21 September 2012
The West's counterterrorism policies have become so effective that the probability of a mass-casualty terrorist attack in the US and Europe has diminished, argues Daniel Möckli. Terrorism is now a real but manageable risk that Western governments should no longer overemphasize.
By Daniel Möckli for Center for Security Studies (CSS)
Eleven years after al-Qaida’s coordinated mass-casualty attacks on the US, many effects of 11 September 2001 are still visible. Islamist extremist violence continues to be widely perceived as a major threat to global security. Recurring terrorism alerts and news about successful or foiled attacks serve as forceful reminders that this is a threat that could hit anyone anytime. Aviation security and infrastructure protection remain major public concerns. Counterterrorism capabilities in law enforcement, intelligence, and the military have all been enhanced.
For all these repercussions, 9/11 has not brought about strategic change to the international system. It illustrated the globalization of security threats and the empowerment of non-state actors. It also had a tremendous impact on US foreign policy for several years. Yet, with the US gradually modifying its counterterrorism approach, al-Qaida has not succeeded in provoking the West into a clash of civilizations. This is notwithstanding growing anti-Muslim and anti-American sentiment in certain parts of the world. Nor has al-Qaida become a mass movement. The core organization of al-Qaida has been significantly weakened. Al-Qaida’s ideology has lost much support in Muslim countries. The vast majority of Islamist extremist groups have not answered the call for global jihad and continue to pursue more local agendas.
Seen from the perspective of Western security, Islamist extremist violence has not become an existential threat as was frequently predicted after 9/11. Rather, it should be perceived as an ongoing but manageable risk. Current counter-terrorism policies are effective to the extent that the likelihood of complex and catastrophic attacks against the homeland of Western countries has substantially decreased. The jihadist threat to Europe and the US no doubt remains real, with ‘homegrown’ radicals that have ties to al-Qaida-related terror organizations being a particular source of concern. However, potential terrorist attacks are likely to be limited in scale and conventional in nature over the coming years.
Shifting from ‘managing’ to ‘resolving’ the problem of jihadist terrorism may be too ambitious an objective, as strategic counterterrorism is beset with major challenges. The fight against terrorism is set to stay and will continue to require considerable resources. Yet, terrorism is a threat that should no longer be overemphasized at the expense of other security challenges. Issues relating to the transformation of the international system and regional developments in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere will likely top the strategic agenda of Western countries in the coming years.
An evolving threat
The jihadist threat has evolved significantly in the past years. The capacity of al-Qaida Central to launch complex and catastrophic attacks has been diminished. Al-Qaida’s ideology and brand have, however, been taken up by some other terror organizations. These regional al-Qaida affiliates embrace the call for global jihad to some extent. But their grievances and objectives – and in most cases, also their operative range – are tied to specific local contexts.
The same holds true for most other Islamist extremist groups. Al-Qaida’s concept of global jihad is being marginalized in Islamic religious and political discourse. Most of the groups that operate on the premise of jihad continue to follow the classical interpretation of a defensive struggle against oppression in Muslim countries. Going after the ‘near enemy’, they still may hit not just national regimes and security forces, but also local Western targets. But they do not subscribe to al-Qaida’s reinterpretation of jihad in global and more offensive terms. Hitting the ‘far enemy’, i.e. launching attacks against the US homeland and other Western countries, is not what they are after.
In Europe, and increasingly in the US as well, there is the additional threat of homegrown radicalization. Evidence suggests that the damage homegrown jihadists can cause depends significantly on whether they are self-inspired and acting autonomously or trained and guided by established terrorist organizations. The most likely current scenarios of homegrown terrorism concern attacks of limited scale with traditional terrorist methods such as armed assault and improvised explosives.
Overall, the diversification of Islamist extremist violence in recent years has rendered the jihadist threat more diffuse. It has also meant that the threat for Western homelands, while still real, has been reduced. Muslim-majority countries, rather than the West, are the main target of terrorist attacks.
A largely non-Western threat
The decreasing appeal of global jihad and the limited operational capacity of jihadists willing to strike European or US targets suggest a reduced scale of threat emanating from Islamist extremist violence to Western countries. A typical attack in the coming years will likely be of limited scale and sophistication, carried out with conventional weapons like assault rifles or small improvised explosive devices. In its methods, jihadist terrorism increasingly resembles traditional IRA-or ETA-type terrorism. It continues to differ, however, in that it is often aimed at indiscriminate mass casualties and may target any country, irrespective of secessionist conflicts.
It is due to this last reason that Islamist extremist violence will likely remain a major concern to Western publics and policy-makers. It works to the advantage of al-Qaida that even failed attacks arouse public attention, emotion, and fear. It is important to note, however, that it is non- OECD countries, and predominantly Muslim-majority countries, that suffer the bulk of terrorism attacks and casualties. In 2010, the ‘top five’ countries in terms of both attacks and deaths were Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, India, and Somalia. Collectively, they accounted for 76 per cent of all attacks and 83 per cent of all deaths.
Europe and the United States rank last on this global list of terror incidents. In Europe, there have been few attacks, and the figures for arrests have been decreasing since 2006. According to Europol data covering 26 European Union (EU) member states (excluding the UK), six member states reported 294 failed, foiled, or successfully perpetrated terrorist attacks in 2009. Only one of these attacks was categorized as Islamist, as opposed to 237 attacks related to ETA in Spain and France. In the figures for 2010, the number of Islamist attacks may go up slightly [note: in 2011, no religiously-inspired attack was reported by EU member-states], but the major trend may well be a rise in attacks by anarchist (left-wing) groups in Greece, Italy, and Spain. In the UK, there were 173 terrorism arrests in 2009/10 [note: 62 in 2011], compared to an annual average of 216 since 2002. As for the US, few would have expected that there would ‘only’ be 14 homeland deaths caused by Islamist extremist violence in the decade post- 9/11 – a figure that contrasts with the 168 people killed in the right-wing Oklahoma bombing of 1995.
The bottom line is that while jihadist terrorism hits hard some of the Muslim countries, it is a manageable risk in Western countries. There is of course a price tag attached to managing this risk effectively. Also, new large-scale attacks on Western homelands can never be ruled out. Nevertheless, the likelihood of such an attack appears lower today than some counterterrorist bureaucracies and analysts continue to argue.
This is also why two worst-case scenarios are unlikely today: for example, links between anti-Western Muslim regimes and global jihadists have not materialized in any substantial way. Iran does support Hezbollah and Hamas, but has been tough on Al Qaeda. Nor did Saddam Hussein cooperate with global jihadists. There are ties between the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and al-Qaida and Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan. Yet, these are tactical alliances that are not geared against the West, but must be seen in the context of the ISI’s strategic calculations concerning Pakistan’s relations with India.
Without state sponsorship of global jihadism, the scenario of terrorism based on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) appears unlikely too. Again, there are concerns about the safety of nuclear weapons, especially should Pakistan descend into political chaos. US President Barack Obama’s characterization of nuclear terrorism as ‘the most extreme threat to global security’ is certainly justified, and there is no doubt that a WMD attack could be a game-changer in international relations. But it is doubtful that Obama is also right in calling this ‘the most immediate threat’. Getting the materials and the know-how to launch an effective WMD attack remains exceedingly difficult. As for the use of conventional explosives to disperse radioactive materials, such ‘dirty bombs’ are unlikely to cause mass casualties, though they may cause mass panic.
Daniel Möckli is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) and head of its Strategic Trends Analysis unit. He is the editor of CSS' annual Strategic Trends publication and co-editor (with Daniel Trachlser) of CSS Analysis in Security Policy.
This text is an excerpt from the chapter "9/11 Ten Years On: Terrorism as a Manageable Risk" published in Strategic Trends 2011: Key Developments in Global Affairs. Republished with permission.