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Larry C. Johnson: The Myth of Terrorism, Part Deux

The Myth of Terrorism, Part Deux

By Larry C. Johnson
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Monday 03 July 2006

How afraid should we be? If you listen to the Bush administration, a minority of Supreme Court Justices, and the extreme right wing, the answer is simple: RUN, RUN FOR YOUR LIVES! President Bush and Vice President Cheney have said repeatedly that terrorism is an "unprecedented threat." Because it is unprecedented, we must, therefore, be prepared to do anything. Ron Suskind writes in his latest oeuvre, The One Percent Doctrine, that Vice President Dick Cheney said:

if there's a one percent chance that al-Qaeda could get its hands on weapons of mass destruction, "we need to treat it as a certainty. It's not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of evidence. It's about our response."

The fear of terrorism is understandable, but completely irrational. Let me return for a moment to a much criticized op-ed in the New York Times that I wrote in the summer of 2001. I said:

Judging from news reports and the portrayal of villains in our popular entertainment, Americans are bedeviled by fantasies about terrorism. They seem to believe that terrorism is the greatest threat to the United States and that it is becoming more widespread and lethal. They are likely to think that the United States is the most popular target of terrorists. And they almost certainly have the impression that extremist Islamic groups cause most terrorism.... None of these beliefs are based in fact.... While terrorism is not vanquished, in a world where thousands of nuclear warheads are still aimed across the continents, terrorism is not the biggest security challenge confronting the United States, and it should not be portrayed that way.

I stand by that assessment. At that time most of the terrorist attacks counted by the intelligence community where carried out by non-Islamist groups. Unfortunately, some who read this piece were unaware of my previous work, an op-ed penned with Milt Bearden in November of 2000 and my interviews with Frontline in August of 1998, in which I identified Bin Laden and al-Qaeda as our main terrorist threats.

Since 2001, there has been a sea change in the terrorist threat - in 2004, radical Islamic groups accounted for the vast majority of attacks and were largely responsible for all people killed and wounded in terrorist attacks. In 2002, for example, there were a total of 208 terrorist attacks. By 2004, there were almost 700 terrorist attacks in which people were killed or injured. This was the highest number of attacks ever recorded since the intelligence community started keeping statistics in 1968.

While terrorism from radical Islamic extremism is a threat we must take seriously, we are kidding ourselves to place it on par with the military and nuclear threat we faced during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Let's start with al-Qaeda. In the summer of 2001, Jane's Defense said that al-Qaeda's network, under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, was:

resilient, with a membership of 3,000-5,000 men worldwide. A global conglomerate of groups operating as a network, al-Qaeda ("The Base") has a worldwide reach, with a presence in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Jordan, Tajikistan, Syria, and 31 other countries. (August 2001).

Since then, according to the Bush administration, at least 50% of al-Qaeda has been destroyed. Besides al-Qaeda, there are other loose groups and gangs of aspiring jihadists. How many? We really don't know. One way to judge is to look at the number of terrorist attacks, both international and domestic. Last year, according to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), there were almost 11,000 attacks that caused 14,500 deaths. Iraq accounted for almost 30% of those attacks and 55 percent of the fatalities (see page ix, NCTC Report on Incidents of Terrorism 2005).

By merging domestic and international attacks, NCTC has made it more difficult to track the number of attacks in which people are being killed and injured. For the sake of discussion, let's be generous and assume that most of last year's attacks were caused by radical jihadists. Less than 50 of these attacks killed 50 people or more. That is an objective fact. If there are hundreds of thousands of jihadist terrorists around the world, these statistics beg a critical question - why are they so inactive relative to their numbers?

If there were, say, 50,000 committed jihadist terrorists we should expect to see more than 2000 attacks annually with significantly higher casualties. So far, that is not the case. Should we fear jihadists more than we feared the Soviet threat? I say no.

In 1989, the Soviet armed forces was the world's largest military establishment, with nearly 6 million troops in uniform. The Soviets had:

five armed services rather than the standard army, navy, and air force organizations found in most of the world's armed forces. In their official order of importance, the Soviet armed services were the Strategic Rocket Forces, Ground Forces, Air Forces, Air Defense Forces, and Naval Forces. The Soviet armed forces also included two paramilitary forces, the Internal Troops and the Border Troops.

Al-Qaeda, today, is estimated to be around 2000-3000 strong. Their leadership is hiding out in remote areas of Pakistan, they lack strategic training bases, and have limited ability to communicate.

In 1989, the Soviets' Strategic Rocket Forces had:

over 1,400 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 300 launch control centers, and twenty-eight missile bases. The Soviet Union had six types of operational ICBMs; about 50 percent were heavy SS-18 and SS-19 ICBMs, which carried 80 percent of the country's land-based ICBM warheads. In 1989 the Soviet Union was also producing new mobile, and hence survivable, ICBMS. A reported 100 road-mobile SS25 missiles were operational, and the rail-mobile SS-24 was being deployed. The Strategic Rocket Forces also operated SS-20 intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and SS-4 medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs).

Al-Qaeda and its jihadist allies do not have access to or control of any intercontinental or medium range ballistic missiles. I do not doubt their willingness to use such weapons if they could get their hands on them, but desire is not the same as capability.

In 1989, the Soviets had a massive Air Force capable of delivering nuclear weapons inside the United States:

More than seventy [Soviet] bombers [had] been modified to carry air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) . A new intercontinental-range bomber, the Tu-160, which also bore the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) designation Blackjack, became operational in 1989. In the late 1980s, long-range bombers carried a small, but increasing, percentage of all Soviet strategic nuclear weapons.

Al-Qaeda does not have an air force or any vehicle capable of delivering an airborne nuclear device.

In 1989, the Soviets had an extensive submarine capability for delivering nuclear devices:

Since 1973 the Soviet Union has deployed ten different attack submarine classes, including five new types since 1980. In 1989, the Soviet Union also had sixty-six guided missile submarines for striking the enemy's land targets, surface combatant groups, and supply convoys.

In retrospect, Bush and his allies are right about one thing - the threat of terrorism from Islamic extremists is unprecedented. However, it is unprecedented in the sense that we have allowed our fear of the unknown to justify torture, illegal detention, a clamp-down on civil liberties, and ignoring of international accords, like the Geneva Convention.

Should we ignore terrorism? No. We do face a serious threat from radical Islamists. They are a fervent and uncompromising lot. Fortunately, they are not ubiquitous nor do they represent a majority opinion among Muslims around the world. While jihadist radicals have flocked to Iraq (and been killed and captured with regularity) they have had limited success gaining traction and sustaining operations around the world.

There are trouble spots - Somalia, southern Thailand, parts of Indonesia - where radicals are trying to get a foothold. But these radicals have not been able to project force consistently outside the local communities that protect them. When they do attack, they provoke a counterstrike by government officials that usually results in the death or capture of terrorist operatives. This weakens their ability to sustain operations.

We make a mistake, a potentially fatal mistake, if we delude ourselves into accepting that the threat of terrorism is so unique and so severe that we must suspend civil liberties, break international accords, and ignore allies in order to fight this enemy. If we continue to choose this road we risk alienating the moderate Islamic nations and the Islamic authoritarian regimes (e.g., Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia) who we need as allies in order to battle this threat.

Justice Stevens, the only member of the Supreme Court to have served in a combat unit during war, wrote in the Hamdan decision that a nation at war must still be governed by law. His colleague, David Souter, wrote:

For reasons of inescapable human nature, the branch of government asked to counter a serious threat is not the branch on which to rest the Nation's reliance in striking the balance between the will to win and the cost in liberty on the way to victory.

If we go to war and in the process lose our humanity and savage those principles that made America a City on a Hill, a light of freedom to the world, then the victory on the battlefield is hollow and of no value. Bush and his political allies may be ignorant of history and incapable of understanding the threats we have faced and survived in the past, but as we commemorate the Fourth of July we must remember. We must not forget that we have confronted and survived more devastating threats and fearsome terrors. We have faced enemies far more lethal and far more capable and triumphed. We must not surrender to fear.


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