24 March 2017

Assessing the Threat of Islamic-Related Terrorism (1)

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“Salah Abdeslam, 26, was wounded in an intense gun battle as heavily armed security forces descended on a house in Molenbeek, a Brussels suburb where several of the Paris terrorists once lived.” “Salah Abdeslam, 26, was wounded in an intense gun battle as heavily armed security forces descended on a house in Molenbeek, a Brussels suburb where several of the Paris terrorists once lived.” http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/03/18/paris-attacks-suspects-fingerprints-dna-found-brussels/81960378/

It’s no secret that stoking the fear of “Islamic terrorism” was one element of candidate Trump’s successful campaign and the prime motivation behind his attempt (so far unsuccessful) to ban travel to the US from six Muslim nations.

That fear is real. In the 2016 Survey of American Fears, Chapman University found that people’s top fear was “government corruption” (60.6%). Next came a terrorist attack on the nation (41%); then “not enough money” (39.9%); then “victim of terrorism” (38.5%).

Spoiler alert: leading US terrorism expert Jessica Stern (Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University) estimates that your chances of being killed by a Muslim terrorist are about the same as being killed by lightning. Harvard’s Stephen M. Walt wrote in January 2017 that your chances of being killed by a terrorist in one year are one in three million. By comparison, your chances of dying of cancer this year are one in 600.

Naturally, there is a lot more to say about this topic. But at least you can breathe a sigh of relief before you read on :-).

This blog post is the result of my local library doing a series of talks entitled “Making Sense of Current Events.” I was privileged to kick off the series with this topic and it was well attended. This then is a shortened version of what I presented via Powerpoint.

A/ Islamic-related terrorism will continue

Since 2015 there has been a string of attacks in the West:

  • Charlie Hebdo, Jan. 2015, 17 killed
  • Paris attacks, Nov. 2015, 137
  • San Bernardino attack, Dec. 2015, 14
  • Brussels attacks, March 2016, 34
  • Orlando night club shooting, June 2016, 49
  • Nice truck attack, July 2016, 84
  • Berlin Christmas market attack, Dec. 2016, 12
  • London car & knife attack, March 22, 5

But this shouldn’t keep us from seeing the big picture: since the 9/11/2001 attacks the vast majority of victims have been Muslims themselves (easily 9 out of 10), with the following breakdown:

  • 75% in 25 Muslim-majority nations (126,016)
  • 2.2% in US & Western Europe (3, 689)
  • 22.4% in rest of the world (37, 516)
  • Total: 167, 221 dead

Also, it helps to gain some historical perspective. Post-WWII there have been three waves of terrorism:

a) 1960s & 1970s: the epicenter was in Europe and less in US (wars in Algeria, Vietnam, Northern Ireland); during that period 5,000 people died from terror attacks in France, and around 3,000 in Ireland/UK

b) 1980s: a shift to Latin America w/ insurgencies in Peru, El Salvador and Columbia

c) 1990s till now: Muslim-majority nations of the MENA region and South Asia; it all started in the 1980s with the Afghan mujhadeen's successful guerilla warfare against the USSR in part thanks to US money and arms

Furthermore, according to Massod Farivar, writing for the Voice of America, the distribution of terror attacks shows that it is much more about political instability than about religion. The authors of the 2015 Global Terrorism Index Report indicate that “less than 0.6 per cent of all terrorist attacks have occurred in countries without any ongoing conflict and any form of political terror.” Consider too that whereas over 50,000 died from terrorism in Iraq since 2001, only six died in Malaysia.

Right now from Iraq to Pakistan it’s mostly a sectarian war. Sunnis are killing Shiites and one of the driving forces in the region is the Saudi-Iranian rivalry being played out in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. But locally, it’s also about political power. Farivar quotes Columbia University’s ME historian Richard Bulliet:

At its core, the violence is part of a broader struggle over power in predominantly Sunni societies where questions over political and religious authority as well as the relationship between religion and modernity linger unsettled decades after European colonial rule and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. With Sunnism collapsing as a unifying state institution, Islamists have turned to religion to combat authoritarian regimes…. Sunni Islam… is falling apart drastically, and I think this is the source of a great deal of the violence. Ultimately, that’s the problem: If you have an entrenched state, can you get rid of it without violence? If you don’t believe that’s a possibility, then violence becomes the alternative option.”

At the same time, al-Qaeda and ISIS (after its territory is gone) will go on targeting the US, according to the December 2016 report, “The Jihadi Threat: ISIS, al-Qaeda and Beyond.” Published by the US Institute of Peace, this was a work of collaboration among twenty top academics and specialists in this field. They begin with this general statement:

“The United States alone has spent trillions of dollars—in military campaigns, intelligence, law enforcement, homeland security, and diplomacy—to counter jihadism. Progress has been made; fewer than a hundred people were killed inside the United States between 2001 and late 2016—in stark contrast to the death toll on 9/11. Yet the threat endures.”

Regarding ISIS, the report states that even with the loss of its actual caliphate, it will still retain some appeal. It likely will “endure for years to come as a pure insurgency using terrorist tactics. It revolutionized mobilization of supporters and sympathizers in the West, a lasting legacy as well as a future threat.”

More ominously, al-Qaeda retains its particular brand and has expanded as a network of affiliated organizations in North Africa, the ME, West Africa, South Asia and the Caucasus. Additionally, it is well entrenched in Yemen. The report adds, “Al-Qaeda has played the long game, and it may prove to be a more enduring model than the Islamic State.”

Do not think that the rivalry between the two organizations will undermine the jihadi cause in the world. Though it’s possible they will skirmish here and there, it’s more likely that they will divide up the task, if only by default:

“The two movements have complementary effects on the global jihadi Salafist network, however. They are both exploiting disenfranchised or disillusioned Sunni youth in the Middle East and abroad. They are both undermining the existing state system and contributing to expanding wars in the region. They are both normalizing the belief that violent jihad is necessary in order to defend the Sunni community globally.”

[If you are unsure about what the Salafi movement represents, read this blog of mine, “The Global Salafi Phenomenon.” It is mostly an apolitical movement which does not engage in violence and which is distinct, yet ideologically very similar to Saudi Wahhabism. Yet as the attacks of 9/11 showed, the leap from peaceful Salafism to Salafi-jihadism is not a great one. Fifteen of the nineteen attackers were Saudi.]

Here are some bullet points I will give you from their section on how to defeat jihadism:

1) It’s a complex phenomenon shaped by “a confluence of trends”: “ideological, geostrategic, sectarian, demographic, economic, and social”

2) “Military means can disrupt, but they can’t permanently dismantle or reverse a trend initially spawned by deep political discontent.”

3) International cooperation and local partnerships are needed, but often require compromises (think of working with a quasi-dictatorship in Egypt)

4) “Marginalizing extremism requires creating a political environment in which jihadism has less and less appeal over time.” Some form of democracy support is crucial.

5) Jihadist movements do everything to entrap foreign powers fighting a futile battle on their own turf. Don’t take the bait! The greater the violence the greater their ability to recruit!

6) Much of the strategy will have to work on reconciling the sectarian divide. But I add: what do you do with the Iran/Saudi grand game in the ME?

7) Pay attention to the human factors: spend money on aid with a long-term strategy, like attending to social dislocation and internally displaced persons in war zones (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen).

8) Be aware of ISIS’ propaganda at home. If Muslim youth feel battered by discriminatory policies and prejudice, they may be more vulnerable to this propaganda.

In their conclusion (“Future Jihads”) we read:

“The pace of change in the Middle East is unprecedented. So is the range of possible future jihadi threats. No single analytical framework or model suffices to predict the future. Anticipating the next conflict zone—and particularly the next phase of jihadi extremism—is difficult. Extremist organizations quickly morph and adapt tactics—often faster than large bureaucracies and major armies. The reality is that jihadis may always be one step ahead.”

B/ The risk of CBRN terrorism

There is a wealth of writings on terrorism, from books to hundreds of articles in specialized journals. I wanted to give you at least a taste of a 2011 article written by Gregory D. Koblentz (George Mason U.), “Predicting Peril or the Peril of Prediction?”, published in Terrorism and Political Violence 23 (pp. 501-520).

CBRN stands for “chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear” weapons. Concern for the proliferation of these weapons blasted to the top of national security priorities in 1995 after three incidents occurred in close proximity:

1) The Aum Shinrikyo cult used the nerve agent sarin in the Tokyo subway (11 killed, 1,000s injured)

2) Oklahoma bombing (3 weeks later), 168 killed

3) A white supremacist arrested for fraudulently ordering samples of Yersinia pestis (the bacteria that causes the plague) through the mail

Next, Koblentz uses the Department of Defense definition of terrorism, “The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear, intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.”

How is "risk" defined when it comes to CBRN terrorism? Koblentz says risk is the convergence of three factors:

“In the study of terrorism, risk is commonly conceived of as the function of the threat posed by a terrorist group, a chosen target’s vulnerability to attack, and the consequences of a successful attack on the target.”

Among specialists, you find roughly three camps, he says. The “optimists” emphasize the low probability of this kind of attack occurring. The “pessimists” aver that the risk is low, but growing in terms of its probability and the grievous nature of its consequences. Finally, the pragmatists refrain from making any kind of judgment and simply follow the evidence one way or the other.

Most of the article is about evaluating the role of human judgment, “the influence of mental shortcuts (called heuristics) and the systemic errors they create (called biases) on the risk assessment process.” But you ask, “why can’t you just follow the evidence? Don’t facts speak for themselves?” Actually they do not, at least not very clearly. Look at the following examples based on mathematical models:

a) Matthew Bunn asserts that there’s a 3% risk of CBRN terrorism per year

b) John Mueller concludes that it’s one in a million!

Plainly, Koblentz opines, “Different experts using the same model can come up with radically different estimates of the threat. Despite the use of mathematical formula and statistical analyses, these types of quantitative risk assessments remain reliant on the judgment of experts. As a result, they remain susceptible to the biases discussed above.”

But these wildly different conclusions greatly impact the real world. In the decade between 2001 and 2011, the US spent $60 billion on building defenses against biological terrorism. Many critics noted that this expenditure took funds away from the necessary research on immediate health threats. Then too, it’s a matter of priorities. In 2009 Homeland Security spent $9 billion on CBRN terror, but only $1.3 to counter IEDs. With hindsight of course, that wasn’t so wise.

Admittedly, terrorism studies are a work in progress. In another 2011 article, this time for the University of Virginia Law School, John Monahan evaluates the state of research on radicalization (is there a profile for people who radicalize? “The Individual Risk Assessment of Terrorism”). As it turns out, acts of “common violence” are quite different from acts of terrorism. The four characteristics generally accepted (in some combination) as predictors of common violence (“criminal history, an irresponsible lifestyle, psychopathy and criminal attitudes, and substance abuse”) generally do not apply to terrorists. Monahan continues,

“In addition, there is little empirical evidence supporting the validity of other putative risk factors for terrorism beyond what is already obvious (i.e., age, gender, and perhaps marital status). Indeed, the strongest empirical findings are entirely negative: terrorists in general tend not to be impoverished or mentally ill or substance abusers or psychopaths or otherwise criminal; suicidal terrorists tend not to be clinically suicidal. In no society studied to date have personality traits been found to distinguish those who engage in terrorism from those who refrain from it.”

Monahan concludes that further research must focus on identifying “robust individual risk factors.” In his opinion, there are four promising ones: ideology, affiliations, moral emotions, and grievances. But ideology by itself says virtually nothing about a person. He quotes the authors of another study:

“Polls in Muslim countries indicate that millions sympathize with jihadist goals or justify terrorist attacks. But Muslim terrorists number only in the thousands. The challenge is to explain how only one in a thousand with radical beliefs is involved in radical action.”

Between 2014-2015 there may have been up to 80,000 jihadis worldwide. But the fight against ISIS since then has killed over 60,000 ISIS fighters. And this is not counting the relative drying up of recruits due to their crushing defeat. So yes, “Muslim terrorists number only in the thousands.”

Herein ends the first part of this blog. I begin the second half of this blog on the threat of Islamic terrorism with the advice, “take a deep breath!” Just as I began here with the “spoiler alert,” the chances of you and I being victims of terrorism are very minute indeed.