Two Years On: The Score


7 September 2003

Two Years On: The Score

By Gwynne Dyer

Two years on, September 11th is still a raw anniversary for most Americans, who cannot forget the terrible scenes in lower Manhattan as three thousand of their fellow-citizens died in a terrorist attack. But not one further American has died from Islamist terrorism on home soil since then. Was it all just a flash in the pan?

The Bush administration pumps up the terrorist threat to distract attention from the economy and provide a pretext for some other actions, but for all the colour-coded alerts and the thousands of suspects held without trial, all the paranoia and duct tape, the past two years have been among the most terrorism-free in modern American history. Apart from the brief anthrax panic that cost four or five lives in late 2001, even the domestic crazies are giving it a rest.

Islamist terrorism is down in the rest of the world, too. If you ignore local conflicts of a more or less colonial character in which terrorism already played a major role before 9/11, the total number of deaths world-wide in Islamist attacks in the past two years is 348 — and fewer than fifty of the victims were Americans.

For obvious diplomatic reasons the governments in Moscow, Tel Aviv and New Delhi have been trying to re-define their own local struggles with Muslim opponents as part of America’s global ‘war on terrorism’, but it just won’t fly. The Palestinian militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad only attack Israelis, the Kashmiri and Pakistani militants of Lashkar-e-Taiba and their associates only attack Indians, and the Chechen guerillas only hit Russian targets.

In every case the basic quarrel is about territory, and the terrorists see themselves acting in a tradition of national liberation war that stretches back to the Irish, Israeli, and Algerian wars of independence (all of which involved a good deal of terrorism). The recent terrorist attacks in Iraq also don’t count, whether carried out by secular Baathists or the burgeoning Islamic resistance movement, since they are part of a local struggle against foreign occupation. What’s left after all that is genuine international Islamist terrorism — and there isn’t very much of it.

Count the attacks up. Nothing for six months after 9/11, and then an attack on a Christian church in a diplomatic compound in Islamabad, Pakistan in March, 2002, in which five people were killed including the wife and daughter of an American diplomat. A truck laden with explosive and driven into a synagogue in Tunisia in April, 2002, killing 21 tourists, mostly Germans. A suicide bomb in Karachi in May, 2002 that killed 14, including 11 French engineers working on a defence project.

Another long gap until the autumn, and then the attack on a Bali nightclub last October that killed 202 people, mostly Western tourists. In the same month a suicide bomber attacked a French oil tanker off Yemen, killing one crewman. In November other suicide bombers drove into an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, killing 15 people and injuring 80, mostly Kenyans. In May of this year, suicide bombers in Saudi Arabia hit a foreign compound in Riyadh, killing 34, and others in Morocco blow themselves up in a number of places around Casablanca, killing 45. Finally, in August, 12 people were killed in the bombing of the Marriott hotel in Jakarta.

And that’s it. In two years, a total of 348 people have died in seven countries in attacks that could be loosely linked with al-Qaeda or its many affiliates and emulators — far fewer than have been killed by bolts of lightning in the same period. Global terrorism is a highly over-rated threat.

The attackers on 9/11 were extraordinarily successful because they employed teams of suicide hijackers including trained pilots, a new and unforeseen technique that would only be a surprise once, and because nobody was on a high state of alert. They changed everybody’s perception of terrorism because of the number of deaths they caused, and because they struck at the nerve centres of the world’s greatest power. But since then, it’s been back to low-tech attacks on soft targets, and the terrorists haven’t been having much success.

Even if the US invasion of Iraq generates a whole new wave of terrorist recruits, it won’t make much difference to this larger picture so long as the terrorists’ weapons remain conventional. So-called ‘weapons of mass destruction’ like poison gas and biological agents aren’t really very impressive either; in a real-life situation, they would generally be no more lethal than a well-placed truck bomb. A nuclear attack would be entirely another matter, of course, but how likely is that?

Extremely unlikely: terrorists do not have the resources to make nuclear weapons, and no existing government would give them one. No Muslim country except Pakistan even owns any nuclear weapons, and one of the unspoken truths of the current international order is that a take-over by radical Islamists in a nuclear-weapons state would trigger instant and decisive international action to disarm it. (Not that the invasion of Iraq was about that; Iraq had neither radical Islamists in charge nor WMD, which is why so few countries followed the US lead.)

Terrorism is not an enormous threat to life as we know it. It is a marginal nuisance which some governments find it useful to inflate into an enormous bogeyman. We should all get a grip on reality and stop worrying so much.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“For obvious…it”)