Eleven years after the most devastating terrorist attack in history, some in America pretend that the threat of jihad or Islamist terrorism has waned to such an extent that it is no longer a priority.
While President Obama does not go this far himself, he comes close. The president has said that al Qaeda is “on the path to defeat,” and has justified the end of the war in Iraq, and the coming end of the war in Afghanistan, as necessary to deal with emerging threats emanating from the Asia-Pacific. For his part, Republican challenger Mitt Romney only briefly mentioned Osama bin Laden, while avoiding the terrorist threat in general, during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last month.
There is no question that al Qaeda has sustained significant losses among its top leadership, including the death of Osama bin Laden. However, the idea that al Qaeda is on the verge of strategic defeat, as Obama administration officials have claimed, is much more dubious. The jihadists control territory in various hotspots and are waging a prolific insurgency throughout much of the Middle East and Africa.
Al Qaeda, its affiliates, and its allies still kill and wound thousands of people each year.
The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) compiles data on the terrorist threat in its annual report. The NCTC reviews published reports from around the world to determine both the number of terrorist attacks and the number of victims killed and wounded. Each year, “Sunni extremists” (or jihadists) account for more casualties than any other category of terrorists. Al Qaeda and allied groups, including the Taliban in Afghanistan, are the most prolific Sunni extremist groups.
Consider the data for the years 2008 through 2011. Sunni extremists/terrorists killed 35,542 people during those four years. That is nearly 62 percent of the total number of people killed in terrorist attacks. (See the red slice of the pie chart below.) Tens of thousands more were wounded. The second leading category of terrorists in the NCTC’s data is “unknown.” Secular political and anarchist terrorist groups were the third most prolific practitioners of terrorism during that same period, but accounted for far less deaths – just 15.1 percent of the total.
A closer look at the figures for 2011 is telling. According to the NCTC’s annual report for 2011, 8,886 people were killed by Sunni extremists in 2011. Al Qaeda and its affiliates “were responsible for at least 688 attacks that resulted in almost 2,000” of these deaths. The Taliban, which jointly executes attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan with al Qaeda, “conducted over 800 attacks that resulted in nearly 1,900 deaths” in 2011. The number of terrorist attacks by al Qaeda and its affiliates actually increased by 8 percent in 2011, as compared to 2010, because some of its affiliates (Shabaab in Somalia) have been executing more attacks.
At a minimum, the NCTC’s data demonstrate that al Qaeda and groups that are either operationally or ideologically tied to it remain lethal. It is not clear what the comparable figures for the four years prior to September 11, 2001 are, but surely far less people were killed by Sunni extremists during that period than the four years between 2008 and 2011.
These data do not tell the whole story, of course. Counting casualties is a crude measure of an ideology’s or a terrorist organization’s overall strength. And some casualties caused by Sunni extremists are likely not counted by the NCTC. In addition, the number of terrorist-caused deaths measures only the ability of these groups to project violence. It is not necessarily indicative of their ability to hold and control territory, which is more troubling. For example, the Taliban was certainly stronger prior to 9/11, when it controlled Afghanistan and did not have to function as an insurgency that executes mass casualty suicide attacks.
It is true that while Sunni extremists have killed tens of thousands of people abroad in recent years, they have been far less successful in killing citizens of the West in their home countries. The vast majority of the Sunni extremists’ victims have been Muslims living elsewhere.
Should we take comfort from this fact? Some implicitly do. But it is both morally callous and myopic to dismiss violence in the Middle East and Africa as irrelevant to us. America has many Muslim allies around the world and turning our backs on them now is remarkably short-sighted.
Prior to 9/11 al Qaeda killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims. The August 7, 1998 attacks on America’s embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, for example, killed mostly Africans and Muslims. The embassy bombings were still a harbinger of things to come for Americans. There is a direct relationship between the jihadists’ war in foreign lands and their plotting against the West.
And while the professional Sunni extremist/terrorist network (as opposed to so-called “homegrown extremists”) has failed to execute an attack in the U.S. in recent years, it is not for a lack of effort. There have been five major terrorist plots launched from abroad against America since 2009. These are: al Qaeda’s 2009 plot against New York City commuter trains, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP’s) failed Christmas Day 2009 attack on a Detroit-bound airliner, the May 2010 attempted bombing in Times Square, AQAP’s attempt to detonate two bombs shipped on cargo planes in late 2010, and another plot by AQAP to attack a U.S.-bound airliner this year.
In three instances, vigilance and clever counterterrorism work foiled the terrorists’ designs. In two cases (Christmas Day 2009 and the Times Square plot), we simply got lucky as hundreds of Americans could have been killed.
And none of this addresses the constant drone strikes in northern Pakistan, many of which have targeted al Qaeda operatives plotting against the West. Europe has been targeted by the al Qaeda network repeatedly in recent years, too. Just recently, Spain broke up a plot by three well-trained al Qaeda operatives. And counterterrorism officials broke up a massive Mumbai-style plot against European cities in 2010.
While many in America today want to believe that the fight against terrorism is over, the terrorists continue to fight.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.