Terrorism Is Not An Apocalyptic Threat

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May 2012 | John Mueller,

At present rates, an American's chance of being killed by a terrorist is about one in 3.5 million per year. The number of people killed worldwide outside of war zones since 2001 by Islamist extremists of all shapes and varieties is a few hundred per year. This number is regrettable, of course. But it scarcely presents an existential or apocalyptic threat.

There is a great deal I agree with in Breakthrough Institute's report, "Planes, Trains, and Car Bombs." In particular I salute Breakthrough's efforts to supply an updated threat assessment. The sober and thoughtful dismemberment of the exceedingly popular notion that terrorists are likely to become capable of producing nuclear and other scary "weapons of mass destruction" is most welcome. And so is the observation that what remains of the Islamist extremist movement is very much in decline.

However, I would have appreciated some effort to assess the threat in quantitative terms. Breakthrough might have noted, for example, that, at present rates, an American's chance of being killed by a terrorist is about one in 3.5 million per year. Or one might note that the number of people killed worldwide outside of war zones since 2001 by Islamist extremists of all shapes and varieties is a few hundred per year. This number is regrettable, of course. But it scarcely presents an existential or apocalyptic threat.

The conclusion that terrorists seek by their actions to "grow support for their cause so they can one day gain political power and govern territory," leaves out, or actually seems to ignore, a key consideration in their motivation. In almost all domestic terrorism cases, the overwhelming driving force -- besides perhaps "displaying self-relevance" as Breakthrough suggests at one point -- was simmering, and more commonly boiling, outrage at American foreign policy. This was inspired by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular and also by the country's support for Israel in the Palestinian conflict. Religion was a key part of the consideration for most. However, it was not that they had a burning urge to spread Sharia law or to establish caliphates -- indeed, few of the potential terrorists would likely even be able to spell either word. Rather, it was the desire to protect their religion against what was commonly seen to be a concentrated war upon it in the Middle East by the United States government and military.

And while I agree that terrorists do not choose targets randomly, "Planes, Trains, and Car Bombs," verges on the hyperbolic when it suggests there is a "seamless compatibility between their tactics and strategy." The terrorists may not flip coins or soberly consult a table of random numbers when contemplating which targets to hit, but they often effectively act randomly in the sense that the targets are chosen out of momentary whim and caprice and for their convenience.

Therefore, given that there is a near-infinite number of potential targets, there is no good way to predict potential targets unless you can get, and stay, inside the mind of the specific would-be terrorist. A would be bomber targeted a mall in Rockford, Illinois because it was nearby, and terrorist plotters in Los Angeles in 2005 drew up a list of targets that were all within a 20-mile radius of their shared apartment, some of which didn't exist.

Breakthrough's conclusion that "airplanes are the most highly valued targets of terrorist attacks" is less than fully convincing. As the table in section II makes clear, no US-based terrorist has ever even considered airplanes as a target except for one group made up of addled petty criminals, one of them an illiterate schizophrenic. At any rate, it might be useful to note that one's chance of being on an airliner that experiences a terrorist attack is about one in 20 million. (Breakthrough's generally excellent earlier report, "Counterterrorism Since 9/11," sensibly recommends the development of standard metrics for evaluating counterterrorism measures, but then, without doing so and without considering that airlines might already be kinda safe, rather impulsively insists that even more money should be thrown at screening passengers.)

Any method in the terrorists' behavior on selecting targets seems to stem from their hostility to American foreign policy. Accordingly, military bases and, especially, recruiting stations (which must of necessity remain accessible to the public) disproportionately pop up in their plans. All the 14 people killed since 9/11 by Islamist extremists (representing less that one fiftieth of one percent of the homicides committed in the country over the same period) have occurred at military targets.

But it would be much too extravagant to suggest that the military is under siege. Although would-be terrorists have been drawn to bombs, in ten years no terrorist in the United States has been able to detonate even a primitive bomb and, except for the four explosions on the London transportation system in 2005, neither has any in the United Kingdom. In many instances, the only explosive on the scene was a fake one supplied by the FBI (in recently uncovered plots, accommodating FBI agents and informants have greatly outnumbered actual would-be terrorists). It is clear in these cases that the gullible terrorists utterly lacked the capacity to create or acquire a bomb on their own. When terrorists did try to create one after extensive training abroad, or were actually given one by a terrorist group abroad, the plot was disrupted or the bomb failed. In result, the only method by which Islamist terrorists have managed to kill anyone at all in the United States since 9/11 has been through the firing of guns.

In this context, I find wild understatement in "Planes, Trains, and Car Bombs" conclusion that the terrorists out there "do not appear to have recruited the sorts of sophisticated computer engineers who can threat the viability of key cyber-infrastructure or internet nodes."

However, I find no understatement whatever in its observation that the chief danger arises from the possibility that terrorists will be able to goad the United States into "polarizing responses" that play into their hands.

With that important caveat, the report concludes by suggesting that "cautious optimism" is justified in assessing the threat presented by Islamist extremist terrorism. Maybe it is time to consider throwing such caution to the wind.

John Mueller is a professor of Political Science at Ohio State University and a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.


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