Time flies, and so, unfortunately, do terrorists. Sunday marked the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the day when 19 young men armed with box cutters took control of four crowded commercial aircraft, flying two into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and a third into the Pentagon. A fourth aircraft never reached its destination, as the alerted passengers took matters into their own hands, overpowering the terrorists and forcing a crash landing in an open field in Pennsylvania.
September 11, 2001, was unique in the sense of its scale; otherwise it was anything but. Terrorism has become commonplace. Over the last decade, there have been, on average, more than 10,000 terrorist attacks per year, causing an average of more than 15,000 deaths per year. Most of these have been in the Greater Middle East, both the biggest source and the most common venue of terrorism.
Relatively little of this terrorism has involved Americans. Over this same decade, there have been fewer than 15 terrorist attacks a year in the United States. An average of five Americans per year have died on U.S. soil and approximately 20 per year have lost their lives worldwide.
It is in part for this reason that Vice President Joe Biden recently argued that it is important not to lose perspective. “Terrorism can cause real problems. It can undermine confidence. It can kill relatively large numbers of people. But terrorism is not an existential threat.”
Biden went on to list some of the threats he judged to be existential, including Russia, China, North Korea, Pakistan, and the danger of “loose nukes,” meaning nuclear weapons that one way or another come into the hands of terrorists.
As is often the case with the vice president, what he said raised some eyebrows, possibly because he seemed to be downplaying the threat of terrorism. It was certainly out of step with the thinking of many Americans, who in a national survey taken in August ranked terrorism second only to the economy and ahead of health care when asked what issues mattered most to them.
The statistics, though, support Biden, at least thus far. What buttresses his position is that the United States has many of the tools needed to limit the impact of traditional terrorism, including the ability to attack terrorists with a range of weapons, from drones to special operations forces, share intelligence so attacks are less likely, discourage or prevent individuals from joining known organizations, cut off financial resources, harden potential targets, and build up the internal security capacities of friendly countries as well as our own—something that, among other things, requires a high degree of collaboration and information-sharing among organizations and agencies within and between governments.
This situation could change quickly, though, in one of two ways. One was suggested by Biden himself—namely, if terrorists were to gain custody of a nuclear weapon or a significant amount of nuclear material that, if combined with a traditional explosive, could create a “dirty bomb” that could trigger mass panic and render a limited area all but uninhabitable. Such “grand terrorism” has for decades been the nightmare of many strategic thinkers.
A second scenario could hardly be more different. Rather than grand, it could be described as everyday or even mundane. It would be the terrorism of retail actions that could be carried out by individuals or small groups, and that could happen anywhere at any time. Every shopping mall, every movie theater, every street corner or subway could become a venue. Weapons could range from guns to knives, to cars and trucks driven into crowds, as was the case recently in Nice. The threat in this case would not be to our physical existence, but it would be to our way of life. This too could be considered existential.
Eradicating or preventing all terrorism is not possible, since there will always be individuals with motive and means to carry it out. What is possible, though, is to limit what terrorists can achieve. This argues for doing all that can be done to reduce the chances of and prospects for existential terrorism.
Alas, this is easier said than done. Stopping grand terrorism requires close cooperation with other governments who possess nuclear weapons and materials. The biggest problems are likely to be Pakistan, headed by a weak government that hosts many of the world’s most dangerous terrorists and that also happens to have the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenal, as well as North Korea and Iran. In the case of Pakistan, this danger argues for pushing for a ceiling on further nuclear growth, for helping the government maintain control of what weapons it has, and readying military plans for what might be done if it appeared control over nuclear weapons was about to be lost. For North Korea, the regime needs to be made to understand the enormous costs that would accrue to it if it were to transfer nuclear materials or weapons to another entity. For Iran, the goal of policy must be to preclude it from acquiring nuclear weapons. Preventing grand terrorism also argues for placing a greater emphasis on securing nuclear materials here at home, including those widely used in hospitals.
Mundane terrorism, by its nature, is even tougher to contend with. It is often home-grown, inspired more than directed—meaning there is a limit to what intelligence and law enforcement are likely to be in a position to detect and prevent. What would help here is deep social integration of minority populations such as Arab and Muslim Americans and building extensive ties to community leaders so they intervene in the lives of troubled youth and cooperate with law enforcement. The goal must be to delegitimize such behavior and to be in a position to learn about it and prevent it if it is being planned.
There is no choice but to deal with all three kinds of terror: traditional, grand, and mundane. We also need to be realists. Terrorism will happen sometimes despite our best efforts. This argues for resilience in addition to all else. This may require some compromise on privacy for individuals in order to promote collective security, but this is a price worth paying, since the threat to democracy would quickly become far greater if existential terrorism were to become a reality.