Daniel Benjamin on Terrorism Complacency

Earlier this month, Glenn Carle, a retired CIA officer who served as deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats, published an op-ed piece in The Washington Post arguing that Americans, and certain Republicans in particular, vastly overstate the threat from al Qaeda:

We must not delude ourselves about the nature of the terrorist threat to our country. We must not take fright at the specter our leaders have exaggerated. In fact, we must see jihadists for the small, lethal, disjointed and miserable opponents that they are.

The piece is interesting, but it left me worried, in part because it reminded me of Larry Johnson's infamous July, 2001 op-ed in The New York Times, in which he argued that Americans have nothing to fear from Osama bin Laden, and it followed by several weeks a Fareed Zakaria column that downplayed the threat posed by terrorism. I tend to grow concerned when right-thinking people all seem to be simultaneously agreeing that the terrorist threat is diminishing. Success in the war against terrorists, of course, breeds complacency, and so the question is, is this complacency justified? To answer that question, I turned to Daniel Benjamin, one of the smartest people I know on the subject. He is, with Steven Simon, author of one of the best books on Muslim terrorism, The Age of Sacred Terror. Here are four questions I asked him, and his answers:

Jeffrey Goldberg: Glenn Carle argued in The Washington Post recently that America has overstated the threat from al-Qaeda. He writes, "We have allowed the specter of that threat to distort our lives and take our treasure." Do you agree?

Daniel Benjamin: I've got a lot of respect for Glenn - he is a serious, highly regarded analyst.  That said, we're not in exactly the same place on the dimensions of the threat.  I don't fully agree, for example, with his assessment that "Osama bin Laden and his disciples are small men and secondary threats whose shadows are made large by our fears." 9/11 was an extraordinary event, and several of the key individuals involved are free to operate, so I don't think we can write them off that way.  But I do concur that the nation has overreacted to a dangerous extent, particularly in the invasion and occupation of Iraq and in making the terrorist threat the lens through which we conduct our foreign policy.  That has meant not only a huge waste of blood and treasure but it's also been counter-productive.

JG: Do you believe that al Qaeda still has the capacity to stage a spectacular, 9/11-sized, terror attack on American soil?

DB:  Probably - and if not today, then it likely will soon, given the safe haven it enjoys in the Pakistani border region and its ties to radicals in different parts of the world. There are a lot of variables to consider: technical skills, the state of their network, our own much increased vigilance.  But they have some smart operators, and as a matter of prudence, we can't rule out a major attack.

JG: Fareed Zakaria suggested recently that the number of deaths caused by terrorists proves that al Qaeda is a diminishing threat. In a response published on Slate and on the Brookings website, you argued that Americans are becoming complacent about the threat from terrorism. Do you believe that we have reached 9/10 levels of complacency?

DB: No. We're more alert to the threat - inevitably - than we were before 9/11, and the government machinery has accepted that catastrophic terror is a threat in a way that it could not before 9/11.  But I worry that the "policy class" and some parts of the population look at statistics or at the fact that there hasn't been an attack in the U.S. and draw the conclusion that the threat is much diminished or gone.  Among other things, you need to look at the plots that fail, like the 2006 Heathrow conspiracy, which would have been appalling had it succeeded, to take the measure of the terrorists. You need to consider the issue of safe havens, recruitment, continued popular and financial support.  There is no simple calculus - and statistics certainly only give a small part of the story.

JG: Many experts believe that there is a good chance, as high as 50 percent, that an American city will be attacked by terrorists armed with a nuclear device sometime in the next 10 years. Is this a plausible scenario?

DB: I don't think the chance is anywhere near that high, but an attack with an improvised nuclear device is plausible. When you interviewed Michael Chertoff in Aspen, he said he thought that threat would be real in a couple years, right?  I ran a study a few years ago that brought together nuclear weaponeers and terrorism experts, and the conclusion, in essence, was that if al Qaeda could get the fissile material - the hardest part of the process, but by no means impossible - they would likely be able to build a weapon.  I'd put the likelihood of that happening at a small fraction of the 50 percent you cite, but the impact would be so devastating that we need to allocate lots of resources and effort to ensuring that doesn't happen.