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What Threat of Terrorist Attack?

Evaluating the Terrorist Threat

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Updated January 08, 2007

Article Highlights

  • Not all jihadists support Al Qaeda, according to political scientist John Mueller

  • New preventive measures are not the reason terrorists haven't attacked since 9/11 (page 2)

  • Threat by targeted populations in the U.S. vastly overexaggerated.

How much has been learned about "the enemy" since 9/11?
President Bush declared in his televised remarks commemorating the 5th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack that we have since "learned a great deal about the enemy." But have we?

In the speech we are told that the terrorist threat we face is "a global network of extremists … driven by a perverted vision of Islam," and that "their goal is to build a radical Islamic empire where women are prisoners in their homes … and terrorists have a safe haven to plan and launch attacks on America and other civilized nations."

It certainly sounded that evening as if we have learned a great deal. In the speech, "they" sound organized, networked, unified. "They" know what kind of state they want and how to get it. "They" are uniformly clear that offensive strikes on America are an important part of their vision.

Not all Jihadists Support Al Qaeda

The fact is, though, that there really isn't one singular group with a single-minded aim. Rhetoric that lumps all extremists together makes it sound as if there is one unified enemy and sometimes as if that enemy is more powerful and capable than it is.

In truth, there are many different groups, with different goals, who maintain different degrees of support for terrorist tactics to achieve those goals. A number of these groups –such as Hezbollah and Hamas—seek a political role and specific objectives in their own sphere, less than they do world domination. Not all Islamists, and not all jihadists are alike.It is very important that counterterrorism strategies start with this basic understanding, so that real threats can be better understood and countered.

As political scientist John Mueller points out in the September/October 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs:

Although some Arabs and Muslims took pleasure in the suffering inflicted on 9/11 … the most common response among jihadists and religious nationalists was a vehement rejection of Al Qaeda's strategy and methods. When Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979, there were calls for jihad everywhere in Arab and Muslim lands, and tens of thousands flocked to the country to fight the invaders. In stark contrast, when the US military invaded in 2001 to topple an Islamist regime, there was, as the political scientist Fawaz Gerges points out, a "deafening silence" from the Muslim world, and only a trickle of jihadists went to fight the Americans. Other jihadists publicly blamed Al Qaeda for their post-911 problems and held the attacks to be shortsighted and hugely miscalculated.

Then why such scary—and such fuzzy--rhetoric from our President? Is it merely to whip American voters into a pre-election state of fearful paralysis? Or spoken on behalf of a military-industrial complex profiting from the current state of war?

It can be easy to dismiss all government rhetoric as part of a politically motivated conspiracy to keep us fearful, especially in the wake of deceptions about pre-war Iraq intelligence, the failure to locate WMDs, and a transition to normalcy in Iraq so violent that Baghdad residents have been subject to severe curfews for their own safety.

It can be as easy to take that rhetoric at face value, and to feel terrified. It should be reassuring to know that, as Mueller points out in his article, the chance that an American will be killed in an attack by international terrorists is one in 80,000 or so. (By comparison, it has been estimated that an American's chances of dying of heart disease are 1 in 3.)

But it would be a mistake to ignore what any sweeping statement declaring that America faces a single, colossal enemy does represent: a dire need for a more informed understanding of the political and social landscape where radical Islam flourishes.

Indeed, the failure to understand history and politics in other parts of the world isn't confined to one political party. Unless there is a decision to do something about it, ignorance is likely to remain endemic across government agencies regardless of what happens at election time.

Questioning the Threat on U.S. Soil

One of the ways we are kept frightened is by claims that there is a global jihadist movement eager and capable of striking on U.S. soil. Mueller offers a well grounded argument that this threat may have been exaggerated in his article, "Is There Still a Terrorist Threat?"

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