Round 2: September 11, 2006

Paul R. Pillar


Most scorecards for the "war on terror" reflect too narrow a viewpoint, particularly in focusing only on the five years since the 9/11 attacks. Terrorism is a centuries-old tactic, and the specific form of Sunni Salafi jihadism that caught the world's attention that day had been endangering the United States since the early 1990s. Well before 9/11, moreover, the United States was using most of the counterterrorism tools now involved in the "war," including intelligence gathering, criminal prosecutions, diplomatic pressure, money-tracking, renditions of individual terrorists, and even military force -- albeit with fewer resources and less public support back then.

A group of Salafi jihadists attempted to topple the towers of the World Trade Center in February 1993, intent on killing tens of thousands of people. Their technique was not as successful as that of their successors, but their ideology and deadly purpose were the same. Yet one seldom heard -- or hears even now -- searching questions about why there wasn't another attack in the years following that bombing (and a companion plot, rolled up four months later, to attack other landmarks in New York City). This inconsistency reflects the tendency of our attention and worries to track past casualty totals rather than underlying threats.

Five years is a short time for jihadists who think in terms of epochal struggles, the rise and fall of civilizations, and rewards in an afterlife. Westerners, having a much shorter perspective these days, tend to overanalyze the implications of year-to-year or even month-to-month patterns in terrorist behavior. The absence of attacks during a period that for the terrorist is a blink of a historical eyelash can set off debates in Washington about whether the leaders at Jihad Central have been crippled or are working on something really big. In fact, the patterns may reflect simply the happenstance of operational opportunities, including the skills of the next aspiring martyr to walk through the door. There is no Jihad Central, moreover, and such jihadist terrorism as does occur is usually not the execution of anyone's master plan but instead the collective product of many different individuals, cells, and groups in what is an increasingly decentralized movement.

The history of previous extremist movements gives reason for hope that the current jihadist phenomenon may have already run much of its course. And as Fawaz Gerges notes, jihadists are beset both by serious divisions among themselves and by challenges from other streams of activist opinion within the Muslim world. But that still leaves a stretch of course yet to be run, and possibly much damage and suffering yet be inflicted. The task of U.S. policy now is to find ways to limit the risks and possible damage without jettisoning our other values, using all available tools to counter the most dangerous jihadists while not saying or doing things that prolong the life of their movement and ideology.

The United States has made substantial progress on these fronts in the last five years, including increasing attention to homeland security and eroding al Qaeda's infrastructure. But it has failed on the last count, by embracing policies such as the invasion of Iraq that have invigorated the jihadists and played directly into their warped portrayal of a civilizational struggle. President Bush and other supporters of the invasion and occupation have argued that jihadist terrorism preceded the war, but this strikes down only the straw man that the war is the sole cause of the terrorism; it does not negate the clear indications that the war is an inspiration, propaganda bonanza, recruiting poster, networking opportunity, and training ground for the jihadists. And other U.S. policies have also contributed to the perception of American antipathy toward the Muslim world, such as Washington's opposition to an early cease-fire in the fighting in Lebanon this past summer.

Much of what the United States has done during the last five years under the label of counterterrorism has been worthwhile. But unfortunately it has negated those accomplishments with policies in other areas that have affected the level of terrorist threat. And as a result, Americans are probably more endangered today than they were on 9/12.

Fawaz Gerges


In my last post I argued that al Qaeda has not delivered on its repeated threats to strike inside the United States partly because it is hemorrhaging and encircled within the Islamist movement and the Muslim world more generally. Cracks have emerged even within the bin Laden network itself, with the case of Abu al-Walid al-Masri being a good example.

Before 9/11, Abu al-Walid had been a leading theoretician of the organization and participated in its most significant decisions. But he broke with bin Laden over the attacks, becoming one of the most senior of the Arab Afghans to part company and take his grievances public (through a newsletter and articles in the Arabic press).

Abu al-Walid had worked closely with both Mullah Omar and bin Laden, and in his writings he paints a dark portrait of the latter as an autocrat, running al Qaeda as he might a tribal fiefdom. Bin Laden had thought that the United States would retreat after two or three engagements, basing his assessment on the U.S. Marines "fleeing" Lebanon in 1983 and on what happened in Somalia in the 1990s, when U.S. forces left in a "shameful disarray and indecorous haste." But after September 11, Abu al-Walid notes, matters "took an opposite turn compared to what bin Laden had imagined. Instead of buckling under his three painful blows, America retaliated and destroyed both the Taliban and Al Qaeda."

Abu al-Walid tells us that bin Laden entangled the Taliban in regional and international conflicts against its will and brought about the destruction of the Islamic emirate; Afghanistan was lost because of bin Laden's reckless conduct culminating in the attacks on the United States.

al Qaeda members knew better than to challenge bin Laden, he says. "You are the emir, do as you please!" he reports them as telling their leader. But that attitude turned out to be not only wrong but also dangerous: "It encourages recklessness and causes disorganization, characteristics that are unsuitable for this existential battle in which we confront the greatest force in the world, U.S.A."

By stifling internal debate and underestimating the enemy, Abu al-Walid concludes, bin Laden was personally responsible for the defeat, rendering Al Qaeda's final years in Afghanistan "a tragic example of an Islamic movement managed by a catastrophic leadership. Everyone knew that [bin Laden] was leading them to the abyss and even leading the entire country to utter destruction, but they continued to bend to his will and take his orders with suicidal submission."

The importance of Abu al-Walid's withering criticism -- which is echoed by a number of other jihadists -- is its public acknowledgment of disarray and defeat. Many leading jihadists have concluded that the war is lost and that bin Laden and his hawkish aides promised heaven and delivered dust. In short, for the bin Laden network the war within has been more lethal than the war waged against it by the United States.

Jessica Stern


James Fallows is correct that John Mueller is courageous in taking on the prevailing wisdom and putting forward a falsifiable hypothesis. Those who publicly underestimate threats are far more vulnerable than those who exaggerate them, even though this is not particularly fair, given that threat exaggeration can carry large costs too. And Mueller is certainly correct, as I noted in my first post, in pointing out that some people have exaggerated the current terrorism threat deliberately.

Still, even if global jihadists might not pose a threat to the existence of the United States, I think it is premature to call them simply a "nuisance," as Fawaz Gerges suggests. Paul Pillar has it exactly right: The terrorism threat may be exaggerated these days, but even a hyped threat can be real.

Specialists on the perception of risk tell us that people tend to underestimate greatly the probability of unusual threats, but overestimate the probability of dangers that are easy to imagine or recall. Most of us who were alive on 9/11 have difficulty forgetting the shock of what we saw -- passenger jets flying directly into the buildings, people jumping from the windows, some of them holding hands as they leaped to their deaths just before the towers fell. With such images in the collective mind's eye, people are prone to overreact and imagine the worst.

Long-time students of terrorism are quite familiar with fluctuating public attitudes toward the subject. Before 9/11 we were seen as eccentrics, rambling on obsessively about a supposedly non-existent threat. Afterwards, we were seen as Cassandras, with our worries suddenly taken very seriously indeed. Despite the shift in popular attitudes, however, the professionals' views didn't change all that much. Before, they thought the probability of a major attack was real but relatively low, and they think the same thing now.

The one area where all the Roundtable participants seem to agree is that terrorists aim to make us react in ways that threaten our security, in essence doing their work for them. This is sometimes referred to as an "auto-immune response" to terrorism: They attack us, we attack ourselves in response. The jihadists behind 9/11 set out to provoke us into taking actions that would reduce our security, prestige, and moral authority, and measured against that objective, they did pretty well. One can point this out, however, without making light of the continuing threats that the jihadists pose.

James Fallows


In the first round of posts the participants all disagreed somewhat with one another and with John Mueller. If the discussion went on at greater length, I'm sure we would place slightly different emphases on the urgency of the challenges the United States has to deal with and the next steps it should take. But when compared with the general sweep of public, political, and media portrayals of the ongoing threat of terrorist attack, all of us, along with Mueller, are essentially on the same side. Everyone here has agreed that politicians have routinely made the threat seem more dire and immediate than it is and that the media have generally played along.

Why should this be? Why, of all the cultures that have had to deal with terrorist attacks over the last decade, should the United States now seem most fearful?

It would be easiest, if most depressing, if one could simply conclude that this is how Americans are. But in fact, Americans have historically prized just the opposite sort of demeanor: people who keep their cool and refuse to be rattled, even under stress.

This is the country that produced Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, and Jimmy Stewart. When he was able to speak after being shot, the first thing Ronald Reagan said was not: "Let's lock down much of Washington to keep this from happening ever again." He said, of course, "Honey, I forgot to duck." Even those who didn't think Reagan spoke for their politics thought he spoke for their culture. And Rudolph Giuliani's God-like status in the few months after 9/11 was based largely on his calm, concerned, but non-panicky sense of competence.

I think a better explanation involves two forms of market failure, one involving politicians and the other the media. The political market failure is that over the last five years, it has been far more effective for politicians to appeal to sky-is-falling fears than to try to calm them. The Republicans have been the greater offenders, because they have been in office, because this plays into their traditional strength on national security, and because it suits the nature of a President who feels he found his historic mission on 9/11 and a Vice President who portrays the world in the direst of terms. But Democrats have often tried to counter by being even more alarmist, emphasizing hidden weak points Republicans have not yet addressed.

The media market failure is more obvious. For reasons that predate 9/11 and that distort public discussion in ways that go far beyond terrorism, the media have made it hard to think calmly about the threat and the proper response. Here the greatest offenders are the 24-hour news channels, because of the all-or-nothing nature of their business model. The audience for cable news soars when there is a crisis, and it is thus in these channels' interest to turn everything into a crisis. A war will serve, but if there isn't one at the moment, whatever is at hand will have to do.

Thus a missing Washington intern, Chandra Levy, received national-emergency treatment in the weeks before 9/11, and was essentially never heard of afterwards. And thus the young woman missing in Aruba has served as a place-holder emergency between the capture of Saddam Hussein and the killing of al-Zarqawi. In this system, it is almost impossible for TV not to overplay any hint of a security threat.

The problems I have described are structural, but I suspect the answer will depend on individual political leadership. When someone can actually play the role of a Churchill -- or a Gary Cooper, or even a Rick Blaine at his bar in Casablanca -- Americans will be able to be themselves again.

John Mueller


I thank the roundtable responders for their thoughtful comments, and I would like at the outset to defend my article against the charge that it exhibits "bravery," "daring" and "courage" (or "foolhardiness", as less charitable commentators might have put it.)

Having spent some time in Washington, I am quite familiar with the nuances of the CYA process, and was careful to embed in the article the posterior-preserving statement that "none of this is to deny that more terrorist attacks on the United States are still possible." The point of the article is to suggest that the threat of international terrorism to the United States may well have been much inflated, not that it doesn't exist or that it isn't real. That proposition is not terminally refuted if some fanatical nut somewhere shoots up a bus, bank, or beauty salon while shouting "God is great!" any more than the suggestion that exceedingly few lottery ticket buyers will win is refuted when one of them happens to do so. Terrorism has always existed and always will -- political assassination, for example, is a form of terrorism that likely goes back to the dawn of the human race. However, as James Fallows and Paul Pillar suggest, many people will likely take an incident to be refutation, and I guess I'll have to live with that.

I agree with Pillar that enhanced security measures may have been effective in making it more difficult for terrorists to function and, as he and Fawaz Gerges have written elsewhere, I credit much of this to effective internationally coordinated policing overseas (something that, further, suggests that the inability here to come up with much of anything is due to something other than policing incompetence). However, since a terrorist act only requires one or two determined guys with a gun or explosive (or in the case of forest fires, a match), and since the United States contains an essentially infinite number of attractive targets, the fact that no attacks have been carried out in the country may indicate that the terrorists are far less capable and dedicated than popularly assumed. Israel, of course, has a far more extensive and layered security apparatus, yet terrorist attacks still take place there.

I have tried to deal with the "are we safer?" concern elsewhere. As Jessica Stern points out, there may have been something of an increase in terrorist activity around the world since 2001 and particularly since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Much of this seems to be due to changes in methods of counting, however -- the latest edition of the State Department's tally says its results