The Terrorists Fight On
2:00 PM, Sep 11, 2012 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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.