The future of the terrorist threat to America
May 10th, 2013
05:25 AM ET

The future of the terrorist threat to America

‘Beyond the Manhunts: How to Stop Terror’ – a GPS special premieres this Sunday at 10 a.m. & 1 p.m. ET

By Fareed Zakaria

We are now a little more than three weeks from the Marathon day bombings in Boston, a good time to ask ourselves, what did it tell us about the future of terrorism? What is the nature of the threat we face – and are we prepared for it?

First, Boston was not the kind of attack that we have worried about and planned for in the last decades. Al Qaeda, the group that planned and directed the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, then the attack of the American destroyer, USS Cole, and then the World Trade Center, was an organized, well-financed group with deep roots in a few countries, strategic leaders, clever planners, and fanatical supporters. That group is a shadow of its former self, battered by ten years in which Western and allied governments have attacked its leaders, tracked its money, and followed its trail. Perhaps most important, as it practiced terrorism in more countries, it lost any political support or sympathy it had in the Muslim world.

Indeed, before Osama bin Laden died, he wrote about al Qaeda's reduced fortunes. “He was very aware that the al Qaeda brand was in deep trouble,” terrorism analyst Peter Bergen notes. “He was advising other groups not to adopt the al Qaeda brand because it would be bad for fundraising, would attract a lot of negative attention.”

But while al Qaeda central is in deep trouble, it has become a franchise operation, with a number of groups around the world latching onto its cause (though mostly not its name, even though some relish the notoriety and attention that it gives them). But there is a vigorous debate over whether these groups – al-Shabaab in Somalia, Ganda Koy and Ansar Dine in Mali and Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen – are more local thugs than global terrorists. In my reading of them, local concerns seem paramount. Even the Taliban, after all, does not have global terrorist ambitions, but instead has always focused on its desire to control Afghanistan. Americans often forget that though we went to war in Afghanistan, no Afghan was involved in 9/11, nor in any other major terrorist plot against Americans and Europeans.

More from GPS: Washington's unhelpful blame game

The former CIA counter terrorism chief Robert Grenier says about what is happening in North Africa that we must be “very, very careful lest we internationalize what is fundamentally a local security concern.” Turning local thugs into global terrorists could well prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A third point to remember is that al Qaeda was not crippled by magic but through the hard work of counter-terrorism by many governments across many regions. However, as we fight terrorism we have to keep in mind two factors. One is to think hard about collateral damage when we target a bad guy with a drone. As Bergen also noted, there is always a temptation to keep using a tactic if it has worked in the past. Yet in 2010, there were 122 drone strikes. Are there 122 al Qaeda leaders in the world? Or are we using these for anyone we suspect is a bad guy?

What is the collateral damage of this expanded use in a country like Pakistan, where anti-Americanism is now at fever pitch?  General Stanley McChrystal, who ran hundreds of special missions to kill terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, has said that if we use our asymmetrical weapons – drones – indiscriminately in foreign countries, we should not be surprised if people start responding using their own asymmetrical weapon (the suicide bombers) indiscriminately in our country.

Fourth, the Boston bombings have reminded us that the war on terror is one that has to be fought at home as well. But they highlight the challenge; how to find the next group of misfits, who have no background with terrorists, who might get radicalized over the internet, and who go from talking radicalism one day to plotting terror the next?

More from GPS: The danger of our shoot to kill policy

We cannot identify every one of these prospective terrorists no matter how well we do. However, people in law enforcement agencies across the United States will tell you that the best intelligence about potential terrorists comes from their communities, which often means in these times, Muslim communities. So we need eyes on the ground, friendly relations with imams and other leaders, and outreach to all parts of the communities. We might take a cue here from Europe. Historically, assimilation has worked better in America, but as I wrote recently, European countries are dealing with a much more complex, larger problem. The lesson from Europe seems to be: Embrace Muslim communities. This may sound too soft, but it is a proven method. In fact, just a few weeks ago, a Canadian plot to attack trains was thwarted with just this sort of intelligence provided by the local Muslim community.

The war on terror began as a grand enterprise involving major war. It seems to have evolved into police work. That is a measure of progress.

And one final point – just some facts. The National Counterterrorism Center released its annual report last June. It showed that attacks worldwide had dropped by 12 percent from 2010 and were down 29 percent from 2007. The Global Terrorism Index, also released last year, systematically ranks countries by levels of terrorist incidents. Over the ten year period it analyzed, 2002-2011, the region least likely to suffer from a terrorist attack was North America. The fact is that the most comprehensive studies show that terrorism was declining in the United States even in 2001 and it dropped even more sharply after 9/11. The historian John Mueller has pointed out that more Americans die in their bathtubs every year than are killed by terrorists.

The emotions generated by terrorist attacks are raw and intense. But it is essential moving forward that we are still able to have a rational discussion, grounded in facts, if we are to have any chance of keeping the country safe in the future.

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Topics: GPS Show • Osama bin Laden • Terrorism • United States

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soundoff (192 Responses)
  1. KEVIN

    Terrorism as the concept we have adopted is misleading. "Terrorism" is an act of anger that is based in an ideology and theology and a ligitimit anger towards the west's practice of imperialism and colonialsm. Sounds complicated but it is not. The Europeans know this and although the islamic faith has some indications of hatred, the theology is approachable and most logical to do so gently in order to subside the fear that the Muslims have towards the west. Anger is precipitated by fear and revenge.

    May 13, 2013 at 5:58 am | Reply
  2. Matthew

    The localized terrorist groups scare me more than the international groups because they are able to defeat weak nations and take them over like Mali and as they spread they get a bigger base of power to provide a threatening attack eventually against the US and Europe. Instead of fighting some group named al Quada, if we let the local groups win, we maybe fighting half the Middle East and Africa.

    May 13, 2013 at 8:39 am | Reply
  3. Mark

    Very well written and thought provoking article. Probably one of the most sensible pieces of journalism I have read on CNN in a long time.

    "What is the collateral damage of this expanded use in a country like Pakistan, where anti-Americanism is now at fever pitch? General Stanley McChrystal, who ran hundreds of special missions to kill terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, has said that if we use our asymmetrical weapons – drones – indiscriminately in foreign countries, we should not be surprised if people start responding using their own asymmetrical weapon (the suicide bombers) indiscriminately in our country."

    Very good point made there.

    And also I totally agree with embracing the Muslim communities here in America. I hope people eventually realize that the vast majority of Muslims are extremely opposed to violence. Just because a couple people get radicalized does not mean they all are. The best way of spotting those that have been corrupted is by firmly connecting with the Muslim community rather than alienating them.

    What provocation is there to speak up when the people you are addressing hate you for no legitimate reason?

    May 13, 2013 at 9:19 am | Reply
    • Duke

      Mark, why don't you take a history class on Islam? Note that in every society where Islam is a visitor, it always create its own clave based on religious, social and ideology compartment. Mark can you ask Fareed to take a few Christian group to any muslim country and ask the host community to embrace their visitors in term of practice and faith? If Fareed can't do that, then he has no right to force on our freedom to embrace Islamic culture when they can't embrace ours in their land.

      May 18, 2013 at 11:55 am | Reply
  4. LEROY

    we should think of longterm solutions with this kind of problem. you have homicide division, why not make an anti-terrorism division in each police precinct in each city or municipality. you have veterans from EOD in where ever war who just retired and some from CIA operatives analyst or even Homeland Security personnel from tasks force to a more permanent one. Advance Response to Terrorism a very wired division from the national who is focused in monitoring controlled materials, substance in making explosives. tracking people who has statements in the internet who can be read by pscho specialist as a threat. yeah some of the human rights might be violated. but human rights vs saving hundreds of human lives? human limbs, arms,? Children? you?

    May 13, 2013 at 10:10 am | Reply
  5. JJ

    He had to bring up death and bath tubs didn't he? Next thing we'll have te BSA (Bathtub Security Administration) monitoring our bathing and showering..........

    May 13, 2013 at 11:37 am | Reply
  6. Robert C Lawson

    It an interesting take, but the numbers are a wee bit short methinks?,So often we fail to look, and as such, fail to "see" the real driver behind almost all of these criminal acts, it is to Deflect attention!,.. direct it at a chosen! course, so behind the scenes in secret, other criminal acts can either grow, or even operate, and its always! about the money$$,..for that? we look to Orginised Crime Global,..Their most favored operations use the "smoke and mirror" tactic in virtually every operation.Deflect law enforcements attention and resources! away from the real agenda by setting up,then throwing, others "under the bus".We, All of us!! have a real need to learn to look behind the perps in view,winkle out the data, and then coordinate that! with real time enforcement global, and then, perhaps, we might? get a real handle on all these "plays" by crimland,perhaps?..It is not often who we think, and it is virually never just what we "see" at the get go,True evil is a right clever bugger and it takes some real brains and also OOTB to get a real handle on its! "reality",.. but once we have that, then! we have some tools for good that can and will! be very very! effective indeed!,;"Wherever we find these serious human rights abuses? we will find orginised crime"[ME, 2008],..always!..When we speak about someone who "gets radicilised",?..this does not just happen out of the blue, someone, a "crew" usually, does the "getting",, so,, look to see! and answer the 5,W,s, be brutally honest about what and especially who! you find, think, think some more,, then and only then, react,..An educated "community" is impervious to these manipulations,,the crims need "secret" to operate, remove that? they will crash,,use it!,..

    May 13, 2013 at 11:38 am | Reply
  7. vistar hornbill

    I think if there are any future threat to America's security it will come from within. Home grown terror.

    Overall I suspect US immigration laws are too lax, and many undesirables are able to slip through the immigration gaps and lapses. There should have been more stringent screening of migrants from traditional 'foe' nations like Middle East, Pakistan, Chechnya.

    May 13, 2013 at 9:00 pm | Reply
  8. News

    The only thing you need to know is just starting we have been fighting this from the foundation of the world its time you get a taste of it.

    May 19, 2013 at 11:55 pm | Reply
    • News

      welcome to the planet!

      May 19, 2013 at 11:57 pm | Reply
  9. News

    This is a War between kingdoms –not nations --nations are like states to kingdoms.

    May 20, 2013 at 12:03 am | Reply
    • News

      just to give you an understanding of what your in the middle of. It bigger than any nation.

      May 20, 2013 at 12:05 am | Reply
  10. News

    So buy some guns for your children they will need them . The bigger the clip the better.

    May 20, 2013 at 12:07 am | Reply
  11. News

    are you can go with the nation will take care of you! Go chief!

    May 20, 2013 at 12:09 am | Reply
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  13. khalid a wasi

    I read the news report about the writing on the boat wall by the Boston Bomb suspect. I am not surprised at what he wrote. I wrote an earlier article about misdirected youth and his words are a clear example of that sort of misguidance. He allegedly wrote “An attack on one Muslim is an attack on all Muslims”. At first glance it sounds like a plausible solidarity statement; however it’s a complete twist on words and ethics. The proper statement drawn from his sources for such comment actually says “ to kill one person is as if to kill the whole human race”. At the inception of what we currently think of as Islam, the term Muslim wasn’t sectarian; the word Muslim was used to signify an upright person or person in the natural un-altered state of a pure human. The idea was to return to that natural state by releasing oneself from acquired beliefs and traditions put upon our minds that separated us from our true selves and making us inhuman.

    Unfortunately many who live as reactionaries grab ideas and ideologies that fit their reactionary mode and twist noble words and intents to suit a misguided agenda. It’s a global problem which cannot be fixed by bombs and counter terrorist agencies. The militancy is fuelled by systemic economic repression and lack of inclusive democracies and must be countered by a stated vision of inclusion which is seen as a real and felt as a movement throughout the world.

    May 25, 2013 at 7:04 pm | Reply
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