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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