The Jihad Deficit

Terrorism scholar Daveed Gartenstein-Ross says Charles Kurzman is underestimating the threat al Qaeda will pose in the coming decade.

Charles Kurzman's essay ("Why Is It So Hard to Find a Suicide Bomber These Days?" September/October 2011) probes an important question and offers a balanced, intelligent answer. Kurzman fleshes out a significant structural weakness within the jihadi movement: its inability to draw as many recruits as it would like (and as many as some fear). His conclusion is undoubtedly correct that the terrorist attacks we may see in the near term "do not threaten our way of life, unless we let them." A great tragedy of the past decade is the way the blundering U.S. response to the very real threat of terrorism has often strengthened the enemy's hand.

But though his overarching argument is astute, I fear Kurzman's analysis understates the risks we'll face in the coming decade. Although he points to a decline in recruits entering terrorist training camps, militants have also flocked to live battlefields in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen. Real combat experience is one of the best drivers of the enemy's ingenuity. The era of austerity we're entering further ensures that fewer resources will be devoted to policing efforts to contain the threat.

Moreover, Kurzman appears overly dismissive when he writes the National Counterterrorism Center "calculates that Islamist terrorism claims fewer than 50 lives per day." Fifty lives a day adds up to a considerable total over the course of a year. It's even more significant when one considers militant groups' ability to set in motion retaliatory violence, as they did in Iraq, or exacerbate humanitarian crises, as al-Shabab has in Somalia. But these differences in threat assessment aside, I commend Kurzman for his thoughtful essay.

Senior Fellow
Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Washington, D.C.

Charles Kurzman replies:

I thank Daveed Gartenstein-Ross for his sobering reminder that recruits continue to get live battle training in numerous conflict zones. Fortunately, the number of militants in these areas, as estimated by U.S. government officials, continues to run much lower than the numbers trained in Afghanistan during the Taliban era and far lower than the numbers that many experts predicted after 9/11.

I agree that the death toll from terrorism is a terrible human tragedy -- how fortunate we are that it is not higher! Think what our world would be like if as many people died from terrorism (13,191 in 2010, according to the National Counterterrorism Center) as die each year from nutritional deficiencies (approximately 418,000 per year, according to World Health Organization estimates). Global concern need not be calibrated solely with fatalities, but even well-informed people may be unaware of these disparities in scale.



Dept. of Irony

Some readers didn't quite get our joke.

Eric Pape's dispatch from Luxembourg ("The Lap of Luxembourgery," September/October 2011) was an experiment in irony -- an attempt to poke fun at the type of parachute journalism that leads Western journalists to make sweeping generalizations about the countries they visit based on brief discussions with cab drivers and hotel clerks. We thought that over-the-top phrases such as the "armpit of the European Union" and descriptions of a "young revolutionary in the making, forced into exile for his creative vision" would tip people off that we weren't quite serious. Judging by the comments the piece generated online, some folks don't seem to have gotten the joke.

"How can you get the essence of a country with such a short visit and by talking to largely unrepresentative persons? I've lived there for more than 13 years, and it's nowhere near what you are picturing," fumed OLIVIER101.

"I am a teacher in Luxembourg, and one of my students brought in this article to know if it was really as uninformed as it appeared to her. I was flabbergasted by the terrible quality of the journalism. The sources Pape cites are poor representations of the country," complains MIKEYMANNON.

SUPERJHEMP called the article, "Typical bullshit ... to fool the American John Doe, who still thinks that the U.S. is the only legal country on Earth and all others are either evil communist leftovers or some lost spots undermined by Islam."

Pape found himself compared to Hitler and called a cancer on American journalism by angry Luxembourgers. His hard work was dismissed as the "ramblings of a jealous Parisian." (Sorry, Eric!)

A few folks got it, though. MARTEILLE sighed, "For a moment, I thought the author was being serious here. Kind of wish I was born in Luxembourg. Oh well."