The Crisis in the Middle East Task Force addressed the topic of “Have We Exaggerated the Threat of Terrorism?” in its sixth session on February 21, 2008. This session, hosted by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, assessed the risks of and appropriate responses to terrorism.
One participant argued that terrorism presents minimal cause for concern. Discounting war zones, studies show that there have been very few people killed by “Muslim extremists” each year—in fact, more people drown in bathtubs each year in the United States. The FBI reported in 2005 that it had not found an al-Qaeda presence in the United States. Additionally, terrorism, by its very nature, can be self-defeating: many attacks by al-Qaeda have caused the group to lose popularity.
This participant questioned both the intentions and capability of al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden has threatened many attacks that he has not been able to execute. In specific, this participant thought it unlikely that that al-Qaeda would obtain nuclear weapons, despite fears to the contrary. Another participant agreed that the fears about terrorism are exaggerated and differentiated between the actual campaign against al-Qaeda and its supporters and the idea of a general “war on terrorism.”
However, participants also detailed the larger problems that terrorism can create, regardless of the numbers it kills directly: terrorism often leads to insurgencies or civil wars; it could destabilize U.S. allies in the Middle East and the whole Middle Eastern architecture; terrorism keeps oil prices high; and it has psychological effects beyond the actual death tolls. Additionally, many planned attacks have been stopped before they were carried out; one participant noted that there have been several near-misses recently. One participant argued that the war on terrorism is actually about an ideological battle between the United States and its allies and radical forces. Another participant agreed with this assessment of the general struggle between the United States and “radical Islamic extremism.” This participant noted that the larger struggle is much more complicated to understand than terrorism in specific and that this leads to a disproportionate focus on terrorism and the accompanying misallocation of resources.
Participants highlighted the difference between the risks presented by terrorism in the United States and around the world. The impact of terrorism in Iraq and Lebanon, for instance, is completely different than the impact in the United States, which one participant categorized as being essentially psychological. The relevance of the capability of governments at preventing terrorism was also addressed. Terrorism is particularly dangerous in places where there is weak government capacity and rule of law.
Participants discussed why has there not been another terrorist attack in the United States since September 11, 2001. One participant presented several reasons: the United States has a supportive domestic Muslim population; the would-be terrorists in the United States are not skilled; and U.S. counterterrorism policy has made it more difficult for the al-Qaeda core to plan complex attacks. This participant argued, however, that there are risks that this situation may change going forward. As the al-Qaeda core reconstitutes itself in Pakistan, it may be able to plan more complex attacks again. Additionally, the U.S. Muslim population may become less supportive overtime as a result of U.S. homeland security policy. However, another participant did not think the attitudes of the U.S. Muslim community were particularly relevant to this debate.
Participants considered U.S. policy responses to terrorism. It was suggested that the U.S. government should continue its policing and intelligence efforts. Additionally, U.S. efforts to increase government capacity would prevent terrorism and have other positive impacts such as creating more general security. Some participants expressed support for ratings that would examine the threats of attacks on different sites and allocate dollars accordingly. However, concerns were also expressed. One participant thought that there are endless targets to protect and that such a system would simply make targets of the places that were not protected originally.
Participants also assessed where fighting terrorism should be on the list of U.S. priorities given finite resources. One participant argued that the amount of money spent by the Department of Homeland Security to prevent terrorism was not a “cost-effective” means of mitigating the actual risk, although this participant predicted that it is unlikely this inflated funding will change. This participant argued that money should be spent on crisis management in the case of an attack. However, it was also argued that the government has the responsibility to protect its people from foreign terrorists. One participant argued that in general he supported spending the increased money on counterterrorism rather than on other domestic concerns. However, this participant prioritized the war in Iraq over the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan.
The current prioritization of terrorism has varied consequences. One participant noted that the FBI has not been able to address crime as it used to because of the increased focus on terrorism. Participants also commented that money is not the only limited resource of the U.S. government: the time of senior policymakers is also relevant. If these policymakers focus so much time on counterterrorism, they are not addressing other things. However, it was also argued that if governments do not respond to terrorism, the terrorist threat could increase. In particular, one participant noted that the reason that a nuclear attack at the hands of terrorists is so unlikely is precisely because of the steps taken to make this more difficult.
The discussion also considered the role that the U.S. leadership does and should play in dealing with terrorism threat perception and building national resilience. Although one participant argued that it is appropriate for the government to be sensitive to the fact that people are concerned about terrorism, participants criticized how the government exacerbates fears about terrorism. One participant argued that fears about terrorism depend not on terrorist actions but on the U.S. response. However, questions remained about the nature of this response. A concern was raised about how politicians could turn down their rhetoric when they face pressure to keep it up, noting the negative reaction to Senator John Kerry’s comment that he wanted to reduce terrorism to being just a “nuisance,” and one participant suggested some ways to develop resilience toward terrorism but noted that this strategy was not fully developed.