Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Summer 2006
Volume 12, Number 2

The Myth of the Omnipresent Enemy

"Is There Still a Terrorist Threat? The Myth of the Omnipresent Enemy" by John Mueller, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2006, pp.2-8.

John Mueller asks a question that, if answered reasonably, undermines the basis of current American foreign policy. We are constantly assured that we face a threat from terrorists. Noah Feldman, e.g., in a work discussed elsewhere in this issue, claims that withdrawal from Iraq would result in a chaotic situation that would breed terrorists. They cannot be deterred by conventional means; is not the principal task confronting American foreign policy, then, the destruction of terrorist groups before they inflict more attacks comparable to 9-11?

If the terrorists pose so substantial a threat, Mueller inquires, why have there been no terrorist attacks in America since the destruction of the World Trade Center? It is not difficult to prepare an attack: a few chemicals suffice. Further, American security forces cannot possibly watch every person in the United States. And yet there have been no attacks since 2001. Could it be that that terrorist threat has been much exaggerated? "If al Qaeda operatives are as determined and inventive as assumed, they should be here by now. If they are not yet here, they must not be trying very hard or must be far less dedicated, diabolical, and competent than the common image would suggest."(p.3)

To this the response is obvious. Has not America substantially strengthened its security measures since the dire days of 2001? Perhaps only the vigilance of the FBI, CIA, NSA, and other guardians of freedom has saved us from destruction. Mueller finds this response unconvincing. "It would take only one or two guys with a gun or an explosive to terrorize vast numbers of people. . .Accordingly, the government's plans would have to be nearly perfect to thwart all such plans. Given the monumental imperfection of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, and the debacle of FBI and National Security Agency programs to upgrade their computers to better coordinate intelligence information, that explanation seems far-fetched. Moreover, Israel still experiences terrorism even with a far more extensive security apparatus." (p.3)

Mueller prefers a different explanation. Perhaps there have been no terrorist attacks because there are no terrorist cells in the United States. Mueller here cites what Herbert Hoover would have called a "powerful statistic". According to a secret FBI report in 2005, the Bureau "had been unable to identify a single true al Qaeda sleeper cell anywhere in the country." (p.5)

But why are there no terrorists? Given the success of the 9-11 attack, why were there no further attacks? Why did not al Qaeda follow up its advantage? And what of the fear, endlessly exploited by the neoconservatives, that the "axis of evil" will deliver WMD to terrorist groups?

Mueller once more replies with a challenge to the conventional wisdom. The 9-11 attack did not strengthen al Qaeda---far from it. Even states not well disposed to America have no interest in supporting terrorist groups that can easily turn against them. "No matter how much they might disagree on other issues (most notably on the war in Iraq), there is compelling incentive for states---even ones such as Iran, Libya, Sudan, and Syria---to cooperate in cracking down on al Qaeda, because they know that they could easily be among its victims. . .thousands of terrorists have been rounded, or rolled, up overseas with U.S. aid and encouragement." (p.6) Further, according to Fawaz Gerges, an authority on Islamicist movements, even among Islamic groups that favor jihad, al Qaeda is regarded as 'irresponsible, reckless adventurers who endanger the whole movement. In this view 9/11 was a sign of al Qaeda's desperation, isolation, fragmentation, and decline, not of its strength." (pp.7-8)

Political science is not praxeology, and Mueller's analysis is admittedly speculative. But if he is right, it would not be the first time that an alleged threat has been used by the American government to curtail civil liberties. Mueller does not suggest that terrorism should be totally ignored. But he concludes by pointing out "that the lifetime chance of an American being killed by international terrorism is about one in 80, 000---about the same chance of being killed by a comet or a meteor. . . The massive and expensive homeland security apparatus erected since 9/11 may be persecuting some, spying on many, inconveniencing most, and taxing all to defend the United States against an enemy that scarcely exists." (p.8)


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