As terrorist plots against the United States have piled up in recent months, politicians and the news media have sounded the alarm with a riveting message for Americans: Be afraid. Al-Qaida is on the march again, targeting the country from within and without, and your hapless government cannot protect you.
But the politically charged clamor has lumped together disparate cases and obscured the fact that the jihadist enemies on American soil in 2009, rather than a single powerful and sophisticated juggernaut, were a scattered, uncoordinated group of amateurs who displayed more fervor than skill. Their weapons were old-fashioned guns and explosives — in several cases, duds supplied by FBI informants — with no trace of the biological or radiological poisons, let alone the nuclear bombs, that have long been the ultimate fear.
And though 2009 brought more domestic plots, and more serious plots, than any recent year, their lethality was relatively modest. Exactly 14 of the approximately 14,000 murders in the United States last year resulted from allegedly jihadist attacks: 13 people shot at Fort Hood in Texas in November and one at a military recruiting station in Little Rock, Ark., in June.
Such statistics would be no comfort, of course, if an attack with mass casualties succeeded some day.
Nor do they excuse the acknowledged missteps at the nation’s bulked-up security agencies that permitted a Nigerian student to carry a makeshift bomb onto a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day — the attempted attack that set off the flood of news coverage.
But even that near miss, said Mark M. Lowenthal, assistant director of the CIA for analysis from 2002 to 2005, may offer indirect evidence of the enemy’s diminished strength, compared with the coordinated attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Sending one guy on one plane is a huge step down,” Lowenthal said. “They’re less capable, even if they’re still lethal. They’re not able to carry out the intense planning they once did.”
Counterterrorism experts inside and outside the government are intensely debating the meaning of the flurry of plots last year, and there is no settled consensus. Somalia and Yemen have emerged decisively as jihadist hot spots that may pose a direct threat to the United States. CIA drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas have by no means ended the threat from there, as the Dec. 30 suicide bombing that killed seven CIA employees in nearby Afghanistan grimly underscored. The Internet continues to prove a powerful tool for radicalization, as long-distance propagandists stir the ire of young Muslims about American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But Lowenthal and others who urge a calmer, more strategic assessment of the recent rash of violent schemes insist that the country is far safer than it was in 2001. They also argue that since the goal of terrorism is to spread terror, hyperbole about threats only does the extremists’ work for them.
The 10 jihadist plots or attacks inside the United States in 2009 — a count by Bruce Hoffman, who studies terrorism at Georgetown University — had no evident links to one another and little in common beyond their apparent ideological motive.