Terrorism: The Thing We Have to Fear the Most is Fear Itself

Photo Credit: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Stringer/Getty Images

By Anthony Cordesman

July 27, 2016

‘Terrorism is all too real a threat, and mass attacks cause a special kind of fear. Terrorist movements like ISIS kill innocents for the worst of causes and the worst of reasons. They seek to use fear to separate the West from the Muslim world, and to divide the Muslim world and dominate it. They try to use alienated Muslims in the West to create a growing climate of anger and distrust with Europe and the United States. They deliberately seek to get the West to overreact and lash out against all Muslims and Islam, just as they try to use extremism and violence to try to get the populations of Muslim countries to attack their own governments.

They also feed on Western ignorance of Islam, and the fear of new and unfamiliar risks. We in the West have learned to live with most forms of our mortality. We accept the fact that life has a wide range of risks, almost all of which are far more serious than terrorism: Lightning, suicide, traffic, disease, home accidents produce far more deaths than terrorism.

However, we are just beginning to learn a reality at the popular and political level that many security and counterterrorism experts have known for years. Even the most effective counterterrorism efforts can contain and limit terrorism, but stops short of “defeating” it. It is possible to sharply reduce the levels of terrorism, and to contain and deter many attacks. It is not possible to fully secure open societies, prevent sudden attacks by the alienated and disturbed, or defeat Islamic extremism by any mix of counterterrorism and military force than does not address the causes of Islamic extremism.

The Forces that Will Maintain the Threat for At Least the Next Decade

We must learn to accept the reality that massive social change can produce continuing bursts of sudden violence either out of alienation and anger, or in an effort to paralyze and divide the Islamic world both within and from other faiths and cultures. The forces of change and instability are simply too great.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is only one of three major centers of terrorism that also include Central Asia and South Asia. The MENA region is, however, a warning of just how deep the forces involved go. UN and Census Bureau Data warn that the population of the MENA region increased by some five times between 1950 and 2015, and will increase by another 50% by 2050. Urbanization has increased during that period from around 30% to over 60%, and most countries are hyperurbanized, pushing populations of different sects, ethnic groups, races, and tribes together in ways that have never occurred before.

“Failed secularism” is not the rule, but it also is not the exception. Far too many MENA governments are grossly corrupt, have failed to govern effectively, have no real development plans, and favor their leaders and their cronies. Income distribution is terrible and steadily deteriorating, depriving many of their traditional security and status. Authoritarianism abuses any serious peaceful of opposition, and rulers attempt to control every aspect of Islam and religion.

Economies no longer can afford to generate more government jobs, and cannot begin to create the number of private sector jobs extremely young populations need. MENA countries often have populations where more than 40% of the population is under 24 years of age; where youth unemployment and underemployment ranges from 20% to over 40%; and where dead end jobs have often replace real careers. Increasingly well-educated women are marginalized far more than men, depriving many nations of the productive output of half their labor force.

Education and social services deteriorate, and the Internet and the web have replaced meaningful social development while giving large numbers of youth access to extremism. Islamic extremism has, to some extent, become the outlet for governments and societies that have failed to offer real secular opportunities — particularly to the small minority that is most polarized and alienated.

As UN development, World Bank, and IMF studies have all warned, sheer population growth and past failures to reform and develop ensure that all of these forces will take a decade of serious reform to change in many states, and some states — such as Yemen — lack the resources to sustain reform even if their government could change.

Still worse, the post-2011 upheavals and conflicts in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen have exacerbated all of these problems. The spillover of war and civil violence has had a major impact on Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Algeria and Iran have experienced a limited immunity from these impacts only through serious — if very different kinds of — repression.

These forces also interact with migration, immigration, and refugees, and again and declining populations in part of the West. Muslims from the MENA region, Sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, and South Asia all have these forces as a common reason to seek better lives and careers in the West — whether in Europe or the United States. Long before 2011 and the current refugee crisis, Muslims and other migrants took advantage of Europe’s aging population, countries with declining birth rates, and the unpopularity of many poorly paid manual and service jobs. These migrants moved to a Europe that had even less experience with — or tolerance of — any kind of “immigrant” from a different faith, culture, and linguistic background than is the case in the United States.

As is the case within the Islamic world, there is no one cause that turned some of these immigrants, and particularly their children into extremists. Prejudice, fear, racism, de facto segregation into ethnic neighborhoods and slums, discrimination in schools and job opportunities, all acted to alienate some of the new immigrants, and they too became dependent on the Internet and the web and sometimes on extremist voices and sites. These forces too are hard to change, and it is again far more realistic to talk in terms of a decade or more of serious reform efforts than to talk in terms of defeating terrorism and extremism by counterterrorism or by any other form of force.

All of these forces ensure we will continue to face extremism and terrorism regardless of what happens to ISIS/ISIL/Daesh and al Qaeda. Defeating given extremist organizations inside and outside the Islam world matters, but it will be a continuing effort directed as much against individual extremists and newly emerging groups as any continuing threat.

The struggle against extremism cannot be “won” in the sense that the threat will end quickly or decisively. Attacking terrorists is a grim necessity, but real victory means attacking its causes — something that requires time and a serious commitment to reform by the states involved. It means providing hope and building trust through effective governance, political structures that actually that serve the people, economic reform, and a civil society that focuses on building for the future rather than trying to retreat into a mythical and repressive past.

Creating Bridges Rather than Burning Them

There are other critical realities that we in the West need to understand about the Islamic world. First, attempting to create barriers that prevent Muslims from gaining access to a given country or region is a fatally stupid idea in today’s global economy and in a world with such rapid population growth. For at least the next quarter century, the Muslim world’s petroleum reserves and exports alone will force economic interdependence if the global economy is to grow and develop.

More broadly, however, a world divided against itself is far too dangerous to risk, and the demographic realities shaping the future are clear. A study in estimates by the Pew Trust entitled The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010–2050 tracks in broad terms with the estimates of population growth by both the UN and the US Census Bureau.

The Pew study examines population growth by faith and projects that a largely peaceful and moderate Islam will grow some four times faster between 2010 and 2050 than the world’s other religions, and that the number of Muslims will grow from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.76 billion in 2050, or from 23.2% to 29.7% of the world’s total population — a growth of 73% over four decades.

Christianity is the only other truly global faith that will experience serious growth according to the Pew study, but it will only grow from 2.17 billion in 2010 to 2.92 billion in 2050, and will stay at 31.4% of the world’s total population. This is a growth rate of 34%, roughly the same growth rate as Hindus will have in the much more narrow area of South Asia. The exact numbers are, of course, uncertain — but the trends are not. In fact, the very idea the rest of the world can stand apart from a Muslim community that makes up 23% to 29% of the world’s entire population is absurd.

This is becomes even clearer if one looks beyond the Middle East and North Africa. Saudi Arabia may be the birthplace of Islam but it is not the center of the world’s Muslims. The Pew Trust estimates that the MENA region had 317 million Muslims in 2010 (93% of the region’s population), and that the number will grow to over 551 million in 2050 (93.7%). The comparable figures for East Asia and the Pacific are 985 million Muslims in 2010 (24.3% of the regions population) and 1,457 million in 2050 (29.5%). The figures for Sub-Saharan Africa are 985 million Muslims in 2010 (30.2% of the region’s population), and 669 million in 2050 (35.2%).

The growth rates for Europe and the United States are far more limited, but the need for religious and cultural tolerance and understanding is not. The Pew Trust estimates that the population of Europe will drop from 742.6 million in 2010 to 696.3 million in 2050. Europe had 44 million Muslims in 2010 (5.9% of the population) and that the number will grow to 71 million in 2050 (10.2%) in spite of the overall drop in population.

The Pew Trust estimates that the population of North America will rise from 344.5 million in 2010 to 435.4 million in 2050. North America had 4.4 million Muslims in 2010 (1.0%) and the number will grow to over 10 million in 2050 (2.4% of the population) in spite of the fact that largely Christian Latinos and Hispanics will be the key source of population growth.

Focusing on the Key Threat

This has already been a “bad” year for terrorism by historical standards, but the scale of the threat is often grossly exaggerated by the way these horrifying incidents have been covered in some media, and by what has become a counterterrorism industry that profits from each new attack and threat. If one looks back at the West before World War II, fascism and communism were mass movements by comparison, and ones that helped trigger a global conflict.

In contrast, while the number of foreign volunteers is often cited as if it was in support of a mass movement, estimates of the numbers of ISIS fighters have never consistently risen above a peak of 60,000, and the range goes significantly lower — with some estimates of the low end down to 31,000. If one looks at the estimated source of foreign fighters, the data are even more uncertain and suspect. Most estimates, however, put the largest source of fighters as coming from Tunisia — not from some country with a largely Islamist education system.

Most such studies do not attempt to show how the number of estimated fighters tracks with the total population, but a now dated estimate by the BBC put the number of Tunisian fighters at only 272 per million of population. (BBC, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27838034) The next ranking source in total size was Saudi Arabia, but it was only 86 per million. In contrast, a far less Islamist Jordan had 189 per million, and a diverse Lebanon had 155 per million. In any case, the differences in all of these estimates are in the noise level are relative to the size of total population and the number of young males in what seems to be the most vulnerable age group.

Moreover, if one looks at the equally uncertain estimates of fighters for the Taliban and Haqqani Network in Afghanistan, the number of fighters or active terrorists in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), or the number of fighters in the various Islamist extremist groups in Pakistan that do not have covert government support from elements like the ISI, the numbers are equally low. They are all very serious threats, and have all done immense damage to their respective countries. But, they do not speak for their respective peoples, or for Islam in any statistically significant way.

It is also important to keep their threat in a broader perspective. Largely because the United States and other Western nations have helped allied governments in largely Muslim states, the threat in the United States and Europe has been limited. So far, the cells and networks that have emerged have been small and limited in capability. Some of the worst attacks have been by lone wolves or very small groups with no formal ties or links to an outside group.

The full nature of such data requires a detailed examination of several different databases, and a wide range of polls and counterterrorism studies. They are illustrated, in summary form, however, in a new Burke Chair report entitled The Uncertain Trends and Metrics of Terrorism in 2016, which is available of the CSIS web site at https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/160727_Metrics_of_Terrorism.pdf.

Bad as 2016 has been in some ways, this report shows that an estimate by IHS Jane’s, published in the July 17, 2016 edition of the Washington Post, showed that there were 658 deaths from all 46 terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States between January 1, 2015 and July 16, 2016, and 28,031 deaths from 2,063 attacks in the rest of the world. These figures seem to include the casualties from the fighting in insurgencies where calling the insurgents “terrorists” is more an exercise in rhetoric than accurate, and it is important to note that the main source of casualties and human suffering in the entire MENA region has been the acts of the Assad regime in fighting its Arab rebels rather than the result of actions by terrorist groups.

The data available on the START websites — the database used by the State Department in its annual report on counterterrorism — seems to provide a more credible total of the maximum impact of actual terrorism. These data show that there were a maximum 253 terrorist incidents in North America between 2010 and 2015, and 127 in the United States. There were 7,210 in all of Europe, including Russia and Eastern Europe, 22,953 in the MENA region, 22,077 in South Asia, and 7,210 in the Sub-Sahara region. The numbers are very different, but the message is clear. The threat is far greater largely Muslim areas than in the threat extremists pose to the West.

There are broad problems in such data, and in the broader survey of the trends in terrorism referenced earlier. But, if the sources and details of such such data are examined in detail — along with the chronologies they are based upon — they are still accurate enough to communicate several messages about the threat of terrorism that we in the West need to learn:

· First, the overwhelming mass of terrorist attacks that have any links to Islamist extremist groups occur in states where Muslims are fighting Muslims. They also are a mix of Islamist groups fighting more secular governments, and Islamists fighting other Islamist groups or Muslim sects. Small, non-Muslim minorities have sometimes suffered badly, but almost all such terrorism (and insurgent violence) is a clash within a civilization, not between Islam and the outside world, and almost all of the violence is a struggle for the future of Islam between Muslims.

· Second, the data show that it is far better to be able to fight terrorism outside the United States and Europe than within them. Having key allies and anti-terrorist governments in Muslim countries like Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — and elements in Libya and Syria — really matters.

· Third, impressive as the total number of deaths and incidents may be, when they are examined by country and by event, they are largely individual attacks that do not indicate a pattern of large scale movements with the exception of ISIS and the Taliban, and polls of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan do not show that such movements have mass support.

· Finally, the chronologies show on a regional and country-by-country basis that networks are limited unless groups like the ISIS and the Taliban have de facto sanctuaries or something approaching a proto-state, or have covert government support as in the case of Pakistan. By and large, terrorist cells and networks are far more rare and less effective than many feared after 9/11,and have less popular support.

The Problem with Fear Itself

There are no guarantees, however, that these conditions will continue if the United States and Europe react to events by giving way to fear, by treating our Muslim populations with hostility or repressive security measures, by weakening our alliances with largely Muslim states, or by focusing only on the threat rather than helping Muslim states address its causes.

The greatest single threat posed by the recent cycle of terrorist attacks is that they will lead to the kind of fear that will a create a growing separation between the West and the Muslim world — creating a real “clash of civilizations.” This happens when we in the West exaggerate the real world risks of terrorism, react out of prejudice and ignorance, and attempt to fight extremist terrorism with extremist counterterrorism. The only result will be a steady rise in extremist violence that will be driven by anger and alienation on all sides.

This risk so far seems limited, but the growth of anti-Islamist rhetoric in Europe and the United States — and the steady tightening of security efforts that are sometimes driven more by politics than need — are a warning. So are the past series of polls of Islamic countries that measure support for Sharia, or that ask about sympathy or support for extremist movements. The results vary from poll-to-poll but they warn all too clearly that popular support in the Muslim world could shift strikingly in favor of extremism if the West was really perceived as hostile to Islam on a broader basis.

To return to the points made at the start of this analysis, our answer to fighting extremism cannot be based on exaggerating the threat, pretending we do not have to live with continuing attacks, trying to isolate Muslims or the Muslim world, or treating terrorism as if counterterrorism was enough. We need to accept the continuing challenge. Containment, deterrence, a focus on effective counterterrorism, partnerships with Muslim states, and educating Western populations about the true nature of Islam are all tools that look beyond fear towards real progress. So is simply keeping the threat in proportion rather than hyping every incident and focusing on terrorism to the exclusion of other threats and problems.

And, we must do far more to try to help regional states move towards reform and addressing the causes of terrorism. The forces that are shaping unrest and violence in much of the Islamic world are far too serious to ignore. As the uprisings of 2011 have shown all too clearly, they can breed civil war and shatter national development efforts. Nations cannot be built from the outside, but they can be helped from the outside, and that help will be as critical in themed-term to long run as any aspect of counterterrorism.

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