As terrorist plots against the United States have piled up in recent months, politicians and the news media have sounded the alarm with a riveting message for Americans: Be afraid. Al Qaeda is on the march again, targeting the country from within and without, and your hapless government cannot protect you.
It used to be the commies that we needed to fear, because they were getting closer to our shores every time a domino was predicted to fall.
But the politically charged clamor has lumped together disparate cases and obscured the fact that the enemies on American soil in 2009, rather than a single powerful and sophisticated juggernaut, were a scattered, uncoordinated group of amateurs who displayed more fervor than skill.
China and the Soviet Union and Viet Nam and all the other commies were lumped into the world-wide Communist conspiracy.
Analysts urge a calmer, more strategic assessment of the recent rash of violent schemes insist that the country is far safer than it was in 2001. They also argue that since the goal of terrorism is to spread terror, hyperbole about threats only does the extremists’ work for them.
As did talk of the Red terror.
Charles E. Allen, a 40-year C.I.A. veteran served as the top intelligence official at the Department of Homeland Security from 2007 to early last year. Exaggerated news coverage and commentary, he said, “creates an atmosphere of tension and fear, and to me that’s exactly the wrong way to go.” Mr. Allen said the United States needed “resilience” in the face of the terrorist threat. He noted with admiration that public transportation barely paused in London in 2005 when 52 people were killed by four suicide bombers attacking the subway and a bus. “I believe in heightened attention to security; I just don’t believe hysteria is useful,” Mr. Allen said.
Unless used by a politician to score points.
The term “Al Qaeda,” used as a catchall in many of the plots, blurs important distinctions. By most accounts, apart from possibly the Zazi case, none of the 2009 cases appears to be directly tied to “Al Qaeda central,” as experts refer to the Pakistan-based group led by Mr. bin Laden. Others involved ersatz “Qaeda” agents who actually worked for the F.B.I. Still others, including the Christmas Day attempt, had links to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a loosely linked affiliate of Mr. bin Laden’s group in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
Blurring distinctions is important for the right wing crowd.
In 2008, in his book “Leaderless Jihad,” Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist and former C.I.A. officer who has long studied terrorism networks, wrote that Al Qaeda was in decline, to be replaced by dispersed terrorists for whom it provided mostly inspiration. The new generation of extremists, he believed, would be less skilled and would likely pose less of a threat than the network responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Dr. Sageman said he saw no reason to revise that judgment today. The plots of the last year should be carefully analyzed and the findings used to improve counterterrorism, not turned into fuel for thoughtless anti-Muslim panic and discrimination, he said. “If we overreact and upset 1.5 billion Muslims,” Dr. Sageman said, referring to the global total, “then we’ll have a lot bigger problem on our hands.”
A memorial for the 13 people shot at Fort Hood in Texas in November. It was the deadliest domestic terrorism attack of the year