Hey, remember how the new Al Qaeda was going to be more networked and more capable of inspiring home-grown terrorism? Remember how today's threat enviroment was supposed to be worse than the Cold War?
Bear these points in mind when considering two news items that crossed my screen today. In the first, courtesy of Micah Zenko, a Pentagon official suggests that maybe, just maybe, the U.S. overrestimated Al Qaeda's capabilities:
With the benefit of more than a decade of hindsight, America may have misjudged the true threat posed by al-Qaeda in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, a top Pentagon official said Tuesday.
“Al-Qaida wasn’t as good as we thought they were on 9/11,” said Michael A. Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict.
“Quite frankly, we, the American people, were asleep at the switch, the U.S. government, prior to 9/11. So an organization that wasn’t that good looked really great on 9/11,” Sheehan told a room full of special operators in Washington who were attending an annual Special Operations, Low Intensity Conflict Planning Conference.
“Everyone looked to the skies every day after 9/11 and said, ‘When is the next attack?’ And it didn’t come, partly because al-Qaida wasn’t that capable. They didn’t have other units here in the U.S. … Really, they didn’t have the capability to conduct a second attack.”
The true limitations of al-Qaida are one of two key reasons that America has not suffered a major terrorist attack since 2001.
“The other reason is that we actually responded … and crushed al-Qaida immediately after 9/11, and continually for the last 10 years,” Sheehan said. “We are better than we often give ourselves credit for. We have a very polarized political system and it’s very difficult for anybody to actually give credit or receive credit for how good we are.”
Well, sure, Al Qaeda abroad has been weakened, but this homegrown thing, I mean, that's probably a really big-- hey, what is Scott Shane reporting about in the New York Times?
A feared wave of homegrown terrorism by radicalized Muslim Americans has not materialized, with plots and arrests dropping sharply over the two years since an unusual peak in 2009, according to a new study by a North Carolina research group.
The study, to be released on Wednesday, found that 20 Muslim Americans were charged in violent plots or attacks in 2011, down from 26 in 2010 and a spike of 47 in 2009.
Charles Kurzman, the author of the report for the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, called terrorism by Muslim Americans "a minuscule threat to public safety." Of about 14,000 murders in the United States last year, not a single one resulted from Islamic extremism, said Mr. Kurzman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina (emphasis added).
Digging a wee bit into the actual report -- and read the whole thing, it ain't long -- I'll just reprint the closing two paragraphs below:
Repeated alerts by government officials may be issued as a precaution, even when the underlying threat is uncertain. Officials may be concerned about how they would look if an attack did take place and subsequent investigations showed that officials had failed to warn the public. But a byproduct of these alerts is a sense of heightened tension that is out of proportion to the actual number of terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11.
This study’s findings challenge Americans to be vigilant against the threat of homegrown terrorism while maintaining a responsible sense of proportion. (emphasis added)
Now, I'm sure that the reason for this lull is that Al Qaeda's remaining assets in the United States are focusing their energies on getting all turkeys to become halal or something. That said, I'm going to continue to insist that the United States faces a much less threatening threat environment now than it did fifty years ago. Oh, and that I don't need to listen to Representative Peter King when he opens his mouth on national security issues.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.