Reflections on Terrorism

Reflections on Terrorism

Fifteen years ago, al Qaeda terrorists used commercial airplanes to attack the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. Another aircraft crashed in rural Pennsylvania; it was believed to be en route for another attack but passengers on the plane prevented the terrorists from achieving their goal.

The events of 9/11/2001 were the deadliest terrorist attack in world history and the most devastating foreign attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor. In the aftermath, the Bush administration launched a military incursion in Afghanistan when the Taliban, which controlled most of the country, refused to extradite Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda. A war against Iraq soon followed. The Patriot Act was passed in late October 2001, which gave security officials great leeway in monitoring Americans’ communications. The Department of Homeland Security was established; several agencies were put under this cabinet-level body, including Customs and Border Protection, Immigration, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In addition, passenger air security was nationalized with the creation of the Transportation Security Administration.

Following 9/11, there was great fear at the time that additional attacks were almost certain as al Qaeda appeared to be a dangerous and formidable foe. Given the tenor of the times, a strong reaction was perfectly reasonable.

However, as time has passed, it does appear that 9/11 was an outlier. Although terrorist attacks remain rather frequent, nothing really compares to the events on that clear September morning. But now, a decade and a half later, the question of how to provide security against terrorism remains.

On several occasions, we have discussed 9/11 in Weekly Geopolitical Reports near the anniversary of the event. In light of the recent anniversary, we will discuss terrorism in this report, putting it into historical context. As always, we will conclude with the impact on financial and commodity markets.

Terrorism: A Look at the Numbers

The University of Maryland’s program of the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) has created a global database on terrorist activities. It describes a terrorist act as “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.”1 To be included as an incident, the event must have these three characteristics:

1. The incident must be intentional; premeditation and calculation are necessary.

2. The incident must entail some violence or an immediate threat of violence.

3. The terrorists must not be state actors.2

In addition, it must meet two of the following three criteria:

1. The act must be aimed at attaining a political, economic, religious or social goal.

2. There must be evidence of an intention to coerce, intimidate or convey some other message to a larger audience than the immediate victims.

3. The action must be outside the context of legitimate warfare activities.3

In addition, the database treats events as separate if they occur in different parts of an area but are perpetrated by the same individual or group. Thus, 9/11 was comprised of four incidents, two in New York, one in Pennsylvania and one in Washington, D.C.

The chart below shows U.S. terrorist events per year along with the fatalities.

The attacks in 2001 are evident on the chart. So, it is no surprise that 9/11 has become such a seminal event in the American psyche. However, a further read of the data suggests that terrorist acts on U.S. soil are actually quite common. Note that there were a high number of terrorist events in the early 1970s. Most of these were either tied to opposition to the Vietnam War or racially motivated. Since 1970, the START database shows that the median number of terrorist-related fatalities in the U.S. is 4.5 per year and the median number of events per year is 39.

The goal of terrorism is to terrorize a population and force a government to change its behavior. Most of the time, terrorist groups use this method because they lack the capacity to engage in full-scale military operations.4 In other words, terrorism is often viewed as a tactic deployed by the weak, but that doesn’t mean terrorism isn’t effective. Clearly, al Qaeda changed America’s behavior. However, it didn’t necessarily change U.S. behavior in a way that helped its cause. Al Qaeda has lost most of its leadership due to persistent strikes by the U.S. military. In many respects, al Qaeda has been overshadowed by Islamic State. On the other hand, one of al Qaeda’s goals was to overthrow authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and replace them with nations that follow Islamic law. The current breakdown of Iraq and Syria may indeed foster that outcome.