Published 21 Oct 08
By Abigail R. Esman
World Defense Review columnist
Your Money or Your Life
If you're like most Americans, according to a recent survey, you are more likely to be worrying about your financial future these days than you are of terrorism: a full 81 percent of those questioned in a Decision Research poll said that the financial crisis "poses a greater threat to the quality of my life than does the threat of terrorism." [University of Oregon article] And in an August, 2008 Gallup survey, only two percent of Americans chose terrorism as the biggest problem in the US – the lowest level measured since 2001.
Fickle beings, people are. Remember the months after 9/11? People stopped buying stuff, not because they couldn't afford it, but because they didn't care anymore. They wanted things like family time, and picnics in the park, and puppies. Materialism went the way of Gimbels stores and Farrah Fawcett hair. What mattered was a job that made you happy, not a bank account that did.
Remember? It is, though, a difficult choice. Yet it is one that needs, for many reasons, to be made. Where do we focus our concentration? Which politicians can best guide us through the biggest threats?
From a statistical perspective, we are all more likely to face frighteningly real ramifications from the current economic crisis than from a terrorist attack, but let's bear in mind that the less money available for national security, the likelier an attack becomes – and the more damaging it will be.
And there is not much money left for national security anymore.
For terrorism experts, this makes Americans' lack of attention to the problem all the more disturbing. "Terrorist threats come and go," says Brent Smith, Chairman of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Arkansas. "They don't go away."
Smith would know; he was one of the first instructors in the US Army's counterterrorism education program as far back as 1980. More recently, he led a study by the National Institute of Justice that reviewed the behavior patterns of terrorists, both so-called "domestic" (usually environmentalists or right-wing radicals) and "international" (which may include foreigners living in the US, or Americans helping to support and promote terrorism abroad). What he found was that, contrary to most experts' expectations, "domestic" terrorists are more likely to strike farther away from home, in cities or states far from where they live, while (US-based) "international" terrorists look to attack nearby. But in both cases, this means an internal attack on US targets remains a very strong possibility, and in his view, increasingly so.
None of this is likely to surprise counterterrorism officials abroad. In Holland, the national security office AIVD (Algemene Inlichting en Veiligheids Dienst) recently warned of yet another upturn in radicalism among Muslim youth, and and even one of Holland's more extremist mosques, the Al-Soenah mosque in the Hague, has expressed concern. Officials also report a rise in crime among Dutch-Moroccans, particularly in drug dealing – an enterprise which Smith says can well be part of a drive to raise funds for weaponry to be used in a local attack or to support terrorist groups abroad.
Meantime, notes Smith, similar efforts are taking place in the US. Though many, especially civil rights groups, attack the FBI for its investigations of Muslims who have no direct tie to terrorist activity, in many cases those who are indicted are found to be involved in fundraising, he says. In the decade from 1996-2006, "335 persons were indicted under terrorism financing investigations, and about 80 percent of them have Islamic or Muslim names. These were people who were raising money in this country to support terrorism in the States or terrorist groups out of the country." Asked if they were likely to act locally, he replied that "yes, there are examples of people raising money to support groups so they can commit acts here in the US."
Where there is no financing from an outside source, he explains, groups "need to get it somewhere – so often people will turn to criminal activity as a source." Drug dealing within the country that you're targeting is common," he adds, although in the US, those crimes more frequently fund domestic than international terrorism.
And this, too, is a growing problem. Smith has been "surprised," he says, "at the continuing number of right-wing cases and environmental cases we see in this country. There is still a substantial domestic threat. People forget; it's been too many years since the Oklahoma City bombing. People have focused on 9/11. But there's more than that."
Partly, too, this may reflect the fact that many of those indicted for terrorism since 9/11 have been charged with other, "traditional crimes," such as manufacturing a silencer, or bank robbery – not terrorist activity. The FBI argues that these arrests represent preventive measures, a way of working proactively to avoid a strike altogether. Moreover, notes Smith, "it's also easier for the prosecutor, because these charges are easier to prosecute than an act of terrorism. Every time you infuse motive into a trial, it adds a layer of difficulty; so if you can avoid it, prosecutors are better off." The result? Americans are less aware than they perhaps should be of the prevalence of terrorist activity in the US, or the number of acts that have been blocked by effective FBI intervention.
This might also be explained by the most important finding of Smith's study: that in the case of international terrorism, fundraising can come long before an actual attack, whereas in domestic cases, things tend to move more swiftly. Consequently, officials may move in on some "international" terrorism suspects too early to collect enough evidence to show actual terrorist activity – a trend he hopes will now be changed by his research.
"I think the FBI has done a great job of intervention," he says, "and because of that, peole get complacent and think things aren't so bad. But there are still small groups who can pull off major damage. We have to remain diligent."
So please, America – do watch your wallets. But also don't forget to watch your backs.
— Abigail R. Esman is an award-winning author-journalist who divides her time between New York and The Netherlands. In addition to her column in World Defense Review, her work has appeared in Foreign Policy, Salon.com, Esquire, Vogue, Glamour, Town & Country, The Christian Science Monitor, The New Republic and many others. She is currently working on a book about Muslim extremism and democracy in the West to be published by Praeger in 2010.
Visit Esman on the web at abigailesman.com.
© 2008 Abigail R. Esman
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