Recruitment difficulties have created a bottleneck for Islamist terrorists' signature tactic, suicide bombing. These organizations often claim to have waiting lists of volunteers eager to serve as martyrs, but if so they're not very long. Al Qaeda organizer Khalid Sheikh Mohammed made this point unintentionally during a 2002 interview, several months before his capture. Mohammed bragged about al Qaeda's ability to recruit volunteers for "martyrdom missions," as Islamist terrorists call suicide attacks. "We were never short of potential martyrs. Indeed, we have a department called the Department of Martyrs."
"Is it still active?" asked Yosri Fouda, an Al Jazeera reporter who had been led, blindfolded, to Mohammed's apartment in Karachi, Pakistan. "Yes, it is, and it always will be as long as we are in jihad against the infidels and the Zionists. We have scores of volunteers. Our problem at the time was to select suitable people who were familiar with the West." Notice the scale here: "scores," not hundreds -- and most deemed not suitable for terrorist missions in the West. After Mohammed's capture and "enhanced interrogation" by the CIA, using methods that the U.S. government had denounced for decades as torture, federal officials testified that Mohammed had trained as many as 39 operatives for suicide missions and that the 9/11 attacks involved 19 hijackers "because that was the maximum number of operatives that Sheikh Mohammed was able to find and send to the U.S. before 9/11." According to a top White House counterterrorism official, the initial plans for 9/11 called for a simultaneous attack on the U.S. West Coast, but al Qaeda could not find enough qualified people to carry it out. Mohammed's claim that al Qaeda was "never short of potential martyrs" seems to have been false bravado.
Since 9/11, the scale of terrorist recruitment has been further reduced. During the preceding five years of Taliban rule, tens of thousands of recruits had passed through terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, according to U.S. officials. But after 9/11, terrorist training there dropped considerably. In recent statements, U.S. intelligence officials estimate that fewer than 2,000 militants have been trained in the frontier regions of northwestern Pakistan, the world's largest concentration of terrorist camps. Militants interviewed by Pakistani journalists say that most camps in the region consist of only one to three dozen men. (If the camps were any larger, they would be easy targets for American satellite surveillance and missile attacks.) Hundreds of foreign fighters received training in Iraq, but that route was largely shut down by the tribes of Anbar province when they abandoned the insurgency in 2006. Another several hundred militants are said to be training at terrorist camps in Yemen and Somalia, according to public comments by intelligence officials. All told, there appear to be several thousand Muslim terrorists in the world -- a not-insignificant total, but far fewer than a decade ago.
Islamist terrorists have found it especially hard to recruit in the United States. Al Qaeda's leaders have encouraged American Muslims to attack the United States from within, and the U.S. government has identified the possibility of domestic Islamist terrorism as a serious threat. In early 2003, for example, Robert Mueller, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, told Congress that "FBI investigations have revealed militant Islamics [sic] in the U.S. We strongly suspect that several hundred of these extremists are linked to al Qaeda." Alarmists outside government have implied that the number of Muslim terrorists in the United States is even larger, perhaps in the thousands. However, all these estimates must be regarded as exaggerations. By the U.S. Justice Department's count, approximately a dozen people in the country were convicted in the five years after 9/11 for having links with al Qaeda. During this period, fewer than 40 Muslim Americans planned or carried out acts of domestic terrorism, according to an extensive search of news reports and legal proceedings that I conducted with David Schanzer and Ebrahim Moosa of Duke University. None of these attacks was found to be associated with al Qaeda. A month after Taheri-Azar's attack in Chapel Hill, Mueller visited North Carolina and warned of Islamist violence "all over the country." Fortunately, that prediction was also wrong.
To put this in context: Out of more than 150,000 murders in the United States since 9/11 -- currently more than 14,000 each year -- Islamist terrorists accounted for fewer than three dozen deaths by the end of 2010. Part of the credit for this is surely due to the law-enforcement officers and community members who have worked to uncover plots before they could be carried out. But fewer than 200 Muslim Americans have been involved in violent plots since 9/11, most of them overseas, so credit for the low level of violence must be due primarily to the millions of Muslims who have refrained from answering the call to terrorism.
Of course, more terrorists may still be in hiding or under surveillance, or have been deported or jailed for other offenses. There is no way to know how many -- so there is no way to completely debunk paranoid fears about massive secret threats. In any case, even a single violent plot is too many, and I do not doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world, to paraphrase the adage that is often attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead. Islamist terrorists are likely to continue to kill and maim thousands of people around the world each year for the foreseeable future.
However, terrorism accounts for only a tiny proportion of the world's violence. Every day, according to the World Health Organization, approximately 150,000 people die around the world. The U.S. government's National Counterterrorism Center calculates that Islamist terrorism claims fewer than 50 lives per day -- fewer than 10 per day outside Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. By way of comparison, approximately 1,500 people die each day from civilian violence, plus an additional 500 from warfare, 2,000 from suicides, and 3,000 from traffic accidents. Another 1,300 die each day from malnutrition. Even in Iraq while it was suffering the world's highest rate of terrorist attacks, they caused less than one-third of violent deaths. In other words, terrorism is not a leading cause of death in the world. If we want to save lives, far better to divert a small portion of the world's counterterrorism budgets to mosquito netting.