Statistical Operation

28 November 2002

The ‘War on Terror’: A Statistical Operation

By Gwynne Dyer

If we thought about the ‘war on terror’ in the same way as we think about the war on crime’, we’d realise that we are winning it. Nobody imagines that a ‘war on crime’ can end in complete victory, with no more crimes being committed. Success is something that has to be measured statistically: how much have you succeeded in getting the crime RATE down? A ‘war on terror’ has to be treated in the same way.

I mean no disrespect to the six Kenyans and three Israelis who were killed by the suicide bombers in Mombasa this week, nor to the two hundred people, mostly Australians, who died in the blast in Bali last month. If you have the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, terrorism is very real. But at least as many people have been killed by lightning as by al-Qaeda’s attacks in the past year: the terror rate is steeply down, and that is a success.

You would never know that, however, if you believed the panic-mongering in the media and the finger-pointing by the politicians. Indeed, you would probably be convinced that going to the corner shop for a bottle of milk had become a distinctly risky activity, and boarding an airliner a virtual death sentence. So let’s try to restore some sense of proportion here.

The media is bound to get this stuff wrong, because the relationship between terrorism and the media is almost symbiotic. Without the world’s media to elevate the tragedy to global significance, the events at the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa on Thursday would have no more impact on public opinion outside Kenya than the next three foreigners and the next half dozen Kenyans who die as victims of more ordinary crimes. But the media cannot resist giving this kind of story maximum prominence. It is designed to attract attention, and it does.

With the story pumped up way beyond its true importance, people and governments then base their decisions on quite inflated estimates of the risks they really face. Watch the tourists abandon not just Kenya, but all of Africa. Watch airlines in the United States edge closer to bankruptcy because potential passengers, having heard that shoulder-fired missiles missed an Israeli airliner in Kenya, refuse to board any aircraft anywhere. If every secondary-school student had to pass a course in the statistics of risk before graduating, people’s behaviour might change eventually, but it would still take at least a generation.

In the meantime, we will be treated to endless analyses of how it all happened because Kenya has failed to improve its security measures sufficiently. (Much of this analysis will come from the country that still hasn’t tracked down the home-grown terrorist who killed five of its citizens with anthrax-infected letters last year, despite having enough clues to fill an Agatha Christie novel.) And sanctimonious politicians and jumped-up bureaucrats will take every opportunity to lecture us about how we must take the terrorist threat seriously.

Consider, for example, Israel’s Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who responded to the Mombasa attacks with the following purple passage: “It means that terror organisations and the regimes behind them are able to arm themselves with weapons which can cause mass casualties anywhere and everywhere. Today, they’re firing missiles at Israeli planes, tomorrow they’ll fire missiles at American planes, British planes, every country’s aircraft. Therefore, there can be no compromise with terror.”

“…And the regimes behind them” is presumably Netanyahu’s attempt to link al-Qaeda to Iraq or other enemies of Israel. There is no shred of evidence that ANY regime in the Muslim world backs al-Qaeda, but if you say a thing often enough some people will believe you. Then there’s the stunning revelation that terrorists have access to shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles — though this will come as no news to any airport security manager, given that every army bigger that the Papal Guard has hundreds or thousands of the things. On the black market, they sell for only a few thousand dollars.

Then we are warned that the terrorists are going to fire these weapons at “every country’s aircraft”. If there’s no American plane on the runway, a Swedish or Thai one will allegedly do just as well. One rather doubts it. As for the Israeli foreign minister’s ringing conclusion, “therefore, there can be no compromise with terror” — well, who was saying that there should be? Short of mass conversion to Islam or mass suicide, it’s hard to see how the West COULD compromise with al-Qaeda. The point is not to over-react and play into al-Qaeda’s hands.

It is fairly clear that al-Qaeda lacks the ability to stage an encore to the New York and Washington attacks of fourteen months ago on anything like the same scale. If it could, why wouldn’t it have done so by now? Like any other terrorist organisation, it retains the ability to make occasional attacks in relatively out-of-the-way places. It is doing its best, through timing and propaganda, to persuade its followers and its enemies that it is still active and dangerous, but it is very unlikely that it will ever kill 3,000 people in a single day again.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“You…here”; and “What’s…hands”)