The new issue of Foreign Affairs arrived in the mail over the weekend. It contains an article by John Mueller, a professor at Ohio State University, with the unfortunately-timed title of “Is There Still a Terrorist Threat? The Myth of the Omnipresent Enemy.” In the piece, Mueller attempts to argue that there essentially is no meaningful terrorist threat from al-Qaeda to the United States anymore, an argument that seems highly dubious in light of the recently-revealed UK aviation plot. To be fair, that plot was uncovered after the publication deadline. But that doesn’t excuse the significant logical flaws in Mueller’s arguments.
At the beginning of the essay, Mueller writes:
But if it is so easy to pull off an attack and if terrorists are so demonically competent, why have they not done it? Why have they not been sniping at people in shopping centers, collapsing tunnels, poisoning the food supply, cutting electrical lines, derailing trains, blowing up oil piplines, causing massive traffic jams, or exploiting the countless other vulnerabilities that, according to security experts, could so easily be exploited?
One reasonable explanation is that almost no terrorists exist in the United States and few have the means or the inclination to strike from abroad.
Mueller then looks at the improvements in homeland security since 9/11. Commenting on the remaining gaps in elements of the nation’s infrastructure protection and border security, he wonders why terrorists haven’t struck again. He offers several explanations for this fact (a well-integrated U.S. Muslim community, terrorists biding their time), but then dismisses these arguments. Instead, he prefers this argument:
A fully credible explanation for the fact that the United States has suffered no terrorist attacks since 9/11 is that the threat posed by homegrown or imported terrorists — like that presented by Japanese Americans during World War II or by American Communists after it – has been massively exaggerated. Is it possible that the haystack is essentially free of needles?
Mueller goes on to try to defend this hypothesis by references to the fact that the FBI has uncovered few terrorist plots or groups in the United States since 9/11 (which is true, at least in the official record), by citing improved international cooperation in combating the terrorist threat, and by arguing that (in other words) that al-Qaeda has lost its mojo.
This entire chain of logic in the piece, as briefly summarized above, is flawed in its failure to note these three real phenomena:
- Deterrence: Mueller fails to consider or acknowledge that new protective and/or intelligence measures by the United States and other countries have had a deterrent effect on the movement, entry, and activities of potential terrorists for U.S.-based plots, above and beyond their protective and interdictive functions.
- Layered Security: In Mueller’s identification of gaps in homeland security, he writes as if these weaknesses are single points of failure that should lead directly to an attack, not considering the fact that there are multiple layers of security in our system, none of them flawless, but that together make it more difficult to plan and execute an attack.
- Desire to Surpass 9/11: Mueller doesn’t even mention the solid hypothesis that al-Qaeda is biding its time in terms of attacking the United States so that its next attack will be equal to or more “spectacular” than 9/11. For example, the revelations in Ron Suskind’s recent book “The One Percent Doctrine” about the ‘mubtakkar’ subway plot support this theory.
Finally, the last section of the article throws out these cheap canards:
But while keeping such potential dangers in mind, it is worth remembering that the total number of people killed since 9/11 by al Qaeda or al Qaeda-like operatives outside of Afghanistan and Iraq is not much higher than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States in a single year, and that the lifetime chance of an American being killed by international terrorism is about one in 80,000–about the same chance of being killed by a comet or meteor.
It drives me crazy when people use statistics in this fashion to try to demean the risks that we face from international terrorism. And Mueller uses them in very misleading ways. First, they’re highly selective – notice the decision to remove Afghanistan and Iraq from the totals. Second, they’re wrong. This document notes that there were 341 bathtub drownings and 332 bathtub drownings in recent given years (2000, 2003). Assuming that this statistic falls within a predictable range each year, it’s a lot lower than the combined casualties from al-Qaeda-related attacks in Madrid, London, Moscow, Amman, Riyadh, and Bali, among many other cities, over the past five years. (Did Foreign Affairs fact-check this? And the comet/meteor statistic?) Third, it’s misleading to compare accidental deaths, which government in most cases has little ability to prevent beyond existing product safety activities, to acts of international terrorism where government’s role is paramount and the consequences of an attack far exceed its raw casualty total. Fourth, and most importantly, this type of analysis is retrospective, failing to acknowledge that future attacks could be much more severe then anything we’ve seen so far.