I am traveling in India now where concerns are high about the possibility that foreign or homegrown terrorists may attack the country during next week's Commonwealth Games. Such concerns are understandable where in the past decade, jihadist fanatics have attacked India's Parliament, blown up trains, and, less than two years ago, launched a three-day suicide assault on Mumbai, in all, killing hundreds and injuring thousands. Added to this is an unfortunate history of communal violence between India's Hindu and Muslim communities that has, since 2001, produced riots and other clashes that, according to official statistics, have left 2,234 dead and 21,460 injured. This is considered an improvement over the even bloodier 1990s. Tensions are high as people await a high court's final decision on Ayodha, a holy site claimed by both Hindus and Muslims, and the cause of past bloodshed.
With three shooting wars between mostly Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan since the 1947 partition, several military confrontations between the two nuclear powers, plus an undulant guerrilla war in Kashmir, the threat to security is real. It is from this temporary perspective that I look back upon the current jihadist terrorist threat in the United States.
The global terrorist enterprise inspired by al Qaeda's and similar ideologies has its own geographies. A map of jihadist terrorist attacks since 9/11 will show that its center lies along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, spreading to Northwest India. Subsidiary and allied movements carry on terrorist campaigns that stain the map in Iraq, Algeria, Yemen, Somalia. Beyond these, dark patches appear in the Caucasus, across sub-Saharan Africa, the rest of the Indian subcontinent, Indonesia and the Philippines. Beyond these are outlying spots indicating isolated attacks in Europe. The U.S. gets a few dots.
Concentration does not mean central direction. The situation on the ground is more complex. Parasitic jihadists do better where they can attach themselves to more deeply-rooted local conflicts as in Iraq, Afghanistan—where they ride on the back of the Taliban, where they exploited resistance to the American invasion, in Chechnya where they have exploited Chechen's historic resistance to Russia, in Yemen, Algeria, Somalia, and the Southern Philippines, but not so well in Palestine where rival extremists see them as competitors.
Al Qaeda's historic center has been weakened although not wiped out. It inspires a global struggle through the Internet, in recent months espousing a do-it-yourself ethic, exhorting on-line followers to do whatever they can wherever they are. The growth of the Internet, where many jihad terrorists begin their journey, the proliferation of jihadist websites since 9/11, the increase in the number of English-language jihadist websites, the increased volume and sophistication of al Qaeda's communications, the jihadist sales pitches made by native-born Americans like Adam Gadahn, Anwar al-Awlaki, and Omar Hamami facilitate the message to an American audience. And it has gained some traction among disappointed young men, restless souls, people in personal crisis, those seeking violent adventure. These are one-off responses, not yet an underground movement.
Quantifying terrorism is slippery business. The recent Congressional report indicates that 63 individuals were arrested or convicted of jihadist terrorism this year, but that combines different categories. Some of those convicted were the subjects of investigation and arrests in previous years. Nonetheless, my own analysis of jihadist radicalization in the United States since September 11, 2001, which was issued earlier this year by the RAND Corporation as Would-Be Warriors indicates a marked increase in both the number of cases and the number of individuals involved in 2009. Authorities have discovered additional plots and made further arrests in 2010.
The good news is that the numbers continue to be small—I counted 125 out of an American Muslim population of approximately 3 million, evidence of veins of resentment and handfuls of hotheads, but no terrorist underground, which based upon the impressive record of federal and local law enforcement, would be quickly rolled up. Half of the 46 cases uncovered since 9/11 involved a single individual. Only three actually succeeded in getting as far as an attempt, and only two succeeded in causing fatalities, both lone gunmen: Carlos Bledsoe who killed one soldier and wounded another at an Army recruiting station in Arkansas and Major Nidal Hasan, who opened fire on fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 and wounding 31.
Terrorist recruiting is also affected by events. The American-led invasion of Iraq and American involvement in Afghanistan were portrayed by al Qaeda's propagandists as evidence of American hostility toward Islam and inspired some. The American-supported Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006 facilitated the recruiting of Somali-Americans. James Elshafoy, one of those arrested in 2004 for plotting to blow up New York's subway said he was angered by friends who went to school within Staten Island displaying signs that said "God Bless America" on the front and "Kill Arab Babies" on the back. America's current wave of Islamo-phobia will likely produce new recruits who are unable to distinguish between media-magnified manifestations of anti-Islamic hostility and America's tradition of religious freedom and tolerance for diversity of beliefs.
It is highly likely that the United States will be the target of further terrorist attacks, abroad and at home. It is not an underestimation of this threat or evidence of substandard zeal in addressing it to say that these attacks will not bring down the republic. We have come through wars, depressions, natural and man-made disasters, indeed higher levels of domestic terrorist violence than that we face today. Our foes cannot destroy this nation. That capability is ours alone.
Brian Michael Jenkins is a Senior Advisor to the President of the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on NationalJournal.com on September 27, 2010. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.