Fifteen years after the September 11, 2001 strikes on New York and Washington on the twins, World Trade Centre. The staging of terror attacks is dramatically altered. But the essential element is unchanged – whatever weapons are used, the objective that counts is instilling fear.
Fear of the unimaginable in the wake of the spectacular collapse of the Twin Towers and the gouging of the Pentagon has been supplanted by fear of the believable: the target could be an airport from which people travel; the club where they catch up with friends; the shopping centre at which they get groceries.
According to analysts John Mueller and Mark Stewart in Foreign Affairs, “Are we safe?” might be the most common question asked about terrorism, but it is the wrong one. A better place to begin is with this question: “How safe are we?”
In evaluating the threat from terrorism, it seems difficult to escape the conclusion that, although such violence presents a concern for the United States, the scope of the hazard is so limited that it is a considerable stretch to even label it a “threat.”
Mueller and Stewart write: “Over 70 per cent of those polled in 2001 believed that ‘another terrorist attack causing large numbers of Americans to be lost’ was likely. The figure was roughly the same just before the rise of IS. Along the way it was temporarily pushed up by some 10 percentage points by the London attacks of 2005, and a similar rise occurred after the recent (2015) Paris attacks.”
Al-Qaeda weakens as Islamic State rise
The nature of the terrorist threat is very much changed by upheaval in the world of terror. Osama bin Laden is dead and al-Qaeda is like a corporate dinosaur that lives on past glory, while the upstart IS operates with all the agility and brinksmanship of a Silicon Valley start-up.
More recent attacks have been even cheaper – Nice cost only as much as the hire of a 19-tonne truck. Orlando was just the price of a few firearms. The Boston marathon bomb – it cost maybe $US100 for a device that inflicted personal and property damage in the vicinity of $US350 million.
The audacity of 9/11 transfixed the world years of meticulous central control and transnational planning that culminated with hijacked commercial aircraft serving as bombs that killed about 3000 people in two iconic cities, in the name of al-Qaeda. Fast-forward to 2016 and there’s global whiplash in July, when two men enter a church in working-class St Etienne-du-Rouvray, in Normandy, France, and slit the throat of an 85-year-old priest as he finished Mass, in the name of Islamic State.
The White House proclaims that al-Qaeda is closer to strategic defeat and that it has IS on the run. These are statements of fact – but their measurement is an inexact science.
In the wake of the San Bernardino killings, US President Barack Obama told Americans: “The threat from terrorism is real, but we’ll overcome it. We will destroy IS and any other organisation that tries to harm us. Our success won’t depend on tough talk, or abandoning or values or giving in to fear. That’s what groups like IS are hoping for. Instead, we’ll prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless.
Théogène U @Bwiza.com