Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 26, 2008
By: Cheryl Rofer

GETTING SAFER..... Quick quiz: Are terrorist attacks increasing or decreasing?

The answer depends on where you get your numbers from. Fareed Zakaria goes to Canada for his. The reason? Simon Fraser University doesn't count civilian casualties from the war in Iraq. US databases do, and those casualties amount to 80% of the deaths they count. Simon Fraser's numbers (that other 20%) are decreasing and have been for the past several years.

There seem to be numerous reasons for the decrease, but the Simon Fraser study attributes it mainly to the "extraordinary drop in support for Islamist terror organizations in the Muslim world over the past five years." That's like what has been happening in Anbar province in Iraq: the Islamists get too pushy, kill too many of the neighbors, and their popularity goes down.

Counterterrorist operations, including undressing for the TSA at the airport, as on the cover of the May 26 New Yorker (sorry, can't find a good link) seem to be part of the reason for the decrease too. I'm wondering if the decrease in terrorism forms a background for the increasing numbers of people who are getting fed up with airport security theater. Derrick Z. Jackson must have flown lately, and Mike Lukovich's 5/26 cartoon echoes the disdain.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security is insisting that its funding to the states be used to protect us against IEDs. And--sssshhh!--there's even more danger out there!

Cheryl Rofer 5:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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(beware the dangers of copy/pasting from a word processor into a web form...)

Posted by: cleek on May 26, 2008 at 6:11 PM | PERMALINK

Well, what do you think about not including victims of terrorist attacks in Iraq?

I understand the reasoning for excluding them, but the more I think about it, the less sense that makes. It's like measuring the number of sick people in a country, excluding hospitals.

Posted by: gussie on May 26, 2008 at 6:24 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe I should've been clearer. I'll go the old 'shorter' route.

Shorter Zakarai: "If you exclude the place where most of the terrorist attacks are happening, terrorist attacks are down!"

Posted by: gussie on May 26, 2008 at 6:27 PM | PERMALINK

Um, I said "civilian casualties from the war in Iraq." As the article points out, such casualties should be attributed to the war. And presumably they include civilian casualties resulting from American fire.

The numbers produced by the US sources that include the civilian casualties from the war in Iraq are cited by our government officials as indicating that terrorism is increasing, part of the "be very afraid" meme that is used to justify the unjustifiable.

But I'm not much afraid of suicide bombers in Iraq when I go downtown.

Posted by: Cheryl Rofer on May 26, 2008 at 6:41 PM | PERMALINK

The TSA link is spurious. How many air-travel-days were produced by Americans from the first scheduled airline service and today, and on how many of those air-travel-days was there was a terrorist incident?

Apart from a brief spurt of hijacking in the early 1970s, one -- 9/11.

So we have a denominator of what -- about a trillion billion air-travel-days and a numerator of 3,000 plus or minus.

Yes, 9/11 was terrible. But let's not let it overdetermine the analysis, shall we? Arguably, terrorist-induced deaths on American airlines decreased by 100% starting September 12, 2001. So what inference can we draw? Terminating all airline traffic reduces the probability of an airline-based terror incident to zero. Beyond that, I suggest all correlations are spurious.

Posted by: Hemlock for Gadflies on May 26, 2008 at 6:45 PM | PERMALINK

Okay, I'm still confused.

When discussing whether terrorist attacks are increasing or decreasing, Simon Fraser University doesn't count civilian casualties from the war in Iraq, right?

Whereas, when discussing whether terrorist attacks are increasing or decreasing, US databased -do- count civilian casualties from the war in Iraq?

So the US counts 'civilian casualties resulting from American fire' as terrorist attacks?

Maybe I had one too many beers. Now I'm not even sure if we're talking about attacks or casualties or deaths. I suppose I'll have to click the link. I hate clicking the link.

Posted by: gussie on May 26, 2008 at 6:53 PM | PERMALINK

OMG! Jimmy Carter has told the world that Israel has Nuclear Weapons(about 150) WHO KNEW? The rant going on is that now that the BIG SECRET is out that others in the ME will want them too.Why O why did he let everyone know this? THE HORROR! THE HORROW!

Posted by: R.L. on May 26, 2008 at 6:54 PM | PERMALINK

Ah. I clicked. Shorter Zakaria: What happens in a war zone, stays in a war zone.

I see his point. We're not counting Congo, Angola, etc. as terrorist attacks. But I'm not sure the solution is not counting terrorist attacks in Iraq as terrorist attacks, either. The fact that we've created an epicenter of terrorist activity--recruitment, training, attacks--in the middle of a war zone is perhaps not the same as 'no attacks at all.'

Posted by: gussie on May 26, 2008 at 7:09 PM | PERMALINK

Department of Homeland Security

You mean the Department of Homeland Insecurity.

Posted by: craigie on May 26, 2008 at 7:27 PM | PERMALINK

I think it makes some sense not to count Iraq. We are trying to get some sort of peaceful countires background level. Of course the hot spots are important, but they will overwhelm any background levels that might be interesting in their own right.

But, hey. I bet big brother is monitoring my key strokes: Be afraid, be very afraid. And oh yeah, Iran is behind it all!

Posted by: bigTom on May 26, 2008 at 7:33 PM | PERMALINK

I generally agree with Hemlock for Gadflies on this. I do not see anything supports a correlation between TSA’s “security theater” and a reduction in terrorist incidents. For such a correlation to be valid, I believe it would also have to be true that terrorists desire to attack airplanes and only airplanes. The Madrid and 7/7 bombings showed that Al Qaeda is interested in other targets. Neither buses nor trains have TSA style “security theater” screening in place. Those modes of transportation are as vulnerable now as they were then but we have not seen a second wave of atrocities directed at such targets. Yet, if TSA-style practices were actually responsible for preventing or deterring attacks, why haven't the terrorists repeated their prior attacks on what are essentially unguarded targets? Why are buses and trains just as safe as airplanes?

I believe there is another fact which points away from TSA-style “security”. To the best of my knowledge, TSA has never caught an actual Al Qaeda terrorist trying to get on a plane; neither has it (or its foreign counterparts) ever disrupted a 9/11 type of terrorist operation. This is true even though there are regular, widely publicized reports of TSA’s inability to detect actual weapons (including firearms and bombs) and the agency is frequently ridiculed for its many inadequacies and failures. So, why haven’t there been more 9/11 style plots involving aircraft? [As an aside, I don’t include things screening of checked baggage or access controls or deployment of sniffers on aircraft as “security theatre”]

The fact that the attacks of 9/11, Madrid and 7/7 have not been repeated strongly suggests that the factors which Fareed Zakaria identifies (no doubt along with good intelligence and counter-terrorism efforts by certain governments in Europe and elsewhere) are the main causative factors in this decline.

Posted by: Mitch Guthman on May 26, 2008 at 7:38 PM | PERMALINK

"The fact that we've created an epicenter of terrorist activity--recruitment, training, attacks--in the middle of a war zone is perhaps not the same as 'no attacks at all.'"

The fact is that we've created a civil war in Iraq, not an 'epicenter of terrorist activity.' The civil war in Iraq, while tragic, predictable and avoidable, has absolutely no implications for US civil defense.

The single most important thing done for airline security in the wake of 9/11 was to lock the cockpit door. Everything else is pretty much theater.

Posted by: Joel on May 26, 2008 at 8:14 PM | PERMALINK

Before the Iraq war, didn't more than half of all terrorist attacks happen in India?

Posted by: Boronx on May 26, 2008 at 8:41 PM | PERMALINK

There's also the wingnuts' heads in the sand school of mathematics to consider. (HT to Sadly, No!)

Posted by: poliwog on May 26, 2008 at 9:23 PM | PERMALINK


I think you are absolutely right about the cockpit doors.

I hope you are right about Iraq not having security/counter-terrorism implications. But you may be wrong. Only time will tell. If things in Iraq go as well as can be expected and the trends which Fareed Zakaria talks about in his article continue, then Iraq will probably have no security/terrorism implications.

If, however, things get worse and especially if the Sunni’s turn on us, then I think you might be wrong about the security implications of the Iraq war. Starting in 2004, the CIA and other intelligence/security agencies began warning that “the war in Iraq is creating a new breed of Islamic jihadists who could go on to destabilise other countries….[t]he CIA believes Iraq to be potentially worse than Afghanistan, which produced thousands of jihadists in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of the recruits to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida had fought in Afghanistan. The sobering caution came as a senior British anti-terrorism source warned that those trained in terror techniques in Iraq could use their newly-acquired skills in Britain at the end of the war”. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/jun/23/terrorism.iraq

I think the Sunni situation (which fits in perfectly with the thesis that the jihadists’ problems stem more from their overreaching than our efforts) illustrates the problem perfectly. When there was an active Sunni resistance against the US, there was a support system in place for jihadists----places for them to live, food to eat, people arranged for them to have papers, protected them from the authorities. To borrow from Mao Tse-tung the people are the ocean and jihadists/terrorists are fish swimming in that ocean. Because they wore out their welcome, the ocean of the Iraqi people is today an inhospitable environment for the jihadi fish.

That inhospitable environment is one of the main reasons why the threat has been reduced. Jihadists are not going to Iraq and so are not returning to their home countries as trained, hardened terrorists bent on holy war. In a recent article in the IHT, a French intelligence stressed the logistical problems jihadists now faced in traveling to and operating in Iraq: "It's not easy to get to Iraq - it's expensive and they have no family there," http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/04/07/europe/terror.php. The same article stressed that as long as the situation in Iraq involved a civil war among Muslims there would continue to be a limited attraction for foreign fighters.

Should that change, I believe the danger will increase dramatically and the worst fears expressed by the CIA may be realized. We should not overlook the relationship between the Afghan war against the USSR and the events of 9/11.

There are many reasons why Prof. Martin van Creveld, one of the world's foremost military historians, called for President Bush to be impeached and put on trial "for misleading the American people, and launching the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 BC sent his legions into Germany and lost them". The potential for jihadists going to Iraq and returning home to committ atrocities like the Madrid bombings or 7/7 is just one of the many real and potential disasters flowing from Bush’s stupid decision to invade. My guess is that we will be spending the next several generations trying to limit the blowback from the Iraq invasion.

Posted by: Mitch Guthman on May 26, 2008 at 9:26 PM | PERMALINK

"But Mr. Benepe admitted that he allowed his own children, now 17 and 21, to go barefoot outdoors, “and they managed to survive.”"

Boy oh boy, did those kids dodge a bullet or what?

Posted by: fcc on May 26, 2008 at 9:55 PM | PERMALINK

New Yorker cover

Posted by: John B. on May 26, 2008 at 10:03 PM | PERMALINK

It's sure a good thing that the leading cause of death in this country is terrorists' attacks. I'd hate to think that we were wasting on all this time and energy on terrorism, if 40,000 people a year were getting killed in auto accidents, or 90,000 were killed by the flu and its complications, or hundreds of thousands were killed by the long-term effects of addictive poison. That would be a gross misallocation of resources, and I am so happy we aren't doing anything as criminally stupid as that.

And, thank goodness we don't have a crappy health care system that needlessly kills thousands of infants each year. Who could tolerate such an abominable situation?

Posted by: dr2chase on May 26, 2008 at 10:34 PM | PERMALINK

Given the United State's unique geography, with a weak, poor neighbor to the south, a passive and largely undeveloped neighbor to the north and oceans on both sides, we aren't likely to get "attacked" in any conventional sense any time soon. That's why Bush/Cheney's assertion that Iraq was a "threat" to us never made a lick of sense.

The best thing we could do to strengthen our security is to "buy down" the world's nuclear arsenal, work like hell to prevent proliferation and secure our ports and border entry points with common sense screening and radiation and chemical detection devices. Attacking a Muslim country is probably the least sensible way to ensure the security of the United States - Are you listening, John McCain???

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on May 26, 2008 at 10:44 PM | PERMALINK

As for airport security, we could be Japan, where a plan to test security in Tokyo by putting 124 pounds of pot in somebody's luggage backfire when police forgot what person and whose bag.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on May 27, 2008 at 1:11 AM | PERMALINK

Isn't the more important question how many terrorist attacks are stopped? This is what always drove me nuts about the "Well, we haven't been attacked since 9/11" defense of Bush. If there weren't any attempted attacks then it means nothing, if Bush is stopping dozens of attacks a year then I'm impressed.

Re: Tokyo, I believe that was 124 GRAMS of pot, not 124 POUNDS!

Posted by: tom.a on May 27, 2008 at 1:18 AM | PERMALINK

How can you have an act of terrorism in a war zone? Any bomb in a war zone is an act of war, improvised or factory manufactured makes no difference. We have bastardized the word terrorism so much that it is almost impossible to define its true meaning. Bombing abortion clinics is terrorism, shooting up a school or college campus is terrorism, writing threats of violence on walls is terrorism, bombing trains or bus stations in non war zones is terrorism.

Any act of violence in a war zone is an act of war no matter which side commits it.

Posted by: JoeSixPack on May 27, 2008 at 7:22 AM | PERMALINK

Boronx, almost correct. Sri Lanka, not India, with the Tamil Tigers. They (not Muslims), invented the idea of suicide bombers.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on May 27, 2008 at 10:18 AM | PERMALINK

Joel: "The fact is that we've created a civil war in Iraq, not an 'epicenter of terrorist activity.'"

We've created both, no?

Posted by: gussie on May 27, 2008 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK

Seems like some of us have forgotten that the Oklahoma City bombing was an IED.

Posted by: optical weenie on May 27, 2008 at 1:44 PM | PERMALINK


Posted by: mhr on May 27, 2008 at 5:02 PM | PERMALINK

"The fact that we've created an epicenter of terrorist activity--recruitment, training, attacks--in the middle of a war zone is perhaps not the same as 'no attacks at all.'"

Or, conceivably, we're attracting would-be terrorists who, absent the situation in Iraq, might be busily building terrorist cells in other countries. That would fit with the al Qaeda practice of outsider organizers coming in and relying on local recruits for the wet side of their business.

Iraq is, as we say, a target-rich environment, both for terrorists and those who hunt them.

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