The most recent issue of the National Counter Terrorism Center’s annual Report on Terrorism [.pdf] came out last week, covering the year 2011. I would like to say that it is well worth a read, but actually it is quite tedious. For those who are interested, it is essentially a statistical and analytical breakdown of the terrorism phenomenon derived from the U.S. government–maintained Worldwide Incidents Tracking System, or WITS, which is based on publicly available open-source material reporting alleged terrorist activity around the globe. Most often the analysis is bare bones and avoids political coloration, not, for example, going deeply into the motives of the various terrorist groups but instead providing information in a pie chart and chronological fashion. This year’s report is 33 pages long.
The United States is engaged in what most Americans still refer to as a global war on terror or, in shorthand form, a war on terror. The Obama administration avoids the expression because it is a legacy of the Bush years and because it uses the expression “war,” so it refers to “overseas contingency operations,” which has a nicer sound and does not appear to be so preemptive or premeditated. It also fudges the reality of what is taking place by pretending that the process is reactive, which it is not. The unrelenting expansion of U.S. military intervention is in response to many diverse overseas developments, most of which are not genuine threats. This was recently demonstrated by the White House decision to extend the U.S. terrorism fight to the entire continent of Africa.
Terrorism is clearly a dying profession, both literally and metaphorically. The Report on Terrorism does not list how many terrorists were killed in 2011, perhaps fearing that the definitions and numbers could easily be challenged, but it does provide detailed breakdowns of the terrorism victims, a number around which there is considerably more consensus. Worldwide terrorist attacks in 2011 were down 12% from 2010 and 29% from 2007. Most attacks, and most victims, roughly 65%, came from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Somalia. Al-Qaeda, the gold-standard terrorist group, is in sharp decline, staging far fewer attacks worldwide except in one country, Somalia. Somalia’s al-Shabab claims to be an al-Qaeda affiliate, though that means little in practical terms. Engaged in what is essentially a civil war, it bombs and executes its opponents. Each shooting or bombing is therefore counted as a terrorist attack. Its ability to threaten the United States is close to nil, however, and even Washington is waking up to the fact that the threat al-Shabab does pose is largely because the group has been radicalized by U.S. involvement in the conflict.
For me, the report’s statistics always invite a cost/benefit analysis. So how many Americans were actually victimized by terrorism in 2011 and what is Washington spending to deal with the threat? First of all, a definition of American is not so simple. Some American citizens who have been terrorism victims are in fact dual nationals who have a U.S. passport for one reason or another but who are natives of another country and have chosen to live there. Far from being singled out as American targets, the dual nationals are generally perceived as indigenous to their countries of residence.
But even including all U.S. passport holders or permanent residents, the numbers are disappointing for those who have imagined a world awash with militants all of whom are seeking Americans to kill while planning to travel to the United States so they can blow themselves up. No Americans were killed by terrorists inside the United States. Only three American citizens were kidnapped by overseas terrorists in 2011 (in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, all of which were war zones), and only 17 were killed in foreign lands (15 in Afghanistan, a war zone). Not to minimize in any way the horror of becoming a terrorist victim, the numbers are only 0.3% of all terror-related kidnappings and only 0.1% of terror-related killings. Most, possibly 97%, of people killed or kidnapped are Muslims targeted by indigenous terrorist groups that are fighting to change or take control of their own governments. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations has determined that the number of Americans killed in terrorist attacks is comparable to the number crushed to death by falling television sets or furniture each year.
The insight that only a minuscule number of Americans actually become terrorism victims raises a question: how much does the United States government spend to counter the threat? The numbers are not precise as overall budgets tend to roll many items in together, but a useful way of addressing the problem is to subtract the federal budget in 2001 from the budget today in the key areas relating to defense, intelligence, and homeland security. The ongoing intervention in Afghanistan, justified by President Obama as a war to prevent terrorism, runs more than $8 billion per month. The federal government employs 2,100,000 today compared to 1,500,000 in 2001, not including the military, which has itself grown by 100,000 personnel to 2,300,000, including reserves, with more increases planned through 2013. Most of the new hires were directly related to the War on Terror for manning the 200 new military and CIA bases that have sprung up around the world and to serve as Fortress America’s defenders. The number of reported federal employees does not include contractors, who add considerably to the payroll. More than half of the employees in key sectors within the intelligence community and at the Defense Department are contractors.
Uncle Sam will spend $3.796 trillion in 2012 compared with $1.863 trillion in 2001, $1.327 trillion of which was borrowed, reversing 2001’s budget surplus of $127 billion. The Department of Homeland Security gets $57 billion and employs 180,000, the intelligence agencies get an estimated $100 billion and employ 100,000, the FBI gets nearly $9 billion, and the Department of Defense gets $671 billion, which does not include the war in Afghanistan. In 2001, the Pentagon budget was $277 billion. When all the increases are added up and compared to the baseline of 2001, the war on terror currently costs the American taxpayer more than $500 billion per year. As there may be only 100 or so terrorists interested in attacking the United States directly, that works out to something like $5 billion per year per terrorist.
And that is only at the federal level. Most states now have their own departments of homeland security, and most have dramatically increased both the numbers and firepower of their police forces. There is full-time security manning the entrances of nearly all federal and state and even some local office buildings. The total costs of state and local expenditures to counter the essentially bogus terrorist threat might well exceed the federal expenditures, and then there is the spending on security, often mandated by the government, in the private sector. But as bad as all those numbers are, consider for a moment the legacy costs and institutional damages that are not so readily visible. Professor Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University estimates that Iraq will cost as much as $5 trillion when all the costs, including interest paid on borrowed money and medical treatment for life for the tens of thousands of wounded soldiers, are paid off. The bill for Afghanistan will be proportionate, depending on how long the U.S. stays there and at what commitment level. All of the deficit-feeding spending for the War on Terror and associated military actions has gone down into a deep, dark hole, as there have been no terrorist attacks to justify the spending since 2001.
I don’t suppose statistical analysis of an official government report really means anything as President Barack Obama is expanding his little wars and presidential aspirant Mitt Romney appears to be intent on turning the little conflicts into much bigger ones. When Osama bin Laden announced his intention of breaking the United States economically by enticing it to overreact to terror attacks, he surely knew a good thing when he saw it. More to the point, he might even have understood that politics as usual in the United States would mean that the two parties would try to outdo each other in being tough about the terrorist threat. That is precisely what has occurred. Breaking the pattern does not appear to be in the national DNA, even though continuing to do as we have been doing is a recipe for ruin. The ultimate irony in U.S. politics is that fearmongering always appears to be a good card to play for a politician even when the numbers and analysis say otherwise. It seems safe to say that neither an Obama nor a Romney will do anything to disrupt that pattern.