September 11, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: 9/11 and the Enduring Power of Terror


It’s that time of year again, as President Obama reminds us.

Thirteen years after 9/11, a poll conducted by NBC reports that 47% of Americans believe they are less safe today than at any time since those horrific attacks in 2001. Analysts put this down to a fear of the so-called Islamic State (IS), noting that a massive 94% of those polled had heard about the murders in Syria of James Foley and Steven Sotloff. That is significantly more than those who knew of any other news item over the last five years.

If anything can demonstrate the power of terrorism, it is surely the results of the NBC poll. Terrorism is about striking fear into the public in order to influence political decision-making. It is about killing enough people to make others fear that they or their loved ones may be next. In reality, of course, the power of IS to harm the US or any American outside Iraq or Syria is extremely limited, almost non-existent in fact, even though there is the risk that some of the hundred-plus US citizens who are fighting in Iraq and Syria may come home and mount an attack. Fortunately, as President Obama said last night, there is currently no specific threat by IS against the homeland.

The day after the president’s address and his undertaking to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy [IS] wherever they are,’ it is more than reasonable for the American people to ask what the previous 13 years of effort, the trillions of dollars of expenditure, the two major wars, and the increasing militarization of our society have done to reduce their fear of terrorism. They might wonder how bad things would have been without all this effort; whether it would have been better—and a more effective counter to the threat—if all that money and effort had been directed towards improving society rather than defending it. After all, the fuel that groups like IS and al-Qaeda draw from is not hatred of US values, it is despair at our policies and those of the governments we support.

There is enormous thirst for change in many parts of the world, brought on by social, economic, and political pressures of growing populations, declining resources, and higher expectations. Just as the interconnected world enables a terrorist group to grab the attention of 94% of Americans from the deserts of Arabia, so too does it promote ideas of individual empowerment and the search for at least a different future, even if not a better one.

These trends have given rise to many new commercial opportunities, but they have also divided the world between those who seek change and those who fear it. The sort of change that IS or al-Qaeda advocates appeals to no one beyond each’s ranks, but in most parts of the world, there is not much else on offer. Governments continue to seek slow and linear progress down paths that for many appear unlikely to lead anywhere particularly new. There is little vigor in their step or encouragement to follow. The airstrikes and military support for national forces promised by President Obama will not by themselves introduce change; that requires local engagement and local effort beyond the use of arms.

Al-Qaeda should by now be deeply buried in the trashcan of history, and IS should have been crushed at birth by overwhelming public rejection; but they have been allowed to survive, and even flourish, because although only very few people join, many others have some sympathy for them as potential agents for change. What has made them more effective and longer-lived than more peaceful political protests is the ruthless certainty of their ideas and the commitment of their leaders, abhorrent as they are.

Unfortunately, although bombing their bases may provide temporary respite, it will not provide a long-term solution. That requires a different kind of leadership and a willingness in the countries where terrorism thrives to accept the need for change. We may, as the president suggested, be the most advanced democracy in the world, with the most successful economy ever known, and the biggest and most powerful army in the history of mankind, but this is not a job that we can achieve without the development of society elsewhere. We can lead by example and by providing assistance, but we cannot solve everyone’s problems for them. We neither have the tools nor the ability to do that. But if we are to see the 47% of Americans who are fearful of terrorism today feel more reassured by the time the next anniversary of 9/11 comes around, we need to have banged a few heads together and spread more optimism about the future than can be achieved by military leadership alone.



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