Rune Engelbreth Larsen
The Terror Myth

After the collapse of the East Block and the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, terrorism has truly replaced communism as the West's favorite "threat". Hardly a week passes without we hear terrorism vividly depicted as a threat against world peace, even though the true proportions and impact of global terrorism cannot even begin to be compared to the security risks that characterized the Cold War.

There is actually a considerable distance between the actual global terror threat and the stage-managed threat of modern mythology. We are dealing with a myth which on the one hand is strengthening the self-image of global terror organizations, being, on the other hand, abused to curb civic rights and increase military spending in the name of fighting terrorism. A myth, which thus creates undue fear while blocking the solution of far more important global problems.

But is there no danger from terrorism, then? Of course there is. Only the global terror threat seems to be of a very limited extent.

The terror threat depends very much on who you are and where you are, since the danger of a terror attack is somewhat larger in, e.g., Israel than in Iceland. After the attacks on September 11, however, it seems obvious to focus on the impact of terrorism in the United States.

During a ten-year period from 1993-2002, terror attacks have claimed 3,397 victims in the United States (including the perpetrators). This includes the attack on September 11, Timothy McVeigh's and Terry Nichol's bombing of a government building in Oklahoma City, the anthrax terror in 2001, attacks on abortion clinics, racist killings, etc.

This, however, is a comparatively modest number of casualties compared to other spectacular causes of death, whether inside or outside the United States.

In the United States, for instance, each year 28,663 persons are killed by firearms, 42,116 are killed in road accidents and between 44,000 and 98,000 die because of medical errors in the health system.

This means, that medical errors alone have caused the deaths of between 500,000 and one million persons in the United States, while terrorist actions as mentioned have claimed about 3,400 victims in the same period.

The point of comparing these numbers is not, however, to pursue a morbid logic, which would claim that the victims of terrorist actions can or should be compared with victims of, e.g., road accidents or medical errors. The fundamental point here is not whether we have 340, 3,400 or 34,000 civilian victims after ten years of terrorist attacks - according to any humane consideration, 3,397 victims are 3,397 too many.

The immediate reaction to, e.g., three thousand people killed by terrorist actions in one day is quite obviously not the same as the reaction to forty two thousand road kills in a year. If the United States did not give the persecution of the perpetrators of the terror attacks on September 11, 2001 an extremely high priority, and if the American population were to react to the attack otherwise than with a collective shock and anger of considerably greater dimensions than the reaction to an ever so high number of victims of medical errors, any difference between intentional mass murder and unintentional accidents would have been reduced to cool and abstract mathematics.

But an immediate emotional reaction to such an attack, resulting in very violent and targeted efforts to catch and punish the perpetrators, is one thing; the necessity of keeping the reactions reasonably proportioned when considering the possible long-term political reactions - and their consequences - aiming to prevent future attacks. At this point, the understandable and more spontaneous emotional reactions must necessarily give way to objective and calm reflection and consideration.

Whether the aim is to limit the risk of traffic accidents or terrorist attacks, there must be some sort of balance between the extent of the threat and the nature of the effort.

The terror agenda does not only, however, push forward at its own lightning speed, it also ousts a large number of important topics from the national political and economical agenda, not least in the United States, a country with 33 million poor people. What is worse, it is ousting important topics from the global political and economical agenda in a world where every day, 10,000 people die of AIDS and 16,400 children under five years of age starve to death - not just on one single, isolated and tragic key date, but every single day, month after month, year after year. Of the world's about 6,2 billion people, 1,2 billion must live for less than one dollar a day; meanwhile, the US defense budget is approaching 400 billion dollars a year. More than 840 million people are undernourished, and 799 million of these live in third world countries, of which we find more than 153 million children of less than five years, six million of which die every year.

In spite of the fact that victims of terrorist actions constitute a very minimal number compared, e.g., to the number of victims of hunger, the immense political, military and financial effort claimed to be made against the terrorist threat is nearly astronomical compared to what is done against much worse global problems.

Osama bin Laden has become the personification of terrorism as such. However, is the fear of his person in proportion to the actual threat?

Even though Al Qaeda theoretically has a death-defying will a large number of voluntary martyrs in loosely organized terrorist cells as well as weapons and regular military training camps in several countries at its disposal, its actual achievements in terms of fighting the West or creating an Islamic caliphate are actually minimal trifles. Even if it is far from being a paper tiger, Al Qaeda is definitely no important global power either.

If we bear in mind the considerable anti-American sentiment in the public of many Islamic countries, the commotion created in Western Europe by certain fundamentalist Islamic groups as well as the hints from certain populist politicians that European and American Muslims might be some sort of "fifth column" in Al Qaeda's terror war, the negligible extent of the terrorists' "success" becomes even more conspicuous and surprising.

How great should one, in other words, judge the actual willingness among the world's Muslims to give active and military support to Al Qaeda and commit terrorist attacks against Western civilians to be? It seems to be extremely small. There is obviously a very great difference between giving verbal support to the contents of Osama bin Laden's specific criticism of the United States - the kind of verbal support we can see in polls - and actually donning the weapons of terrorism for that reason.

The fact that terrorism is simply an extremely rare phenomenon in the Western world in general and almost limited to situations bordering on war or civil war (e.g. Egypt, Kashmir or Israel) indicates that at least the factual, global terror threat is quite simply very small.

If this fact is hard to face, it is not least because of the inevitable shock on September 11, 2001 and the subsequent fear that airliner upon airliner should collide with one skyscraper after the other in the following days, weeks and months. Nevertheless, this did not happen.

The global terror myth, that is, the image we get of the current force of global terrorism in general and Al Qaeda terrorism in particular, is in other words, vastly exaggerated if we consider the magnitude of the terrorist actions that actually took place.

But, what if?

What if Al Qaeda were to get hold of weapons of mass destruction? Osama bin Laden regards it as a "religious duty" for Muslim countries to acquire nuclear weapons, as an example.

Non-conventional weapons, chemical, biological and atomic weapons do, of course, constitute a possible threat scenario in its completely own kind, which politicians and military spokesmen repeatedly air in the media. The fact of the matter is, however, that it is extremely unlikely that Al Qaeda or any other terrorist organization should ever be able to manufacture what we mean when speaking of weapons of mass destruction. Making such weapons is far more difficult and dangerous for those involved than it usually appears.

It is not very likely that terrorist organizations would ever become able to produce real atomic weapons - not only is this extremely complicated and not only does it demand considerable resources - it is simply too easy to discover a nuclear weapons program in time. The alternative is a so-called "dirty bomb", where a conventional bomb is wrapped in radioactive material - only this is not a nuclear weapon. The danger of such a bomb is more due to the conventional explosive force than to the radioactive material.

Production of chemical or biological weapons of mass destructions is hardly more realistic. News stories about Al Qaeda planning massive terror attacks against European and American cities, including poisoning of drinking water, chemical attacks against metro stations and bomb attacks against nuclear plants are nonetheless quite frequent and serve to provoke an unnecessary level of fear.

To date, the only notable examples of the use of chemical weapons in terrorist actions stem from the Japanese organization Aum Shinrikyo, an apocalyptic sect led by the guru Shoko Asahara, who preaches a mixture of Tibetan Buddhism and science fiction and who in his days of prosperity may have commanded a fortune of more than one billion dollars.

Aum Shinrikyos most extensive terror attack was directed against Tokyo's metro on March 20, 1995, where as many as 15 subway stations were attacked - twelve persons died. Even though such an attack is both odious and terrifying, there is still a long way to the category of weapons of "mass" destruction.

In comparison, Al Qaeda has attempted to manufacture weapons containing cyanide. It is, however, very difficult to use large quantities of cyanide in a terror weapon because of transportation problems, and because it will quickly dissipate and dissolve in open spaces. According to intelligence sources, the organization has most likely had no success at all in constructing weapons of that kind: "They do have some primitive capabilities, but the problem is weaponizing (…) All of the evidence is that they have not been able to do that." (New York Times, 11.11.2001).

Furthermore, an official from the Department of Homeland Security claims to the Washington Post that even though Al Qaeda should succeed in using nerve gas for terrorist actions, the number of casualties would be small: "Psychologically, use of nerve agent in the United States would send people over the deep end, but it probably wouldn't kill very many people." (Washington Post, December 12, 2002).

Another possibility for the terrorist organizations is, consequently, to abstain from manufacturing actual weapons and instead attempt to spread chemical or bacteriological substances directly into drinking water, food supplies or from skyscrapers. But the report "Atomic material, gas and microbes as terrorist weapons" from the Norwegian Defense Research Institute, which analyzes various terror groups' interest for and use of weapons of mass destruction, conclude that a number of published terror scenarios are simply totally unrealistic: "A release of anthrax from the Empire State Building has been a popular horror scenario in the terrorism literature, but such an attack would - even if it was carried out during the night (where the bacteria would not be killed by sunlight) - probably fail for a number of technical reasons."

Politicians have exaggerated the possibility as well as the threat from terrorist's potential possession of weapons of mass destruction, as is emphasized by a number of scientific experts, according to the Financial Times. The chairman of UK Chemical Weapons Convention Advisory Committee point out that fear and panic will probably have more important consequences during a terror attack in London's underground railway than the chemicals, even if a nerve gas such as ricin (one of the most deadly) were to be used: "[S]ome people would die but not a huge number - high explosives would be far more dangerous." (Financial Times, February 1, 2003).

Steve Emmett, an expert of nerve gas from the University of Oxford, also calls for circumspection in the same newspaper: " It's easy to play up the risks and encourage panic. In fact the risks of mass poisoning [from any chemical agent] are very low."

To some extent, ingenuity and extreme contempt for death may compensate for the lack of capability of manufacturing effective weapons of mass destruction. The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 is the example of this par excellence and bears all the signs of being an invitation to follow its example. But even if a similar attack should actually succeed once more, air travel will remain extremely safe within a considerable margin.

Of course, we must never say never, we even have to consider the possibility of future terrorist actions of large proportions. But it is just as important to preserve the recognition of the limited risk for the individual citizen as it is to face the fact that at least there can be no military solution to the fight against these threats.

During the cold war, where to atomic powers were confronted and for all practical purposes had split large parts of the world between them, military hawks and industrial lobbyists did have a certain right in arguing the deterrence of the arms race and the resulting paradoxical stabilization if world peace, because none of the two blocks would risk a war which in a very final way could become the greatest as well as the last of all wars. But not even ten times as high arms budgets would today be able to secure the country or the civilian population efficiently against this new kind of attack, which of course the political power elite who swear by increased military budgets quite expectedly are the last people in the world to take the consequences of.

The symptom treatment in the form of increased surveillance and reduced civil rights on one side, and the risk of more international military actions on the other may turn out to be a very high price to pay to sustain the paradoxical and misleading terror myth. A myth, which at the same time maintains and expands the existing disparity between the enormous proportions of global problems such as famine, illness and the lack of basic freedom rights, and the overexposed terror threat which is carrying off so much of the attention. A myth, which primarily benefits the self-image of the terrorist groups and an enhancement of the fear, they succeed in creating thanks to the exaggerated coverage.

The power of terror is not primarily the specific damage it can cause but rather the fear and panic that follow terrorist actions (or threats of terrorist actions). The more we contribute to exaggerate this threat, the more do we, inevitably, play the terrorists' game.

October 2003