"Terrorism" has become the most abused word in the English language. The fear of terrorism has driven explosive growth in the United States government, has led to two wars in the past ten years with possibly several more waiting in the wings, and has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy. It consists of attacking a largely civilian population to demoralize it and reduce its willingness to resist either an aggressor or an occupying power. It has been used extensively in the twentieth century and so far into the twenty-first century because it is a force equalizer. It enables a resistance movement or a group seeking a change in government to attack a much larger and more powerful opponent. Because it has that ability to engage asymmetrically, one can expect that terror tactics will continue to be with us for the foreseeable future.
Fear of terrorism has been exploited by those who seek a hegemonistic role for the United States. To be sure, 9/11 was a horrific event and subsequent terror attacks in London, Madrid, Moscow, and Bombay were reminders that there will always be individuals and groups prepared to sacrifice their own lives to kill at random for a cause. But the horror of a terror attack should be placed in context and should not be allowed to justify actions on the part of government that are even more damaging in the long term. In the United States, that is precisely what has happened. Terrorism has been the justification for the two Patriot Acts and the Military Commissions Act that have gutted key parts of the Bill of Rights; the creation of an all-powerful unitary executive in the person of the US president; the exploitation of state-secrets privilege to cover-up government wrongdoing; and the evolution of a security state in which individual rights to privacy are constantly assailed by a government intent on collecting more and more information on each citizen.
Beyond that, terrorism was used to justify war with Iraq over completely bogus claims that Saddam Hussein had met with the 9/11 plotters. It is now being used to define Washington’s relationship with other countries. Some nations, like Sudan, have been branded state supporters of terrorism even though they do not in fact do so. Others are also indicted for their alleged relationship to terrorism to make a case for war. Iran is currently in the crosshairs, which is particularly ironic as it has itself been the victim of terrorist groups that are evidently supported by the United States, Israel, and Pakistan. Protection against terrorism has been used over the past ten years to justify every government abuse in a number of countries, not to mention the explosive growth of the budget busting defense and security industries worldwide.
As the America of Barack Obama continues to engage in and even expand the "long war" against much of the rest of the world that was launched by his predecessor, it is perhaps valuable to use the government’s own analysis to examine just how serious the terrorism problem really is. There have been numerous reports from military and intelligence sources in the war fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan while the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism 2009 came out on August 10th. The latter examines country-by country the terrorism problem. It makes no effort to count terrorists and provides little analysis of their motives, but it is interesting in terms of its assessment of the lethality and reach of the various groups that it identifies and discusses. The truth is that not many of what the US government refers to as terrorist groups actually threaten the United States by any stretch of the imagination. Most groups employing terrorism limit their activities to attacking the government in their own countries or to resisting occupying powers, without any real international reach or the intention to threaten anyone outside their local orbit. The groups that have an international agenda and pretensions, and therefore might theoretically be able to threaten the United States, are a handful of so-called Salafists, to include al-Qaeda in Pakistan, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and al-Shabaab in Somalia. Salafists believe that their mission is to cleanse the entire Muslim world and recreate the universal Caliphate, meaning that their battlefield includes both Islamic countries and those foreign allies that support the corrupt regimes that they would like to overthrow.
The featured terrorist group that is regularly cited to create a case for military action or intervention is the al-Qaeda faction that is nominally headed by Osama bin Laden (who may be dead) and is located primarily in Pakistan. The US military and CIA in Afghanistan have made a major effort to collect information on the group and its activities. The military command and intelligence community estimate that there are 50 to 100 al-Qaeda possibly located in Afghanistan plus "several hundred" more in neighboring Pakistan. That’s all. And the threat they represent is tying down 100,000 American soldiers at a cost of $7 billion per month. If that makes sense to anyone, please help me with justifying the math.
The other Salafist groups are equally unlikely candidates for doing significant harm to the last great superpower, at least judging from the State Department report. It states that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) carried out four possible terrorist attacks directed against foreigners in 2009, "On December 25, Nigerian citizen Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow himself up while on a flight into Detroit. Abdulmutallab admitted to having been trained by AQAP in Yemen. There were three other terrorist attacks against foreign interests: On March 15, four South Korean tourists were killed in a suicide bomb attack in the city of Shibam in Hadramaut province. On March 18, a motorcade carrying South Korean government officials was attacked by a suicide bomber on the road to Sana’a International Airport. In June, nine foreigners were kidnapped in Sa’ada, resulting in three confirmed deaths. The remaining six were still missing at year’s end." That’s it for a terrorist group that allegedly threatens the United States, and it should be noted that the reported kidnappings might have been carried out by local tribesmen seeking ransoms, not by the terrorist group. Also, the underwear bomber appears to have been sent on his mission after an airstrike killed two al-Qaeda supporters in Yemen, bringing to mind yet again the Ron Paul maxim that "they are over here because we are over there."
In North Africa, the report reveals that the once feared al-Qaeda affiliate did not operate at all outside of the Maghreb region where it has had a presence in one form or another for eighteen years. During the year 2009 it killed twenty-seven people. Not to disparage the deaths in any way, that number has recently been exceeded a number of times in a single day in Iraq, including 31 dying in bombings last Sunday, where the United States recently announced another "mission accomplished."
In the Horn of Africa, the State Department describes al-Shabaab as "a disparate group of armed militias, many of whom do not adhere to the ideology of the group’s leaders." State goes on to concede that the group is linked to al-Qaeda only by "mutually supportive rhetoric." In spite of some alarming recent media coverage in the US, al-Shabaab has its own problems in dealing with its local enemies and has not targeted the United States at all. Some US government officials and media talking heads have expressed concerns that Somali Americans who travel back to their country of birth to join al-Shabaab might return to the US to commit terrorist acts, but the actual threat is very much a "what if," not an established fact.
That’s pretty much the international terrorism story, at least insofar as it actually relates to the United States. A few hundred malcontents and zealots, most of whom are on the run from the local authorities or hiding in caves, are more than a nuisance but they do not rise to the level of a serious threat. Few of them can even fantasize about blowing themselves up on the New York City subway system, assuming they could get a visa and make the trip, put together a working bomb from fertilizer, and find the Lexington Avenue line. The reader must decide if the terrorism "threat" justifies spending a trillion dollars a year while waging an unending war on multiple foreign battlefronts. And then there are all the American soldiers and local inhabitants who have to die in the process of making the homeland "safe" while the homeland itself becomes increasingly a draconian national security state. A return to sanity might be suggested as well as a bringing home of US forces from their 761 overseas bases to begin to reverse the enormous overreaction to a threat that, in reality, is not much of a threat at all.