Ami Pedahzur, professor of government and Middle Eastern studies at The University of Texas at Austin, is the head of the T.I.G.E.R Lab (Terrorism, Insurgencies, and Guerillas in Education and Research). He has published several books on political extremism and suicide terrorism, including “The Israeli Secret Services and the Struggle Against Terrorism” and “Jewish Terrorism in Israel.” Visit ShelfLife@Texas for more about his books.
The 10th anniversary of the horrific attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, should serve as a day of remembrance and mourning. The American people should come together next Sunday and commemorate that awful September morning, which marked the most vicious and unprovoked attack on the homeland since World War II. Yet they should also remember that despite the ringing alarm bells and terrifying prophecies, the United States has enjoyed a decade almost free of terrorism. There are several good reasons to feel confident and optimistic.
First, over the past 10 years, every now and then a terrorist, mostly a lone wolf, has succeeded in carrying out a successful attack on U.S. soil. However, in comparison to crime-related death, car accidents and coronary diseases, the number of casualties caused by terrorism is negligible. While it is quite common to criticize the intelligence community and the law enforcement agencies, they must be doing something right.
For some reason when it comes to terrorism we expect the government to provide us with 100 percent guarantees for safety. This is an unrealistic expectation. Yet the men and women of the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, military, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Transportation Security Administration and police, as well as many other agencies should be very proud of their impressive successes in meeting the high expectations of the American people and should be thanked by each and every one of us. If for a minute, we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, we should all agree that the risks associated with driving to work every day, should be a much bigger source for concern than terrorism.
Second, the killing of Osama bin Laden, following a meticulous intelligence operation and a courageous assault by SEAL Team 6, was a significant milestone. However, more important, the capabilities of Al-Qaeda had been diminished dramatically over the passing decade as a result of the decisive actions taken by the United Sates and its allies.
The fears that the breakdown of the organization would lead to the proliferation of local terrorist cells in Western countries were not realized. Except for isolated incidents which draw a lot of attention, most people in the West, including radicals, do not stand in line to become terrorists. At the end of the day, people of all backgrounds, religious beliefs and ethnicities are united by simple human desires to live normal lives, provide for their families and enjoy the simple things. Those who actually turn to terrorism constitute a tiny minority even within the most radical communities.
Third, while Al-Qaeda is fighting for its life, it still has some kick in it. Militias such as Al-Shabaab, the Taliban or Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula manage to terrorize the people of failed states including Somalia, Afghanistan and Yemen. However, their continuous attempts to export their terrorist ventures to the West, either by recruiting masses of new volunteers or by perpetrating proxy attacks, have so far been less than impressive.
Lastly, terrorists want you to worry. This is their No. 1 objective. Since they cannot defeat the West militarily, they carry out horrific attacks against random civilian targets which aim is to instill fear in the hearts of each and every one of us. They want us to be disoriented, succumb to a perpetual state of fear and consequently force our decision makers to carry out policies that would serve their interests. While we have to be vigilant, monitor emerging threats and respond accordingly, we should always remember that the best counterterrorism strategy is not to let them gain the upper hand in this mind game.
After all, for all the reasons that I mentioned here, we should always remember that the real “losers” of 9/11 were Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
Ami Pedahzur will participate in a panel discussion on Sept. 9 on campus called “Conversation 9/11: A Decade After, Looking Forward,” sponsored by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.