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.
Foundation for Defense of Democracies
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.