The tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has become an occasion for reevaluating the terrorism threat to the United States. Three key questions have been raised. What is the status and current strength of al-Qa`ida, the group that perpetrated 9/11? Have measures taken since 9/11 made Americans any safer today? Why has the United States not been attacked again—at least in the sense of being attacked on a scale approaching 9/11? These are worthwhile questions, although they each involve a restricted perspective toward terrorism and counterterrorism. The first is inherently limited by being focused on only a single variety of terrorism or even just a single group. The second usually omits reference to any standard of success and failure in securing Americans from terrorism or to the costs and trade-offs entailed in obtaining a given degree of safety. The third question is usually a yearning for an explanation that would be too simple to be an accurate analysis of what has determined the amount of terrorism directed against the United States during the past decade.
9/11 was one of the most traumatic events in U.S. history. It powerfully shaped perceptions and emotions of the American public to a degree that few other events have. It is not an exaggeration to say that the thoughts of most Americans about terrorism and counterterrorism revolve almost entirely around 9/11. Most Americans believe a “war on terror” began with 9/11, notwithstanding all the terrorism and efforts to counter it before that one event. Trauma and emotion are not generally conducive to good understanding of any topic, terrorism included. It should not be surprising that Americans’ trauma-driven attitudes and beliefs about terrorism are misplaced or inaccurate in important respects.
Therefore, this article examines another set of questions, which are at least as useful as those posed above. How has 9/11 molded American attitudes about terrorism during the subsequent decade? To what extent do popular attitudes and perceptions conform with, or differ from, actual threats of terrorism today? Have counterterrorism policies been driven more by public perceptions than by the terrorist reality?
Inconsistent Interest in Counterterrorism
The enormous public reaction to a single event points to one important respect in which public perception diverges from reality. Public concern about terrorism and support for efforts to counter it tends to spike upward immediately after terrorist attacks and to subside gradually downward as time passes without another attack. Interest in counterterrorism thus produces a sawtooth pattern, and the policy priority and resources devoted to it tend to follow that pattern. Yet terrorist attacks are only the aperiodic outward manifestations of an underlying threat that does not vary with sudden upward spikes in a way that corresponds to changing public attitudes.
The off-the-chart spike in Americans’ concern about terrorism in response to 9/11 was another instance of the same phenomenon, albeit one greatly amplified by the salience and physical impact of the attack. The U.S. public and political response would lead one to believe that the terrorist threat to the United States was far greater on September 12, 2001 than it had been on September 10. This was not the case, however. Public (and by implication, political) attention to terrorism was probably too low before 9/11. With the overwhelming preoccupation the subject became after the attack, it was too high. The greatly augmented priority and resources devoted to counterterrorism since 2001 have assuredly mitigated threats, through responses ranging from defensive security measures at home to offensive actions against individual terrorists abroad. But it is still fair to ask whether, by any reasonable measure of how terrorism compares with other threats to U.S. security and of how resources can be efficiently utilized, the augmentation was an overreaction.
Like spikes of attention following earlier terrorist attacks, the one after 9/11 is subject to fading over time until another attack occurs. The spike after 9/11, however, was so high that any fade will persist longer before returning to the level of public interest in terrorism before 9/11. Terrorism is still a major public worry. In a Gallup poll taken in 2010, Americans ranked it alongside government debt at the top of their list of dangers to the well-being of the United States. To the extent the American public’s enthusiasm for vigorous counterterrorist measures has lessened at all since the first couple of years after 9/11, the lessening has little to do with an objective assessment of the status and strength of any foreign terrorist group. It instead is a function of—in addition to the usual pattern of interest fading over time—the competition for attention from economic and other national problems and a backlash against some measures taken in the name of counterterrorism (especially involving compromises of privacy and treatment of detained suspects) that have come to be seen as excesses.
The American View of Foreign Threats
Another attribute of public perceptions about terrorism in the decade since 9/11 stems from a habitual American way of perceiving any foreign security threat in terms of specific, named countries or groups or the leaders of those countries or groups. In that respect, the notion of a “war on terror”—terrorism being a tactic rather than a specific foe—always was, on the face of it, an unnatural fit with the American way of thinking about security threats as well as with logic. (As Zbigniew Brzezinski once observed, a “war on terror” is no more logical than a “war on blitzkrieg.”) Yet the term “war” was used given the popular demand for a strong, forceful response to the horror of 9/11. Americans made the concept of a “war on terror” fit more comfortably with their usual way of perceiving foreign threats by equating the war with a struggle against al-Qa`ida, the group that had perpetrated 9/11, and to some degree with the group’s leader, Usama bin Ladin.
The equation of counterterrorism with a fight against al-Qa`ida has pervaded much of the public discourse as well as the framing of public policy in the decade since 9/11. Analysis of almost any terrorist incident or terrorist-related discovery or individual is couched in terms of whether or not the subject of attention is “linked” to al-Qa`ida—the implication being that one should worry more if it is and less if it is not. A highly disproportionate share of U.S. resources expended in the name of counterterrorism have been directed against this one group. This particularly includes military operations in South Asia, especially a 10-year-old counterinsurgency in Afghanistan where the chief rationale has been to prevent al-Qa`ida from re-establishing a safe haven in the country.
The persistence of the equation of counterterrorism with a fight against al-Qa`ida is clearly illustrated by the “National Strategy for Counterterrorism” that the Barack Obama administration published in June 2011. The document would have been more aptly titled the “National Strategy for the War on al-Qa`ida,” because that is the strategy’s primary focus. All other terrorist acts or threats of terrorism in the world are noted and set aside in a few paragraphs.
If counterterrorism, as a subject of public discussion and governmental policy, were conceived as a result of a zero-based review conducted in 2011—unencumbered by the emotions from the disaster that struck on 9/11—the commentary and policies would look and sound much different. They would recognize that radical Sunni terrorism of the sort exemplified most recognizably by al-Qa`ida is only one manifestation of international terrorism. There would be further recognition that even within the radical Sunni variety of terrorism, al-Qa`ida is only one element. Bin Ladin himself recognized that al-Qa`ida would only be a part of the picture, even if the picture is narrowed to include only those radical Sunnis with a transnational bent. The group he established is called, in English, “The Base”—one he never intended would do everything itself but instead would be the base from which larger efforts would be inspired and grow.
A present-day, zero-based review also would avoid the terminological confusion in the way the name “al-Qa`ida” has come to be used. Sometimes it refers to the group that Bin Ladin led—the one that executed 9/11, the bombing of the USS Cole, and the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa. Often it is used much more loosely to refer to transnational Sunni terrorism in general. Sometimes it refers to some subset of that brand of terrorism, vaguely defined in terms of a group’s own adoption of the al-Qa`ida brand name or some other “links” to the al-Qa`ida of Bin Ladin. Besides the overall confusion regarding what is being discussed, this broad use of a single name misleadingly implies more structure and central direction of a phenomenon that is far more diffuse and decentralized.
Al-Qa`ida’s actual history in the past decade has made the discrepancy between popular perception and reality even greater than it was in the first years after 9/11. At the risk of oversimplification, that history can be summarized in two observations. First, al-Qa`ida narrowly defined—that is, the group that was led by Bin Ladin and is now headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri—is weaker and less capable of major operations than it was at the time of 9/11. That weakening has several causes, including U.S. kinetic operations in South Asia. Second, the broader phenomenon of Sunni jihadist terrorism to which the label al-Qa`ida is commonly applied is not weaker. Instead, it is even more widespread than it was 10 years ago. It has taken the form of a variety of individuals, cells, and groups on several continents.
These two observations together imply that the equation of counterterrorism with a fight against any single group is at least as misleading as at any time in the past 10 years. That equation obscures from where most of the initiative for terrorist operations is coming, which is at the periphery and not from a center in South Asia. This is true not only of groups in Asia and Africa (some, but not all, of which have adopted the al-Qa`ida name), but also would-be jihadist terrorists in the United States whose cases have come to light during the past few years.
The death of Bin Ladin in a U.S. raid in Pakistan in May 2011 has little direct effect on these patterns. As the materials confiscated in the raid confirmed, Bin Ladin had already been reduced in recent years to exhortation much more than direction. Bin Ladin’s role as an operational commander had become negligible, and his role as an inspiration and source of ideology, which was still substantial, will continue even with his death.
The far greater effect of the raid is on perceptions back in the United States. It is too soon to gauge the full effect. Bin Ladin’s passing may provide some beneficial corrective to the overly narrow focus on this one man, but it may also lead to a mistaken and detrimental belief that his departure has significantly reduced terrorist threats to the United States.
Paul R. Pillar is Visiting Professor and Director of Studies of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. He is a former deputy chief of the Counterterrorist Center at the Central Intelligence Agency. His latest book is Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform (Columbia University Press, 2011).
 Lydia Saad, “Federal Debt, Terrorism, Considered Top Threats to U.S.,” Gallup, June 4, 2010.
 “National Strategy for Counterterrorism,” U.S. White House, June 2011, available at www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/counterterrorism_strategy.pdf.