10 April 2017

Assessing the Threat of Islamic-Related Terrorism (2)

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From a devotional by Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA From a devotional by Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA http://pastorrick.com/devotional/english/love-drives-out-the-fear-in-your-relationships

In a sequence now all too familiar in Europe, a truck careened down a busy shopping street in Stockholm last Friday afternoon killing four people and seriously injuring nine others before going up in flames as it rammed into a department store. The driver, as was later discovered, was a 39-year-old Uzbek, a Muslim likely radicalized through ISIS propaganda.

An article in The Guardian carries a likely title, “Swedish truck attack: shock gives way to fear of open society.” Sweden and Germany, after all, are the two nations that by far have welcomed the most migrants and asylum seekers since the 2011 “Arab Spring.” Last year alone, Sweden resettled 130,000 more refugees. Understandably, “compassion fatigue” has set in, as the Economist puts it. In addition, right wing parties are leveraging these rising fears of terrorism to attract people to their populist cause.


Please take a deep breath

I named the last part of my library lecture on the risk of terrorism “Why take a deep breath.” As I said in the the first half of this blog, the fear of Islamic related terrorism is greatly overblown. I mentioned Harvard’s Steven M. Walt’s Foreign Policy article, “Five ways Donald Trump is wrong about Islam.” In particular he writes,

“… based on the evidence since 9/11 (and including that attack), the likelihood an American will be killed by a terrorist is less than 1 in 3 million per year, and the lifetime risk is about 1 in 45,000.”

The incredible discrepancy between the fear level of the average American and the actual risk of becoming a victim of terrorism (which is practically nil) is in itself a telling sign of the terrorists’ success. They do succeed in terrorizing! And ironically, this is in a country plagued with by far the highest rate of gun violence among Western nations (there are at least 10,000 gun-related homicides in the US every year).

Those facts led two terrorism experts, John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart, to write a book together: Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism (Oxford University Press, 2016). Jack Anderson on the Homeland Security Community website reviewed the book. The authors, he noted, remind the reader …


“that according to the START Global Terrorism Database, all Islamic extremism, globally, claims some 200-300 lives per year, roughly equivalent to bathtub drownings in the U.S. Bathtub drownings do not take up such a significant portion of the U.S. discretionary budget, and Mueller and Stewart consider this imbalance to be a deeply irrational use of public money, betraying public trust by chasing inconceivable and unlikely contingencies.”


In the first half I also mentioned leading terrorism expert, Jessica Stern. This is from her piece on Boston University’s website in September 2016, “Is the war on terrorism really winnable?”:


“The United States is generally far less prone to terrorism than is Europe, and even less prone to terrorism than the rest of the world. This is true even with respect to attacks inspired by ISIS. On average, terrorism kills about as many Americans per year as lightning strikes do. (Several organizations collect data on terrorism, and figures differ, but only slightly for terrorism inside the United States.)”


Right-wing terrorism is a greater threat

These figures on terrorism include attacks by right wing movements, which from 2002 until the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting killed more Americans than Muslim terrorists did (48 compared with 45). Newsweek ran a cover article in February 2016 entitled, “Right-wing extremists are a bigger threat to America than ISIS.” This is certainly the belief of most law enforcement agencies in this country, it notes. But notice the political incitement that feeds these hundreds of groups bent on hatred and violence:


“These Americans thrive on hate and conspiracy theories, many fed to them by politicians and commentators who blithely blather about government concentration camps and impending martial law and plans to seize guns and other dystopian gibberish, apparently unaware there are people listening who don’t know it’s all lies. These extremists turn to violence—against minorities, non-Christians, abortion providers, government officials—in what they believe is a fight to save America. And that potential for violence is escalating every day.”


This is why the Trump administration’s sole focus on Islamic-related terrorism is so out of line with reality. This is the message that three authors in a joint article published in Foreign Policy wanted to convey: “The Trump administration’s focus on fighting ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ could not only hamper counterterrorism efforts, but it could even embolden right-wing and anti-government extremists, experts and former government officials say.”

Part of the problem is that if these policies are actually implemented in the Department of Homeland security (DHS), they would seriously jeopardize the ongoing collaboration between the DHS and the Muslim community to counter radicalization. Further, it would reinforce the dangerous perception that the US is at war with Islam. Of course, that’s precisely the message that ISIS, al-Qaeda and their ilk are using to recruit more foot soldiers.

The other problem is that they are underestimating the threat of right-wing extremism. Another article cites figures from the Extremist Crime Database (ECDB) funded by the DHS and the Justice Department. If you discount both the Oklahoma bombing and the 9/11 attacks, between 1990 and 2017 far-right violence killed 272 Americans, while Muslim terrorists killed 136. Between 2015 and 2017, Muslim extremists staged five homicide events killing 74 people, while right-wing extremists staged eight such events and killed 27. If you exclude the Pulse nightclub attack (49 dead), then the number on the islamist side is 25.

That is the general pattern: “far-right extremists tend to be more active in committing homicides, yet Islamist extremists tend to be more deadly.” But terrorist experts, as mentioned above, are predicting an uptick of non-Muslim terror in the US. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), “Far-right and anti-government groups plan and carry out domestic attacks at a greater frequency than foreign terrorist groups.” Have a look at their recent “Hate Map” and you will notice a 197% rise in anti-Muslim hate groups since 2015. Part of that can be attributed to the emboldening of white supremacy groups during and after the electoral campaign.


What you and I can do

I have to end on a better note. You took a deep breath and now you’re stressed once again!

First, the overall threat of terrorism in the US is very marginal. Whether it’s inspired by islamists or right-wing militants, remember, you are more likely to drown in your bathtub than be killed by one of them.

Second, I don’t want to convey the impression that because Islamic-related terrorism marginally affects us in the US we have a license to remain unconcerned about it. Especially if you add the sectarian violence in the Middle East and South Asia, general political instability, and the participation of jihadi organizations in the Syrian civil war, the number of victims climbs astronomically. Then too, just this morning (Palm Sunday) ISIS militants bombed two Egyptian churches killing well over forty people. Last December in a Cairo church they killed 29. This is an ideology of hatred, and though the victims of ISIS have been mostly Muslims, they have clearly targeted other minorities, and in Iraq above all Yazidis. This should move us to prayer, advocacy, and certainly a large dose of compassion!

Third, I believe that with all this information in hand there is much you and I can do to allay people’s fears about Islamic-inspired terrorism. More than that, I believe we have a God-given responsibility to build bridges, first between Muslims and Christians in order to foster greater understanding and empathy within our communities; and second as non-Muslim Americans or Europeans to stand with our Muslim friends, who more than any other group these days live in fear (to better understand why, look at this SPLC page).

Many groups in the US have come together to stand with Muslims in fighting Islamophobia. Some are interfaith groups, like Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core, or the Abrahamic Alliance; some are Jewish, like Jewish Voice for Peace; some are Catholic, like the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University; some are evangelicals like my friend Rick Love and his Peace Catalyst International.

Finally, you can lobby for the US to welcome many more refugees than it has in the past. They are the first victims of our irrational fears. Polls show that 76% of white evangelicals approve of President Trump's "Muslim ban." Other white Protestants are around 50 percent, whereas 84% of black Protestants, 62% of Catholics, and 74% of the religious "nones" disapprove of it. We have lots of work to do!

I write this as a Christian at the beginning of Holy Week. “God is love,” repeats the Apostle John in his first New Testament letter. He then adds, “perfect love expels all fear” (I John 4:18, NLT). As those who follow the one who sacrificed his life for all on Good Friday, Christians should be the first to cast off fear and love their enemies as their Lord did.

Keep in mind that the Coptic Orthodox, who suffered these brutal Palm Sunday attacks, said prayers not only for the victims and their families but for the perpetrators too. Their souls are in grave danger, they said.

Sadly, most Christians attend churches where Islamophobia is, if not rampant, at least tolerated.

This you and I, from any angle and in whatever measure, can help to change.


Addendum (Nov. 2018): a comprehensive study was just completed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on terrorism. There are nearly four times as many Sunni salafi-jihadis operating now than did in 2001. Counting all al-Qaeda and ISIS-related fighters and potential fighters, and including all other independent groups on various agencies cooperating around the world, there might be as many as 230,000 in 70 different countries. So the threat is real. But this NYTimes article on the study shows that miltary counter-offensive is only a very small part of combatting this ideology which has metasthetized over the last couple of decades. In its conclusion it says that the following objectives are the most important: “Perhaps the most important component of Western policy should be helping regimes that are facing terrorism improve governance and deal more effectively with economic, sectarian and other grievances.” Finally, a long article in Politico by a top-level Justice Department official under Obama traces the fascinating story of how they were able to disable (at least the first wave of) the virulent combination of jihadism and cyber warfare in the person of Junaid Hussain, a Pakistani British youth who managed to mount a huge campaign of recruitment of youths in the US and elsewhere.