It was one of the least prescient articles ever written. The headline was “The Declining Terrorist Threat” and it appeared in the New York Times on July 10, 2001. Its author, Larry Johnson, a former State Department counterterrorism specialist, set out to confront what he regarded as fearmongering and mythmaking:
Judging from news reports and the portrayal of villains in our popular entertainment, Americans are bedeviled by fantasies about terrorism. They seem to believe that terrorism is the greatest threat to the United States and that it is becoming more widespread and lethal. They are likely to think that the United States is the most popular target of terrorists. And they almost certainly have the impression that extremist Islamic groups cause most terrorism.
“None of these beliefs are based in fact,” he assured readers, going on to marshal a host of statistics on the decline in terrorism.
In hindsight, of course, it was obvious there were a few problems with his analysis. Just because some incidents of terrorism were in decline did not mean that there could not be an increase in the future. The trend in the number of terrorist attacks was irrelevant in any case if just one of those attacks could cause casualties on a hitherto unprecedented scale.
I was put in mind of Johnson’s magnum opus when I read David Ignatius’s column today, “The Fading Jihadists.” He trumpets the findings of Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer turned forensic psychiatrist, who argues that the terrorist threat is exaggerated. (Sound familiar?) Based on data he has collected on more than 500 terrorists, Sageman concludes that the third wave of jihadists is considerably less threatening than the first two waves which came out of Afghanistan in the 1980’s and 1990’s. In his view, they would be even less menacing if the U.S. hadn’t invaded Iraq:
Sageman’s harshest judgment is that the United States is making the terrorism problem worse by its actions in Iraq. "Since 2003, the war in Iraq has without question fueled the process of radicalization worldwide, including the U.S. The data are crystal clear," he writes. We have taken a fire that would otherwise burn itself out and poured gasoline on it.
According to Ignatius, this is what Sageman says we should do in response:
Sageman’s policy advice is to "take the glory and thrill out of terrorism." Jettison the rhetoric about Muslim extremism — these leaderless jihadists are barely Muslims. Stop holding news conferences to announce the latest triumphs in the "global war on terror," which only glamorize the struggle. And reduce the U.S. military footprint in Iraq, which fuels the Muslim world’s sense of moral outrage.
I have considerable respect for Sageman (as well as for Ignatius, who is the author of one of the great spy novels of all time: Agents of Innocence). Although I haven’t read Sageman’s new book, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the 21st Century, I have read his previous work, Understanding Terror Networks, and found it an invaluable source for understanding the jihadist threat. But there are a number of problems with his latest analysis, at least as summed up by Ignatius.
Even if the U.S. hadn’t invaded Iraq, wouldn’t jihadists still have been motivated to step up their attacks because of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan? That is of course unknowable, but it is a matter of public record that Al Qaeda has devoted considerable effort to fighting us in Iraq and that they have been losing for the past year. However if we were to drawn down prematurely, as Sageman apparently suggests, the result might be that Al Qaeda could snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Wouldn’t this galvanize the terrorists just as their supposed victory over the Soviet Union did in the 1980’s?
As for the nature of the terrorist threat today, I am surprised to see Sageman deprecate jihadist capabilities when we know that Al Qaeda has established a new stronghold in the frontier regions of Pakistan. From there it is waging war not only on the government in Kabul but also on the one in Islamabad. Meanwhile its adherents continue to plot attacks across the world; a Pakistani-based terror cell was recently uncovered in Spain apparently in the process of planning suicide bombings across Europe. Is this really what a fading threat looks like?
Moreover, while it’s easy to deprecate today’s terrorists compared to some of their predecessors (they don’t make ‘em like Zarqawi any more!), all it takes is one nut with a nuke to completely change the calculus. What are the odds of that happening? Hard to say. But certainly the growing turmoil in the nuclear-armed state of Pakistan along with the Islamic State of Iran’s continuing efforts to acquire nuclear weapons cannot make anyone particularly sanguine on this front. Effective terrorism does not require marshaling millions of people and billions of dollars; an attack like 9/11 can be carried out by a few dozen people and few tens of thousand of dollars. For all we know there may be another such plot under way right now. If such an attack comes to fruition—and it will, sooner or later–statistics on the incidence of terrorism will prove cold comfort.
Sageman does have a point when he complains that some of the rhetoric from America’s leaders tends to glamorize terrorists—for instance by referring to them as jihadists, a term they embrace. It would make sense to adjust our rhetoric where possible, but it’s hardly prudent to downplay the very real threat from terrorists that still exists. It is, notwithstanding Sageman/Ignatius, the most pressing security concern we face, and it is imperative that our leaders seek to mobilize the public for the Long War ahead. Otherwise a democracy like ours can all too easily be lulled to sleep—as the Larry Johnson article so memorably demonstrates, and as the Ignatius article proves all over again.