created millions of refugees. Thousands more U.S. troops were in Afghanistan, fighting the remnants of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Thousands of U.S. military personnel remain there over 16 years later, and it would be foolish to argue that the long-suffering Afghans are any closer to peace and security. Last year, the UN concluded that civilian deaths in the war have reached an all-time high.
The U.S. government’s capacity for promoting messages of non-violence and respect for democratic norms is much diminished after more than 16 years of war, fought mostly in Muslim-majority countries, and whose victims are mostly Muslim. Soufan understands this problem. He wisely calls for an “end to regional conflicts in the Middle East and beyond.” He also urges U.S. policymakers to “confront countries in the region whose actions help fuel extremist narrative,” especially Saudi Arabia.
The key to Soufan’s alternative approach is the use of credible voices within Muslim societies, including clerics and Islamic scholars, as well as community elders, to refute the extremists’ narrative. Even repentant former terrorists can be useful messengers in the fight against violence.
But I believe that Soufan’s focus on creating a counter-narrative in the Muslim world is misplaced. The jihadists claim that the West and Islam are locked in a bitter duel to the death. Refuting this false notion must begin in the West, including right here in the United States.
Building such narratives is hard. Public education campaigns confront deep-seated ignorance and are routinely thwarted by misinformation. President Trump’s rhetoric and policies suggest that he sees all Muslims as potential terrorists, and that their animus toward all Americans (and, loosely, the Western world) is an enduring feature of their religion. As he sees it, empathy cannot reverse such animus.
Many Americans agree. Although public attitudes toward Muslims have warmed slightly in recent years, the Pew Research Center found that 41 percent of all Americans, and 70 percent of Republicans, believe that Islam is “more likely than other religions to encourage violence.”
Meanwhile, a poll in 2015 found that a majority of Republican primary voters, and two out of every three Trump primary voters, believed that former President Barack Obama is a Muslim. Similar majorities believed that Obama was not an American citizen and therefore held office for eight years illegally.
The litany of other things that people believe to be true, and aren’t, is far too long for this essay. Entire books have been written on the subject (e.g. here and here). But simply acknowledging that such problems exist in the United States speaks to how difficult it will be to correct equally wrongheaded beliefs in distant places. If the American education system can’t reliably teach American school kids the most basic facts about this country’s history and culture, I am extremely skeptical that we will be far more effective elsewhere.
No one can doubt that there are great opportunities for promoting ideas in those parts of the world that haven’t been touched by liberalism. But the fact remains that liberals in the West have only a very limited capacity to shape the debate so that a modern vision of world order will prevail over the forces of oppression and illiberalism.
On the other hand, and paradoxically, though we cannot ensure that those who fight against violence, and preach a message of tolerance and respect for human rights, will prevail, Americans do have a great capacity for influencing the debate in a negative direction, empowering extremists and nihilists, and marginalizing the moderates.
Recognizing this, before we set out to educate others, we must first educate ourselves.
Fear Is the Health of the State
I alluded in my response to Ali Soufan’s lead essay that his sensible recommendation for countering violent extremism with empathy and education was likely to be thwarted by an American public disinclined to magnanimity. Americans are afraid, and human beings tend not to make good decisions when frightened.
The evidence of still-high public fears of terrorism has been apparent for some time, but John Mueller and Mark Steward have just assembled the data in a new Cato white paper:
The increase in spending on domestic homeland security since 9/11 has totaled well over $1 trillion, while efforts to chase down and eliminate terrorists abroad have cost trillions more.
However, these extraordinary efforts and expenditures have utterly failed to make people feel safer.
In addition to an impressive collection of polls from multiple sources showing that the public remains fearful despite the absence of any major terrorist attack in the United States, Mueller and Steward speculate on why this might be.
They posit a surprising and somewhat counterintuitive theory: contrary to those who argue that the public responds mostly to elite cues, Mueller and Steward conclude that the public is likely to believe certain things irrespective of what elites say. Public fears, they note, “can often be difficult to dampen”:
For example, in the months before 9/11, public anxiety about shark attacks unaccountably rose. This came about despite the fact that, as Daniel Byman points out, “there was no ‘shark attack’ industry in the summer of 2001.” Indeed, he adds that “officials desperately tried to calm Americans down,” yet “panic ensued nonetheless.” Eventually, officials did sternly forbid the feeding of sharks. But the absurd ban arose from the popular fear; it did not cause it.
Thus, the momentum is substantially bottom-up. Elite consensus has frequently preceded shifts of opinion. But it seems more accurate to say media and other elites put issues on the shelf — alongside a great many others — and that it is the public that puts them on the agenda. As officials found when they tried to dampen fears of sharks, the public often fails to follow.
They conclude with an important insight with respect to policy recommendation:
The public opinion phenomenon discussed in this paper can probably be taken to indicate, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, that public officials are in some sense free to do their job right.
[W]hatever they do about terrorism, they are unlikely to affect fear levels much one way or the other. That is, they are at once incapable of reducing fear and unlikely to scare people even more than they are scared now. If people want to be afraid, nothing will stop them.
Consequently, public officials can expend money responsibly in a manner that best saves lives rather than in one that seeks to reduce fears that are unjustified and perhaps unfathomable.
I’m curious to know what Ali Soufan and Seth Jones think of these findings, or their thoughts on the broader question of why Americans remain fearful of terrorism, despite the many trillions of dollars spent to combat the scourge.
Terrorism works when people are fearful. By that standard, the terrorists are winning.