THE MAGAZINE

Terrorism Down but Never Out

By Sherry Harowitz

Preliminary estimates on terrorist activity for 2007 show attacks (*CORRECTION) down about 20 percent from 2006. While much of the decline is attributable to the dramatic drop in violence in Iraq, “it would appear that the trend is down generally,” says Michael Wermuth, director of the Homeland Security Program for RAND. For example, attacks are down 59 percent in Latin America and 23 percent in Eastern Europe.

Even more encouraging, al Qaeda’s  “global image is beginning to lose some of its luster,” Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell said recently in his annual threat assessment report to Congress. That view was echoed by noted terrorism expert Marc Sageman, M.D., Ph.D., who told a gathering at the Center for National Policy that “al Qaeda has made no friends in any government … not even the Iranians.”

Moreover, Sageman does not see a global insurgency. Instead, he sees “a lot of little local networks trying to … get recognition from al Qaeda.”

If true, that has positive and negative implications. It means that the movement is leaderless and cannot be stopped via “decapitation.” But it also means that plots, though more numerous, are likely to be less sophisticated and, thus, less lethal.

Nonetheless, al Qaeda “and its terrorist affiliates continue to pose significant threats to the United States,” said McConnell. Its central leadership has been able to regenerate its core operational capabilities while hiding in Pakistan, and it seems to have stepped up recruitment of Westerners.

Also worrisome are activities by al Qaeda affiliated groups in Lebanon and parts of Asia and Africa. McConnell noted that nearly 100 terrorists from al Qaeda in Iraq have moved to establish cells in other countries. And, he added, “Our European allies regularly tell us that they are uncovering new extremist networks in their countries.”

A contributing factor in Europe is that the youth among the Muslim population have three times the unemployment rate of non-Muslims there, says Sageman. Further, they feel alienated because there is a great deal of xenophobia among native Europeans, and anti-immigrant flames are fanned by extremist parties, escalating hostilities, he says.

Additionally, when governments try to reach out to Muslims, “the approach has been to Muslims vis à vis their religion,” says Robert Leiken, director of the Immigration and National Security Program at The Nixon Center. Leiken, who is working on a book about Europe’s angry Muslims, says that the average Muslim needs to be engaged on an individual level politically, not treated as though he has to engage through his mosque or some other intermediary.

Indeed, polls of Muslims worldwide show that “al Qaeda symbolizes rebellion, and not religion,” according to Dalia Mogahed, Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. Sageman concurs, saying al Qaeda and affiliates do not represent an “existential threat” as the Soviet Union did. He sees a potentially greater threat in future years: Ecoterrorism.


(*Correction: Please note: print version and original online version incorrectly said 'fatalities' where this should have said 'attacks'. Corrected May 1, 2008. In fact, as now confirmed by final State Department numbers, fatalities were up 9 percent.)

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