New Year’s Resolutions on Terrorism: Panic, Politics, and the Prospects for Honesty in 2016

Broken resolutions are one of the key features of every American New Year’s celebration, and calling for integrity in an election year may be a particularly good way to ensure that any resolutions that follow will be broken early and often. Ever since the ISIS attacks in Paris, however, politics, the struggle for media visibility, and the business side of “selling” counterterrorism have all combined to turn a real but limited threat from terrorism into a form of panic.

Worse, they have combined to turn some aspects of counterterrorism into prejudice and bigotry against Muslims and Arabs. The end result has been calls for new measures that will actually serve the key objectives that movements like ISIS and Al Qaeda have in launching such attacks on the West. They will divide the West from the Muslim world and key Arab and Muslim partners in the fight against terrorism, and alienate the Muslim minorities in the United States and other Western and secular states.

This kind of opportunism not only mischaracterizes and exaggerates the threat, it aids terrorists and extremists, and this is one case where the United States and other Western states need to take the following four New Year’s resolutions seriously:

Stop exaggerating the threat: Terrorism is all too real and no one can deny that it repeatedly ends in tragedy. At the same time, it needs to be kept in proportion. The real world risks of terrorism in the United States fall short of virtually any other common cause of injury, death, and economic loss. To put these risks in perspective, the number of deaths from terrorism in the United States since 9/11 have been so low that Americans may well face a higher cumulative probability of dying from traffic accidents, food poisoning, crime and other causes if they celebrate a single New Year’s Eve than they do from terrorism over an entire year.

Americans are far more likely to die of obesity than terrorism over any given year – some estimates of the difference in risk make obesity 5,000 to 20,000 times more lethal during the period from 2012 to 2015. Every major disease is a more serious risk, violent crime is a far more serious risk, and even being struck by lightning is a higher risk.

Worst cases can happen in the future, but most have a low probability and the real worst cases are more likely to be the result of secular attacks on infrastructure – or acts of cyberterrorism -- than attacks by Islamist extremists. The threat to Americans overseas has been marginal to negligible except in conflict areas, and minor compared to the number of traveler deaths from traffic accidents and food poisoning.

Stop overreacting by introducing new counterterrorism measures without an analysis of their cost effectiveness. It is one thing to fight terrorism wisely, and on the basis of planning and advice from professionals in government and law enforcement officials. It is quite another to act on the basis of political opportunism and panic, and talk about building walls around the country, banning Muslims, limiting the Internet and civil liberties, and trying to reduce the domestic threat by bombing civilians in other countries.

There is also the matter of cost. Terrorism has led to the kind of panic where no one asks what we are already spending or for any measures of effectiveness that show the result. There certainly have been real benefits from the actions taken since 9/11, but the costs of these measures have been staggering.

OMB reports that the cost of all the various agency efforts in Homeland Defense reached $70.9 billion in FY2015, and the President’s request for FY2016 was $68.8 billion. The cost for the Department of Homeland Security alone made up $36 billion in FY2015, and the request was $37.3 billion.

If one looks at the cost of fighting terrorism outside the United States, virtually all of the budget for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) seems to go to fighting violent Islamic extremism in the form of terrorism, insurgencies, related conflicts, or in related aid and humanitarian relief. A study by the Congressional Research Service reports that the OCO request for the State Department was some $5.2 billion in FY2016. The request for the Department of Defense – where costs are also rising – was for $50.9 billion

If all of these costs are summed up to provide a rough total of the publicly available direct costs of the overall fight against terrorism, they add up to $124.9 billion a year. It is more than a little ironic that same politicians and figures that call for gross overreaction in the form of new measures usually claim to be budget hawks.

 Stop saying terrorism can be defeated rather than limited or contained, and stop focusing on ISIS to the exclusion of other threats. Shortly after 9/11, United States military leaders, intelligence officials, and counterterrorism experts warned quite correctly that any struggle against Islamic extremism would be a long war.

This was before the political upheavals in the Arab world, and the rise of extremist violence in Central and South Asia, civil wars in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. It is also important to realize that while ISIS has emerged as the most serious movement causing such violence, but it accounts for about a third of attacks and casualties caused by Islamist extremism, and the vast majority of attacks from all extremist sources are attacks on other Muslims.

No amount of force, and no amount of success against ISIS alone, has any prospect of ending the threat of violent Islamist extremism. It is the result of a massive array of pressures that include a global ideological struggle for the future of Islam, the impact of massive population pressure and growth, failed and corrupt governance, repression and a failed rule of law, crony capitalism, gross inequality in income distribution coupled to failed development, ethnic and tribal tensions, massive youth unemployment and alienation, and a host of other causes.

Long before the so-called Arab spring, the UN’s Arab development reports warned that this mix of forces could explode in terms of failed states, and would take a decade or more of effective leadership and reform to correct. The situation is now far worse in many states today, and it is totally unrealistic to assume that these forces will not lead to new forms of extremism regardless of what happens to ISIS and Al Qaeda. It also affects states that are the world’s major sources of energy exports and that are vital to the global economy and U.S. strategic interests.

The terrorism and fighting that results from these forces in the future will continue to be largely a clash within the Islamic world, rather than a clash between civilizations. However, Islamist extremists want to effectively end the ties between the Muslim states they want to transform into their view of religious rule and the West, to turn Muslims in the West into allies that will give them funds and volunteers, and isolate Islam from its roots in tolerance. They will not focus on the United States or the West but they will keep up terrorist attacks and ideological pressure indefinitely into the future.

We may degrade ISIS, Al Qaeda and the Taliban, or even break them up, but successors are certain to follow. The United States and both its Western and Arab allies will face a continuing threat for at least the next decade and possibly the next quarter century. Some attacks will succeed every year during that time, and more Americans and others outside the Muslim world will die – as well as thousands more within it. This is a risk we will have to live with, as we do with so many other risks on a day-to-day basis.

Clearly acknowledge the reality that we can only contain this threat – and eventually end it – by working with Muslim and Arab allies. It is, however, a threat we can sharply limit and contain – as long as we have strong Arab and Muslim partners, and no movement like ISIS, al Qaeda, or the Taliban can seize a stable base and become a real state.

There is no single act that can do more to empower Islamist extremists, and lead to more attacks on the United States and the West than to alienate the Muslims and allies in largely Muslim states that are critical to defeating Islamist extremists and preserving and asserting the real values of Islam. The case against bigotry and prejudice is not simply one of basic American values; it is a matter of necessity.

No one can silence extremism, or end it, except by countering its ideological base and dealing with its other causes. This has to come from with the Muslim and Arab world, and through working with Muslims in the West and with Muslim countries and governments.

Rejecting and alienating Muslims in the United States and the rest of the West, simply ends in aiding terrorism. Alienating the many Muslim countries that are our partners in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, campaigning on a ticket based on panic and fear, feeding religious prejudice and hatred, creates enemies, denies us allies, and deprives us of the influence needed to encourage reform. It is a form of political and personal opportunism that can make things far worse in 2016 and the years that follow.

Some New Year’s resolutions not only need to be made, they need to be kept. The United States does face a real threat from terrorist attacks both on U.S. soil and abroad, but it cannot meet this threat through partisanship, panic, and prejudice.


Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy