By Bob Norton
I ran across two articles expressing opposite points of view, but both with merit and worth reading. If we adopt policies like Europe, which are responsible in part for increasing the terrorism threat, then the United States may experience a terrorism threat level more commensurate with what is being experienced by Europe. Yet only time will tell which view is more correct.
POINT: The pace of “homegrown” terror attacks has become so frequent that we risk gradually becoming inured to their horror, former acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency David Shedd argues in The Cipher Brief. He says a significant shift is underway in how jihadists operate, with groups such as ISIS encouraging isolated individuals to carry out attacks against soft targets. Despite clear signs of radicalization, 29 year-old Omar Mir Seddique Mateen had dropped off the FBI’s radar for the last two years before he killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub. He asks what measures could the FBI have taken to thwart this attack and then answers his own question.
“The pace of ‘homegrown’ terror attacks has become so frequent that we risk gradually becoming inured to their horror. A significant shift is underway in how jihadists operate, with groups such as ISIS encouraging isolated individuals to carry out attacks against soft targets.”
First, he says, the FBI needs broader legal authority to keep a watchful eye on potential homegrown terrorists. After 9/11, Congress amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to address so-called “lone wolves,” not directly connected to a terrorist organization, but the law applies only to non-U.S. citizens and requires probable cause. Shedd argues that Congress should amend FISA to include U.S. persons who have identified themselves to any degree with Islamic extremist violence. For example, given Mateen’s demonstrated proclivity for Islamic-inspired violence, the Bureau could have stayed in contact with Mateen’s employers to identify additional changes in his behavior. Mateen also could have been placed on the “Known and Appropriately Suspected” (KRT) list, so his purchase of a firearm would have been flagged.
Second, Shedd says, counter-terror agencies must focus on dismantling the “ecosystem” inspiring homegrown terrorists. He maintains they are not completely isolated or entirely independent. Instead, they are profoundly connected to and inspired by violent Islamist ideology promoted by propagandists, radical Muslim clerics, and a network of followers who promote violence by their interpretation of the Koran. Countering this network is one way to stop “crowd-sourced” individual.
Finally, Shedd says we need to dedicate the necessary resources to counter the threat. The FBI currently faces a significant manpower shortage, and terrorism, while still the top priority, is not the only task on its plate.
COUNTERPOINT: John Mueller, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a political scientist at Ohio State University, has a different point of view. In an adapted article from the Cato Institute’s recently released book, Our Foreign Policy Choices: Rethinking America’s Global Role that appears on the warontherocks.com website, Mueller challenges the existing bipartisan foreign policy consensus and offers a different path. Objectively, Mueller argues, terrorism poses less of a threat to the U.S. than the popular perception, causing political posturing and irresponsible policymaking.
“The 9/11 attacks were an aberration, not a harbinger of things to come, and even including that attack, an American’s chance of being killed within U.S. borders by a terrorist over the last few decades is about one in four million per year.”
The 9/11 attacks were an aberration, not a harbinger of things to come, and even including that attack, an American’s chance of being killed within U.S. borders by a terrorist over the last few decades is about one in four million per year, Mueller says. Since 9/11, the chance of an American being killed by an Islamist terrorist about one in 40 million per year, he adds. That compares to a one-in-22,000 chance of being a homicide victim or a one-in-8,200 chance of being killed in an auto accident.
Like Shedd, Mueller talks about the threat of attacks by “homegrown” terrorists, pointing out that few of them have been successful. Even the tragic incidents that have resulted in violence have caused limited total damage, he says, averaging some seven deaths a year. Most of the plotters have been “naïve, amateurish, inept and gullible,” he says, and their schemes were incoherent and clumsy when unaided by FBI infiltrators. ISIS is better at beheading defenseless hostages than at mounting military effort, running a state, or smuggling oil and antiquities, but the aspiring caliphate has cut pay for its fighters in half and “the degradation is likely to continue,” Shedd says. He says ISIS could be a threat in two ways: first, from militants who have gone to fight with the group and been sent back to do damage, and second from homegrown terrorists receiving inspiration from ISIS.
The first threat is far worse for Europe, and the second threat is likely to decline as ISIS stumbles in the Middle East. Even the group’s vaunted social media effort has been overblown, Mueller maintains. In fact, the propensity of would-be American terrorists to spill their hopes and dreams on social media has been a boon to law enforcement. ISIS has a tendency to engage in behavior that is counterproductive to its goals, Mueller says, yet 77 percent of Americans says the group presents “a serious threat to the existence or survival of the U.S.” And those are the kinds of numbers, he adds, that terrorize politicians and the media, resulting in irresponsible spending and knee-jerk alarmism.