Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism Reconsidered

The arrests in London of 21 terrorists who appear to have planned to blow up a number of airplanes over the Atlantic reminds us, if any reminder is needed, of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington of September 11, 2001. 9/11 remains the date that has come to signify modern terrorism in all of its terrible capacity to cause death and destruction. Five years may be too short a period for historians to judge the full significance of the event, but it does offer an opportunity to take stock.

At best, it is a mixed record. Terrorist attacks have occurred subsequently in Indonesia, Madrid, London, Egypt, and most recently Mumbai. Thousands of innocent men, women and children have been killed. There is also the steady drumbeat of terrorist violence in Iraq – violence that risks pushing the country into full-scale civil war.

But the terrorists still have not done anything on the scale of 9/11. The reason for this is worth thinking about. It may reflect the ouster of the government of Afghanistan and the elimination of al-Qaida’s safe haven there. Improved and better coordinated intelligence, law enforcement, and homeland security efforts at both the national and international levels have made it more difficult for terrorists to succeed. And as the recent arrests in London suggest, it is also possible that the desire of some terrorists to accomplish something more dramatic than the 9/11 attacks may have complicated their ability to implement their plans and increased the prospect that they will be detected.

None of this should make anyone sanguine. Globalization makes it easier for terrorists to acquire the tools of their trade and to move about. The odds also favor terrorists, in that one success can compensate for multiple failures. Modern technology, possibly including weapons of mass destruction, increases the possibility that any terrorist success will cause damage of great magnitude. In addition, Iraq is producing a new generation of experienced terrorists along the lines that Afghanistan did two decades ago.