A LOT of panic has followed the Dec. 2 armed assault in San Bernardino, Calif., that left 14 people dead and 21 wounded. It was the worst international terrorist attack in the United States since the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, surpassing the death toll in that attack by one. U.S. President Barack Obama has labeled the attack as a new type of terrorist threat, while Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has used the attack as grounds to call for a ban preventing all Muslims from entering the United States.
I don’t often editorialize in the Security Weekly, but I believe it is important to set the record straight and to place the San Bernardino attack in the proper perspective.
Not a New Form of Terrorism
First, as I noted in a piece I wrote before the San Bernardino shooting, terrorist armed assaults are not a new thing. They have been a staple of the modern terrorist era: The Lod Airport attack by the Japanese Red Army and the Munich Olympic attacks in 1972, the 1985 Rome and Vienna airport attacks by the Abu Nidal Organization, Benjamin Smith’s multi-state shooting rampage and Buford Furrow’s attack against a Jewish day care center in 1999 are all examples.
Like Marxists and white supremacists, jihadists have frequently used armed assaults, including attacks conducted by grassroots jihadists. In fact, the first jihadist attack inside the United States that I am aware of was El Sayyid Nosair’s assassination of Jewish Defense League founder Rabbi Meir Kahane in November 1990 with a handgun. Nosair was a grassroots jihadist tied to al Qaeda’s ideology through his attendance at a mosque led by Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, also known as the “Blind Sheikh,” who was later convicted for the 1993 New York bomb plot, a wide-ranging terrorist conspiracy to bomb targets in the United States.
The counterterrorism successes of the United States and its allies following the 9/11 attacks made it more difficult for al Qaeda and its jihadist progeny to insert trained terrorist operatives into the United States. Instead, jihadist ideologues began to call for individual jihadists to think globally but act locally — in other words, to conduct attacks where they live. Among the first jihadist ideologues to advocate this leaderless resistance model was Abu Musab al-Suri in 2004. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula began advocating the strategy in 2009 — the year that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula-linked gunmen Carlos Leon Bledsoe and Nidal Malik Hasan carried out armed assaults in Little Rock, Ark., and Fort Hood, Texas, respectively. In early 2010, now-deceased al Qaeda core spokesman Adam Gadahn appeared in a video urging Muslims living in the United States to buy guns and shoot people.
These statements, when combined with a string of failed or foiled bomb plots, allowed us to forecast in May 2010 that jihadists in the United States were going to shift away from complex bomb plots toward easier and often deadlier armed assaults.
In light of this history — and our forecast — it is very difficult to accept Obama’s claim that the armed assaults in Paris and in the United States in San Bernardino; Garland, Texas; and Chattanooga, Tennessee, represent some new type of terrorist threat.
Do not panic and surrender your civil rights
In light of Trump’s statement about prohibiting Muslims from traveling to the United States, I’d like to repeat something I wrote in the Nov. 12 Security Weekly:
Both governments and the general public should keep the latest attack in the proper perspective to avoid succumbing to panic and acting rashly. Policies rooted in fear usually lead to waste and poor security decisions, while unrealistic demands from the public can cost huge amounts of money, encroach on personal privacy and still fail to guarantee security. Instead, a better response is to maintain realistic expectations and recognize that it is impossible to fully secure any target. Terrorist attacks that kill people are terrible and tragic, but the world is a dangerous place, and people sometimes plot to do terrible things. Every now and then, they will succeed.
I have spent most of my adult life investigating terrorist attacks, helping prosecute individuals involved in terrorism, protecting people and facilities, and educating people about how they can take responsibility for their own security. It grieves me deeply to see 14 people gunned down in cold blood as they were in San Bernardino. I also do not mean to trivialize the individual deaths; I have lost a friend and classmate and other colleagues to terrorist attacks. However, in the big picture, an attack that results in 14 deaths is terrible and tragic, but it is not an existential threat to our national security or survival, especially when compared with the 589,430 cancer deaths, more than 23,000 flu deaths and more than 32,000 traffic fatalities expected in the United States in 2015.
Some will argue that the 14 deaths in San Bernardino came all at once and not as separate cases as with cancer and the flu, and are therefore more significant, but this argument does not hold water with me. More than 227,000 people died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and fewer than 3,000 people died on 9/11. Yet the 9/11 attacks spawned a global sense of terror and a geopolitical reaction that had a profound and unparalleled impact upon world events over the past decade; the tsunami did not have the same type of impact. Clearly terrorism is having its desired effect and is causing people to fear it in a manner that is hugely disproportionate to the destruction it can actually cause.
This irrational fear is again seeping into popular politics, as seen in Trump’s statement about banning Muslims from traveling to the United States. As an American, I am offended that someone like Trump, who is running for the highest office in the country, would succumb to irrational fear and allow it to dictate U.S. policy. Moreover, the policies he is proposing would erode the personal liberties our country was founded upon and would scrap the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of religion enumerated in the U.S. Constitution. The United States is the world’s only remaining superpower and does not need to cower before the threat of low-level, sporadic armed violence by an extremely small percentage of the worldwide Muslim population that embraces the jihadist ideology.
That is why we need to keep the San Bernardino shootings in the proper perspective. Such incidents do not pose some revolutionary new threat, and the limited threat they do pose certainly does not merit laying aside our civil liberties and the principles our nation was founded upon. Furthermore, even if we were to suspend the Constitution and forfeit our personal liberties, the government still could not prevent every potential terrorist attack. It simply cannot be done — ask any dictator.
In the final analysis, the world is and always has been a dangerous place. All of us are going to die, and unfortunately some of us are certain to die in a manner that is brutal or painful. Recognizing that terrorist attacks — like car crashes and cancer and natural disasters — are part of the human condition permits people and the governments they empower to take prudent, measured actions to attempt to prevent these attacks and mitigate those that cannot be prevented.
It is the resilience and perseverance of the population that will determine how much panic a terrorist attack causes. By keeping a proper perspective and by separating terror from terrorism, citizens can deny the practitioners of terror the ability to magnify their reach and power. To quote C.S. Lewis when he was referring to a different kind of terror — that caused by the looming specter of nuclear warfare: “They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”
Scott Stewart supervises Stratfor’s analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.
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