The Terrorism That Wasn’t

Disproportionate resources are being expended on counter terrorism operations

After 9/11, many of us worried that terrorism would escalate, transforming our world into a bloody clash of civilisations. Experts warned of an epidemic of violence. Bruce Hoffman, a leading scholar of terrorism, warned that al Qaeda is ‘on the march.’ Bernard Lewis, a senior scholar of Islam, warned that ‘the suicide bomber and other kinds of terrorists have become role models, eagerly followed by growing numbers of frustrated and angry young men and women.’ A cover story in The New York Times Magazine warned that Islamic terrorism had gone ‘viral.’

Al Qaeda fanned fears with repeated threats. “I promise you that the Islamic youth are preparing for you what will fill your hearts with horror,” Ayman Zawahiri swore in 2002. In 2003, he stated: “What you saw with your eyes so far are only the first tactics we are using. The real battle hasn’t started yet.” In 2004: “The Islamic nation, which sent you the New York and Washington brigades, has taken a firm decision to send you successive brigades to sow death and aspire to paradise.”

A decade after 9/11, to our great good fortune, these dire predictions have not materialised.

Al Qaeda and its affiliates continue to carry out attacks, but not nearly so many as the world feared. And most of those attacks have been concentrated in three civil war zones — Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. Outside of these three countries, the annual death toll from terrorism has been lower since 9/11 than in the years before 9/11, according to the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland. That source and data from the US National Counter-terrorism Center both calculate that global fatalities from terrorism have fallen by half since 2007.

In India in particular, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, fatalities averaged 4,331 per year in the decade 1994-2003, and 2,679 per year since then — a drop of more than a third, notwithstanding horrific acts of violence witnessed in Mumbai and elsewhere in recent years.

So why has there not been more terrorist violence?

Terrorism has failed to metastasise in part because of aggressive security measures. Thousands of suspected militants have been imprisoned or killed in counterterrorism operations, and the terrorists are having difficulty replenishing their ranks. The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 shut down training camps that processed hundreds of recruits at a time, and the terrorists’ new camps in northwest Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere are able to accommodate only a couple dozen recruits at a time. Larger camps would attract too much attention from satellite surveillance and intelligence services monitoring the routes to these remote locations.

To supplement its shrunken capacity for face-to-face training, al Qaeda and its affiliates have turned to the Internet to encourage do-it-yourself terrorists. Their publications offer step-by-step instructions, along with the claim that revolutionary violence is a religious duty incumbent upon each Muslim.

Millions of Muslims have access to this recruitment material, but only a tiny proportion have heeded the call. In the United States, about 20 Muslims are found to be involved in terrorist plots each year, or one in 100,000 Muslim-Americans. In the European Union, the figure is about 200 per year, or one in 50,000 Muslim residents. A few of these militants have succeeded in carrying out violent attacks, and a few will no doubt succeed in the future. So far, though, they form a small portion of the 4,000 murders recorded each year in the EU, or the 14,000 murders each year in the US. Globally, Islamic terrorism accounts for less than one in 50 murders and less than one in 5,000 deaths.

Of course, any victims of terrorism are too many. However, terrorism remains a marginal form of violence. Terrorism attracts disproportionate attention — indeed, that is the terrorists’ goal — but it is not a leading cause of death.

If even one-thousandth of the world’s billion Muslims considered it appropriate to murder in the name of Islam, we would see attacks everywhere, every day. We have the world’s Muslims to thank that we don’t.

The terrorists are sorely upset about recruitment failures that have limited the scale of their operations. Mullah Dadaullah, a leading al Qaeda ally in Afghanistan, called Muslims ‘scum’ for their lack of militancy, their ‘love of this world and hatred of death.’ Dadaullah claimed to have recruited hundreds of suicide bombers, and promised before his death in 2007 that ‘we will be executing attacks in Britain and the US to demonstrate our sincerity.’ No attacks in these countries have been linked to him.

Still, ten years after 9/11, every day brings news of terrorist violence somewhere in the world. Terrorists continue to plot their bloody revolutionary spectacles. But the next attack, and the attack after that, cannot erase the terrorism that wasn’t — the massive wave of violence that we were told to expect, which did not occur.

(The writer is the author of The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists [Oxford University Press, 2011] and a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)


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