Since the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan over the summer, terrorism experts have been predicting that the U.S. is now in more danger from Islamic extremist attacks. But is this right, or is it more likely that the opposite is true?
Some argue that Afghanistan’s advantages as a safe haven for terrorists make attacks more likely. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute points to the terrorists in the Taliban cabinet and how the country will return to being a terrorist safe haven. Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former U.S. counterterrorism coordinator Nathan Sales echo that opinion. Analysts at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies foresee al-Qaida and the Taliban in partnership and an al-Qaida resurgence in multiple countries. A Pentagon undersecretary told the Senate that al-Qaida could launch attacks outside Afghanistan in one or two years. Even more alarming: The intelligence community predicts that with Afghanistan lost, the Islamic State group may be able to strike the U.S. in six months.
To sum up this depressing picture, former National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in October that the war against jihadist terrorists approaches “a new, more dangerous phase.” Former FBI special agent Ali Soufan and Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations, even claim that we are more vulnerable to terrorism now than before 9/11.
Terrorism analysts are normally pessimistic—some appear to see it a job requirement. But still: a more dangerous environment now than before 9/11?
The Terrorism Threat Is Not Growing
If anything, the past 20 years of the war on terror should make us skeptical of worst-case predictions. Surveying the state of Islamic extremism today shows that the overall threat has been fading, the importance of terrorist safe havens has been overstated, and the terrorist groups themselves have limited capacity and competing objectives. More importantly, we have learned—or should have learned—that our military invasions probably contributed to the jihadist threat lasting as long as it has.
Much of the discussion of terrorism ignores America’s long-standing role in this security dilemma. Former CIA analyst Graham Fuller calls this the “immaculate conception” theory of international security: We were just minding our own business and, suddenly, along came a terrorist attack. Little consideration is given to what actions may have provoked the attack. In “A World Without Islam,” Fuller argues that U.S. military interventions in Muslim countries were bound to create a strong backlash, even if Islam had not been a factor.
The history of the U.S. war on terror and recent efforts to demilitarize the response to global jihad—ending troop deployments and significantly reducing drone strikes—suggest that Fuller’s thesis is correct. The data strongly indicate that pulling out of Afghanistan likely will lead to fewer attacks on Americans, not more. Our peace dividend from military disengagement will be fewer Americans, both civilian and military, dead from jihadist terror.
As Wars End, Worldwide Terrorism Declines
As our wars of intervention have wound down, Islamic-motivated terrorism has also declined. The 2020 Global Terrorism Index notes that terrorism deaths are down nearly 60% from their peak in 2014, largely thanks to the easing of the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The Taliban, which the report considers the world’s deadliest terrorist group, killed 18% fewer people in 2019 than the year before. This is significant because terrorism deaths in Afghanistan in 2019 represented 41% of the world’s total.
U.S. forces and their allies overthrew the Taliban in 2002, but it returned as an insurgency in 2005. The invasion inspired the Taliban’s “traditional jihad” to take back the country. Although it used terror tactics against its opponents, the Taliban never attempted attacks against the U.S. homeland. Governing poor and dysfunctional Afghanistan now represents a significant challenge for the Taliban, which might discourage it from reviving hostilities with old enemies. Further, the Taliban is likely to be locked in a struggle for power with its Islamic State group rival, which now has a significant presence in the country.
For its part, the Islamic State group boasts adherents in several countries and was responsible for bombing civilian targets in Sri Lanka in 2019 and in Uganda this year. In the U.S., the Islamic State group has inspired many homegrown radicals, but its threat to the homeland has been insignificant in recent years. According to political scientist John Mueller’s study of U.S. terrorism since 9/11, the Islamic State group appears to have inspired numerous terrorist plans to attack the U.S. after 2014, but few were carried out. And evidence of attack planning diminished by 2017 as the group suffered defeats in Iraq and Syria.
An Al-Qaida Revival Is Unlikely
Al-Qaida is always a favorite candidate for a comeback, but it’s undeniably in deep decline. The terrorist outfit barely registered in the Global Terrorism Index and committed none of the top 50 attacks in 2019. A U.N. Security Council report in June estimated that core al-Qaida comprises around only 500 people, and that it might be more like “several dozen.” Despite having safe havens in Afghanistan and elsewhere, core al-Qaida never managed another attack on the U.S. after 9/11, and it now fails to inspire even homegrown terrorists. Al-Qaida is a phoenix permanently stuck in its own ashes.
Having safe havens in Afghanistan, or anywhere, has not helped terrorists organize more attacks on Americans. Safe havens are defined as areas where terrorists can operate free from counterterrorism activity. Many terrorist groups, such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Hezbollah, have long occupied areas where they can operate with some impunity. Analysts constantly cite safe havens to justify intervention abroad despite numerous studies, including the 9/11 Commission Report, making clear that the 9/11 attack planning was carried out in several countries and did not depend on the vacuum created by Afghanistan’s inability to govern the country.
More recently, experts predicted that Syria would be a launch pad for the Islamic State group, but that turned out to be far less of a threat than expected. Most Islamic State group sympathizers who attempted to commit terrorism in the U.S., almost always without success, had never traveled to Syria, according to a 2016 study by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.
The Roots of U.S. Terrorist Attacks
As for the terrorist attacks in the U.S. that are successful, 107 Americans have died from jihadist violence in the past 20 years, according to think tank New America. None of these attacks were directly organized or launched by al-Qaida, the Islamic State group or the Taliban. The attackers were nearly all radicalized Americans or recent immigrants.
The worst incident by far was the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016, which killed 49. The mass murderer Omar Mateen acted alone, although he claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group. He, like other U.S. terrorists, wanted the U.S. to stop bombing innocent women and children in the Middle East. In all of the most notorious terrorist incidents in the U.S. in recent years—Ft. Hood, the Boston Marathon bombing, the San Bernardino shootings—the perpetrators justified their actions based on U.S. actions abroad against Muslims, according to Mueller’s study.
In the most recent attack, in 2019, a self-radicalized Saudi pilot trainee killed three and wounded several at Pensacola, Florida, Naval Air Station. The FBI said al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula motivated the attacker, Mohammaed Saeed Alshamrami, but its assistance was hardly required: The shooter bought a gun, hid it in his flight helmet bag and then fired on unarmed sailors in the flight school. As reported in the investigation, personal grievances probably also motivated the shooter, who had been in the U.S. for flight training for two years, but he exhibited few warning signs.
The attack had no effect on U.S. policy and barely any on the public at large. Three similar attacks occurred on U.S. military bases that year but were not terrorist-related. The shooting fit the profile of numerous other active shooter incidents that year, which accounted for 258 casualties. If the attack was intended to disrupt U.S.-Saudi relations, it failed; the program to train Saudi pilots was resumed after a brief suspension.
War Weariness on Both Sides?
Despite the occasional senseless attack, Islamic extremist terrorism is clearly a diminished threat to the U.S. Our gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Middle East probably has reduced the incentive for radicalization among homegrown extremists.
But we can’t ignore another possibility: Along with our own war weariness, the perpetrators of violent jihad against the U.S. might themselves be having a change of heart. According to Brown University’s Costs of War project, we have killed an estimated 250,000-260,000 opposition fighters in various war zones since October 2001. Weighing these staggering losses, our enemies may well have concluded that perpetual jihad against the U.S. is just not worth the cost.