(MintPress) — The U.S. war on terror over the past 10 years has consumed thousands of lives and trillions of taxpayer dollars in the fight to rid the world of al-Qaida and similar extremist groups. While there have been major advances, such as the elimination Osama bin Laden and other high level targets, rates of terrorism against Westerners remain at high levels as al-Qaida and allied groups continue to carry out bombings, shootings and hostage taking.
Since the pullout of U.S. troops last year, Iraq has suffered an increase in terrorist bombings from groups closely affiliated with al-Qaida. The loose radical collective has also established a foothold in new areas, like West Africa, threatening the stability of Mali and surrounding states. While the threat of an attack on U.S. soil may have diminished, the threat of attack against U.S. targets abroad remains imminent, according to security experts.
Terror a pretext for war
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were both, in part, a response to terrorism, and Sept. 11 specifically. Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were two key architects of the Iraq invasion, supporting the prolonged incursion as a means to thwart terror and depose a hegemonic dictator with weapons of mass destruction.
Similarly, the U.S. and NATO coalition forces will continue to fight in Afghanistan until 2014 under the pretext of eliminating the al-Haqqani network and Taliban threats. Although they have not committed acts of terror against the U.S., the Taliban provided shelter and strategic support to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida organization in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
While President Obama has previously criticized former President Bush’s policies for creating a “false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand,” Obama expanded the use of unmanned drone warfare in Pakistan and Yemen, while maintaining the secret Guantanamo Bay prison.
The vast majority of Americans support Obama’s drone campaign, according to a February 2012 Washington Post poll which found that 83 percent of Americans support the attacks.
However, an increasing number of security experts and civilians suffering the onslaught of drone attacks have spoken out against the campaign, saying that they incite terrorism and increase anti-American sentiment.
Ibrahim Mothana, a Yemeni lawyer and activist, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, “Dear Obama, when a U.S. drone missile kills a child in Yemen, the father will go to war with you, guaranteed. Nothing to do with Al Qaeda.”
With fewer allies in the fight to counter al-Qaida, the terrorist organization has regained a foothold in Iraq, a country long mired in terrorism throughout the U.S. occupation 2003-2011.
While the formal al-Qaida organization has suffered major defeats in recent years, other closely affiliated offshoot organizations have emerged, looking to the once powerful terrorist group for guidance and material support.
The Islamic State of Iraq, a group closely affiliated with al-Qaida, has claimed responsibility for a spate of bombings, mostly against Shiite Muslims and Western infrastructure in Iraq.
Last month, for example, the group carried out a string of bombings targeting Shiite Iraqis preparing for their Eid al-Fitr celebration, a traditional meal marking the end of Ramadan. Nearly 100 were killed, continuing a rash of attacks since U.S. forces left the country last year.
In July, a similar attack killed 116 and injured more than 300 in the worst act of terrorism since the American pullout. The Islamic State of Iraq accepted responsibility, issuing an online statement shortly after the attack. “The Ministry of War has mobilized its sons and mujahideen brigades and their military groups in a new blessed foray in the holy month of Ramadan,” said group representatives.
Also concerning for U.S. security experts is the precipitous rise of al-Qaida and jihadist forces entering Mali’s autonomous Northern region. Last year, the Tuareg separatist movement declared their independence from the Bamako government, unofficially declaring their national sovereignty in the North of Mali.
Although the new state is not recognized by any country or international body, the Malian government has failed to regain the lost territory, called “Azawad,” by the Tuareg separatist movement. In the security vacuum, many members of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb entered the territory, finding a safe-haven in the north of the country.
Although the Tuareg people expressed support for creating a secular, democratic state based upon the U.N. charter, the influx of al-Qaida fighters has threatened their goals for national sovereignty. Neighboring countries and Western forces are weighing the options, including the possibility of military intervention in coordination with the African Union.
Marou Amadou, Niger’s Minister of Justice and government spokesman, commented on the situation, saying,”It’s beyond worrisome, it’s terrifying.” The al-Qaida resurgence in Iraq and the new presence of fighters in Mali has many questioning whether the U.S. is any safer today than at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Patterns of global terrorism
Many experts believe that the decline of terrorism on U.S. soil is an indication that the U.S. is safer since Sept. 11. The U.S. Department of State issued comprehensive annual reports called, “Patterns of Global Terrorism” from 2000-2003. However, the reports were terminated when members of the Bush administration questioned the findings and the methodology behind the reports. The state department instead issues annual country reports, listing countries that sponsor terrorism.
Since the end of the Patterns of Global Terrorism, other academic and non-governmental sources have emerged to report on the trends of global terrorism. The Global Terrorism Database, a project run by the University of Maryland, is considered by many security experts to be the most comprehensive account of terrorism across the world.
The project covers more than 98,000 known acts of terrorism around the globe from 1970-2010, with annual updates published as researchers analyze more data. While some may contest the definitions, the expansive view of “terrorism” includes any violent or coercive act “aimed at attaining a political, economic, religious or social goal.”
According to the database, there were 36 terrorist attacks in the U.S. in 2001. This actually represents a slight decrease in the number of attacks from the previous years. The numbers of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil declined significantly over the next few years, hitting a low of just 7 attacks in 2007.
While these statistics are encouraging for policymakers, they do not include the much higher number of U.S. citizens targeted in attacks abroad. In the years following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, attacks involving U.S. nationals abroad remained high.
In 2001, 68 Americans were involved in attacks abroad. That number increased to 90 in 2002, and 106 in 2003. While the number has decreased in recent years, the number of Americans targeted or killed in attacks abroad remains elevated from 2001 levels. In 2007, there were 48 attacks on Americans abroad.
Overreacting to domestic terror?
While the threats against U.S. targets abroad remain concerning for security experts, academics caution that the sharp decline in terrorist plots on U.S. soil is not indicative of successful anti-terror policies.
Since Sept. 11, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have successfully thwarted 50 terrorist plots. While many of these plots were indeed serious threats against civilian and government targets, many more were simply the deluded ideas of mentally deranged individuals.
In many cases, the suspects did not have the budget or the training necessary to carry out their proposed plans. With relatively few credible threats against the U.S., political scientists John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart believe that the large scale anti-terror initiatives are unjustified. Additionally, Mueller and Stewart write about FBI descriptions of terrorist suspects in their article, “The Terrorism Delusion America’s Overwrought Response to September 11,”
“With remarkably few exceptions, the agents describe their subjects with such words as incompetent, ineffective, unintelligent, idiotic, ignorant, inadequate, unorganized, misguided, muddled, amateurish, dopey, unrealistic, moronic, irrational and foolish,” Mueller and Stewart contend.
Citing this report, Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard University, contends, “Using conservative assumptions and conventional risk-assessment methodology, the annual risk of dying in a domestic terrorist attack is about 1 in 3.5 million.”
Walt continues saying that in order to justify the $1 trillion in increases in homeland security and defense spending, officials “would have had to deter, prevent, foil or protect against 333 very large attacks that would otherwise have been successful every year.”