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Is Terrorism Disappearing?

Some say we are making great progress in the "war on terror" -- there has been some decline in the number of casualties and there is increasing debate within jihadist circles over the legitimacy of attacks.
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According to several prominent analysts, we are making great progress in the "war on terror." This claim is based on two trends. First, there has been some decline in the number of casualties from terror attacks over the past few years. Second, there is increasing debate within jihadist circles over the legitimacy of terror. These are both interesting trends, but are terribly flawed metrics to use by themselves.

First, there is a significant debate over whether it is better to use terrorist casualties rather than terrorist incidents as a measure of the threat. Consider the 9/11 attacks. Using fatalities as a measure, we would have to argue that the hijacking of American 77 which crashed into the Pentagon was nearly 5 times worse than the hijacking of United 93 which crashed in Shanksville, PA. And of course, United 175 and American 11 were 10 times worse that American 77. Does that make sense?

The vast majority of terrorist incidents result in relatively few casualties. A relatively small number have a disproportionate impact on total casualty figures. But in truth, casualties have a tremendously random element to them. They conflate different types of injuries, and, worse, they accord greater significance than warranted to events outside the control of the terrorists. A car bomb on a timer that happens to explode in proximity to a school bus ends up looking more heinous than one that just destroys some shops. A bomb that causes a building collapse seems more serious than one that just blows out windows, although it is not at all clear that the intention of the latter was different than that of the former.

In 2006 and 2007, according to the National Counter-Terrorism Center there were 696 attacks by Islamist groups outside of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel. Of those, 342, or nearly half, resulted in one or no casualties. These 696 attacks in total resulted in 6957 casualties, but 1099 of those occurred in a single attack in India on July 11, 2006, and just the 10 worst attacks resulted in 2974 of those casualties. Imagine if that single attack resulting in 1099 casualties had been prevented, would that really suggest that the terrorist threat was nearly 20% lower? Or would it be better to say merely 1 of nearly 700 attacks had been prevented.

The number of casualties does not even necessarily reflect different methods of terrorism. Virtually all the very worst attacks were committed with improvised explosive devices (IEDS), just like many of the smaller, less deadly attacks.

Because casualty and fatality figures include outcomes that may or may not have been intended, they are flawed metrics. They are not useless metrics, but they are insufficient. Any credible assessment of the terrorist threat must look as well at the number of incidents, since the number of attacks is likely a better indicator of the size of networks than anything else. And when looking at incidents, the numbers are much less comforting. There has been some leveling off of attacks by radical Islamist groups outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, but they are still at a rate that is twice that of the 2002-2003 period and ten times that of the late 1990s.

Is the threat diminishing? Perhaps it is. But any such argument would need to be bolstered by a much wider variety of evidence than has been provided thus far. A better assessment would rely on a variety of evidence, including casualty figures and number of incidents, but also considered known terrorist networks, terrorist financing, the existence of secure bases, the level of state sponsorship, and the institutional ties of terrorist groups to one another. And on the basis of analysis of much of the additional evidence, this assessment of a declining threat is tremendously premature.

Second, the increasing level of ideological dispute within the jihadist movement is an intriguing development. For analysts who are unfamiliar with terrorist ideology, it comes as a surprise that any reassessment is possible. After all, aren't the jihadist a bunch of crazed zealots? Some are, but many are not. The roots of the jihadist movement are fundamentally grounded in the concerns of this world, not of the next. The jihadist movement grew out of the broader Islamist movement, which was itself a response to the failings of "Arab Socialism" -- the brand of statist authoritarianism practiced by people like Nasser and which led to poverty, repression, and humiliation at the hands of the Israelis. Many Muslims turned to Political Islam not out of theological conviction, but as a result of political frustration. Similarly, the rise of violent groups was a function of a failure to achieve change through political process moreso than in response to Koranic injunctions. And finally, the growth of violence against the West was due to an assessment that the United States was blocking reform moreso than any desire to re-establish a caliphate. At each step in the process, the jihadist movement grew and developed in response to circumstances on the ground, not ideology.

Given that profoundly pragmatic core, is it any surprise that events since 9/11 have caused calls for reassessment? While the jihadist movement remains strong, it is no closer to achieving its goals than before the attacks. This lack of any progress combined with the cost in terms of increased suffering for Muslims in many hot spots is triggering a pragmatic reassessment. But pragmatism is not always synonymous with moderation. There is a debate about the use of violence in jihadist circles, but yet the structural impetus toward violence remains. Many Muslims remain concerned about their political weakness vis-a-vis the West. Most still live under repressive secular regimes supported by the United States. They still see themselves as under attack. All of the debate over Islamic just war doctrine will not change any of those basic facts. As long as Muslims see themselves as being oppressed in part by the West, there will be those who will lash out, and there will be a large community who sympathize with the goals of the radicals.

Most jihadists are not intellectuals. The guys who plant bombs are not engaged in debates about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. They are angry and ill-informed and only need a limited modicum of public support to remain in business. No amount of 1000 page tomes reassessing the deeds of the Prophet will change their motivations, and we are fooling ourselves when we over-emphasize this quasi-scholarly debate among small handfuls of intellectuals.

Finally, we need to be on-guard against the politicization of this debate. Last year, when the administration was trying to bully the Congress into passing its version of a domestic surveillance bill, people like CIA director General Michael Hayden were fear mongering about the imminent threat we faced. Now, in an election year that is going to serve as something of a referendum on the Bush approach to the "war on terror" we are being told that the threat is much diminished. The timing is profoundly suspicious.

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