The State Department’s 2015 Country Reports on Terrorism came out earlier this month. It will no doubt be overshadowed by events, as it deals with overseas rather than domestic terror and appeared ten days before the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. But it helps to explain the roots of America’s terrorism problem.
The document purports to be an objective review of the year’s terrorist incidents as well as an overview of some of the players, and it includes a discussion of “violent extremism” issues region by region and country by country. It is a valuable resource that provides considerable information on the various militant groups and the crimes attributed to them. But it is nevertheless a government document.
The Obama Administration definitely has a point of view on what constitutes terrorism and how to deal with it. The report’s section on Afghanistan, for example, implicitly makes a case for a more robust American role in the conflict engulfing that country, and the discussion of ISIS tends to view the group in regional terms, with less emphasis on its ability to operate transnationally.
I often find that how something is described or even ignored is just as important as what is revealed. There is, for example, a section of the report identifying “State Sponsors of Terrorism,” a status that brings with it various sanctions. It would be difficult to find a section that is more hypocritical, as many would consider Washington the leading practitioner of state-sponsored terror, given its claimed authority to go after militant targets anywhere at any time.
This year’s report names only Iran, Syria, and Sudan as state sponsors. Iran and Syria undeniably have relationships with groups like Hezbollah, which is a party of government in Lebanon. Hezbollah is currently heavily engaged in fighting ISIS, which the U.S. government in its own reporting clearly identifies as international enemy No. 1. Meanwhile, Iran is criticized for having a close relationship with Syria, while Syria is condemned for having a close relationship with Iran, resulting in both being labeled state sponsors even though their military efforts, like those of Hezbollah, are focused against groups like ISIS and al-Nusrah that are seeking to do damage to the United States. Regarding Sudan, the report states that it is no longer in the supporting-radicalism business, while earlier annual reports actually commended it for helping international efforts against terrorists—yet it remains on the list, apparently because some people in the White House do not like its president very much.
And there is a bigger problem. I have long argued that “terrorism” is a largely meaningless expression, as it has been politicized to such an extent that it no longer provides any real insight into what a designated group is or is not doing. The United Nations defines terrorism as violent acts intended to coerce a civilian population and destabilize the target country’s government, which probably is as far as a reasonable observer should go with the concept.
Others inevitably entertain a somewhat broader viewpoint on what constitutes a terrorist, because the label enables one to marginalize those one does not approve of. Contemporary Turkey’s political leadership describes journalists, protesters, and even the political opposition in parliament as terrorists because it makes it possible to disregard their arguments and curtail their constitutional rights. Israel, meanwhile, calls Palestinians who are legally resisting its illegal occupation of the West Bank terrorists, while the United States uses drones to kill suspected militants based on profiles and, after the fact, rationalizes the deaths by labeling those killed as terrorists.
At any rate, how big of a problem is terrorism, however we Americans define it? The numbers tell us something. Deaths attributed to terrorists are certainly a huge global problem, with the State Department report recording nearly 12,000 terrorist attacks producing 28,000 deaths worldwide in 2015. But the mayhem is very much concentrated in countries that are gripped by what might reasonably be termed civil war, including Syria, Iraq, and Somalia. Several other countries with high levels of “terror” deaths, including Nigeria and Pakistan, are engaged in bloody regional conflicts over economic issues fueled by anti-central-government sentiment: not exactly civil war, but something close to it.
American victims are a lot harder to find. The State Department report, which is only about acts of terrorism overseas, identifies 19 American citizens as victims of terror for the year 2015. Eight of the deaths were in Afghanistan, one in Syria, and one in Somalia, all of which can be regarded as war zones. Three were in Jerusalem and on the Israeli-occupied West Bank, a region also suffering from endemic violence: two American visitors, plus a settler who held dual Israeli-U.S. citizenship.
Twenty-two more Americans were injured in terrorist incidents worldwide in 2015, and there were no reported kidnappings during the year. Though I in no way wish to minimize the killing of anyone in a criminal act, which terrorism is, the death and injury toll hardly represents a major international threat to U.S. citizens, and I am sure that many more Americans are killed every year “overseas” in traffic accidents while vacationing. So based on the State Department report, one has to question a counter-terrorism strategy costing hundreds of billions of dollars a year to combat an enemy that is largely ineffective, at least in terms of being able to do direct damage to the United States, its citizens, or its other interests.
And there is, of course, the domestic side of the terrorism industry. The year 2015 was, in fact, a relatively busy year for international terrorists, particularly those who might reasonably be linked to ISIS. Insofar as can be determined, no terrorist act carried out in the U.S. in 2015 was actually ordered or directed by an overseas terrorist group, but some terror suspects were certainly inspired by what is taking place in Europe and the Middle East. The killings in Orlando suggest that the so-called “lone wolf” pattern continues in 2016, with little direction from abroad but considerable motivation generated through interaction with radicals online.
There were 25 deaths in the U.S. attributable to some form of ostensibly foreign-sourced terrorism in 2015, a number that includes six perpetrators killed during or subsequent to the attacks. The largest single attack was at San Bernardino, Calif., in December, which killed 16 including the two gunmen. Another multiple-victim attack took place in Chattanooga, Tenn., in July, killing five military personnel plus the shooter. There has been no real suggestion that any of the attacks could have been prevented, though San Bernardino has led to demands by the government for better access to social-networking accounts and to cell phones. While both capabilities would be undeniably useful for after-the-fact assessments of what has occurred, I would argue that giving the police and intelligence agencies broad authority to access what have traditionally been private communications would lead to fishing expeditions through the thousands of communications posted and calls made by terrorism fantasists. It would be hard to justify an extreme interventionist response as either appropriate or effective.
So a total of 44 Americans died in 2015 in incidents that have been categorized by the U.S. government as foreign-sourced terror. To put that in context, the number is comparable to a single month of homicides in Chicago in the same year, when 468 deaths were recorded.
A final measure of the terrorist threat directed against the United States is the number of people being charged with terrorism offenses in 2015. There were 56 arrests in that year, some involving American citizens or legal residents who intended to travel to join a group that has been designated as “terrorist” by the State Department and/or the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control.
But what do those numbers really mean in terms of the vulnerability of the United States to an actual terrorist attack? An estimated two-thirds of all terrorism cases that result in charges in the U.S. are brought about through the use of a paid FBI informant who becomes friendly with the targets and in theory monitors their activities. In many cases, however, the informant actually creates the legal case against the accused by giving the suspects weapons or bombs that do not work.
If the FBI informant actually motivates the targets to carry out the illegal act, that would be considered entrapment, but one can imagine how difficult it would be to make that case unless one were a fly on the wall during all of the meetings involving the informant. A better measure might be whether those accused were ready, willing, and able to carry out a terrorist act without any intercession from an informant. I have done a rough media survey of the identifiable cases from 2015 and could not find a single one where that was so, though in at least one instance a suspect’s online searches relating to how to turn a pressure cooker into a bomb were considered a serious threat.
I am not trying to minimize the threat posed to the United States by terrorists either overseas or domestically, and last weekend’s horrific massacre in Orlando certainly makes one reluctant to endorse anything like complacency. But I would nevertheless advise that the danger posed by radicalized groups and individuals be put into some kind of context, and that draconian steps to deal with the problem be embraced with caution. Terror is the poor man’s weapon against powerful government forces, so it will likely always be with us, but terrorists are rarely successful in their broader objectives—these are achieved only in cases where there is a political vacuum.
I have been reading the State Department annual reports for many years now, and my firm impression is that the international terrorist threat, as poorly defined as it is, has actually been receding as more and more governments actively seek to eliminate militants in their midst, and as fewer states are willing and able to provide them with assistance or a safe haven. Terrorism is a dying industry in every sense of the word, and while the U.S. government should take every reasonable step to protect American citizens, the key word must be “reasonable.” A global anti-terror Crusade led by the United States is not a reasonable response, nor is it necessary, as terrorist groups always eventually fade away due to their own internal contradictions. It is time to declare the War on Terror finished and move on.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.