Tag: terrorism

You’re Eight Times More Likely to be Killed by a Police Officer than a Terrorist

It got a lot of attention this morning when I tweeted, “You’re Eight Times More Likely to be Killed by a Police Officer than a Terrorist.” It’s been quickly retweeted dozens of times, indicating that the idea is interesting to many people. So let’s discuss it in more than 140 characters.

In case it needs saying: Police officers are unlike terrorists in almost all respects. Crucially, the goal of the former, in their vastest majority, is to have a stable, peaceful, safe, law-abiding society, which is a goal we all share. The goal of the latter is … well, it’s complicated. I’ve cited my favorite expert on that, Audrey Kurth Cronin, here and here and here. Needless to say, the goal of terrorists is not that peaceful, safe, stable society.

I picked up the statistic from a blog post called: “Fear of Terror Makes People Stupid,” which in turn cites the National Safety Council for this and lots of other numbers reflecting likelihoods of dying from various causes. So dispute the number(s) with them, if you care to.

I take it as a given that your mileage may vary. If you dwell in the suburbs or a rural area, and especially if you’re wealthy, white, and well-spoken, your likelihood of death from these two sources probably converges somewhat (at very close to zero).

The point of the quote is to focus people on sources of mortality society-wide, because this focus can guide public policy efforts at reducing death. (Thus, the number is not a product of the base rate fallacy.) In my opinion, too many people are still transfixed by terrorism despite the collapse of Al Qaeda over the last decade and the quite manageable—indeed, the quite well-managed—danger that terrorism presents our society today.

If you want to indulge your fears and prioritize terrorism, you’ll have plenty of help, and neither this blog post nor any other appeal to reason or statistics is likely to convince you. Among the John Mueller articles I would recommend, though, is “Witches, Communists, and Terrorists: Evaluating the Risks and Tallying the Costs” (with Mark Stewart).

If one wants to be clinical about what things reduce death to Americans, one should ask why police officers are such a significant source of danger. I have some ideas.

Cato’s work on the War on Drugs shows how it produces danger to the public and law enforcement both, not to mention loss of privacy and civil liberties, disrespect for law enforcement, disregard of the rule of law, and so on. Is the sum total of mortality and morbidity reduced or increased by the War on Drugs? I don’t know to say. But the War on Drugs certainly increases the danger to innocent people (including law enforcement personnel), where drug legalization would allow harm to naturally concentrate on the people who choose unwisely to use drugs.

The militarization of law enforcement probably contributes to the danger. Cato’s Botched Paramilitary Police Raids map illustrates the problem of over-aggressive policing. Cato alum Radley Balko now documents these issues at the Huffington Post. Try out his “Cop or Soldier?” quiz.

There are some bad apples in the police officer barrel. Given the power that law enforcement personnel have—up to and including the power to kill—I’m not satisfied that standards of professionalism are up to snuff. You can follow the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project on Twitter at @NPMRP.

If the provocative statistic cited above got your attention, that’s good. If it adds a little more to your efforts at producing a safe, stable, peaceful, and free society, all the better.

Serial Innumeracy on Homeland Security

This post was co-authored with Mark G. Stewart, professor of civil engineering and director of the Centre for Infrastructure Performance and Reliability at The University of Newcastle in Australia.

At hearings of the Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee earlier this month, former congresswoman Jane Harman (D-CA), now head of the Wilson Center in Washington, made a gallant stab at coming up with, and hailing, some homeland security functions that “execute well.”

At the top of Harman’s list was the observation that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) last year stopped more than 3,100 individuals from boarding U.S.-bound aircraft at foreign airports for national security reasons. Since these were plucked out of more than 15 million travelers that went through 15 pre-clearance locations overseas, it was, she exclaimed enthusiastically, “like picking needles from a haystack!”

Committee chair Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) waxed even more enthusiastic about the number, concluding grandly that it “took very sophisticated data systems and implementation of those systems to make that happen” and that “we’re all safer as a result of it.”

This was an exercise in serial innumeracy, of course, because the relevant statistic is not how many individuals were denied entry, but how many of those denied actually presented a security threat. Neither enthusiast presented relevant data, but, judging from the fact that no one apparently was arrested (we’d tend to know if they had been), the number was likely just about  zero. Nor was information presented about the problems or costly inconvenience inflicted upon the many who were likely waylaid in error.

Moreover, it is not clear where the Harman/Lieberman number even comes from. According to Homeland Security officials interviewed by Michael Schmidt for a recent article in the New York Times, only 250 people in each of the last two years were turned away or even pulled aside for questioning as potential national security risks by pre-clearance screeners. Maybe CBP is even more “sophisticated” at picking needles from haystacks than Harman and Lieberman give it credit for. Does that mean we’re even safer as a result? Or less so?

Schmidt also supplies information that calls into question the whole pre-clearance enterprise. Stimulated in considerable measure by the failed underwear bomber attempt to blow up an airliner flying from Europe to Detroit in 2009, the program is, as Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano stresses “an expensive proposition.” Although it has been instituted so far only in airports in Canada, the Caribbean, and Ireland, it already costs $115 million a year. Expansion to hundreds of other airports (including the one the underwear bomber actually took off from) is not only costly, but requires a major diplomatic effort because it involves cajoling foreign governments into granting the United States police-like powers on their own soil. The program has not foiled any major plots thus far, notes Schmidt, and he pointedly adds that it would scarcely be difficult for a would-be terrorist to avoid the few airports with pre-clearance screening to board at one of the many that do not enjoy that security frill.

But the main innumeracy issue in all this is that the key question, as usual when homeland security is up for consideration, is simply left out of the discussion. The place to begin is not “are we safer” with the security measure in place, but how safe are we without it.

We have calculated that, for the 12-year period from 1999 through 2010 (which includes 9/11, of course), there was one chance in 22 million that an airplane flight would be hijacked or otherwise attacked by terrorists.

The question that should be asked of the numerically-challenged, then, is the one posed a decade ago by risk analyst Howard Kunreuther: “How much should we be willing to pay for small reductions in probabilities that are already extremely low?”

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Yemen, Drones, and the Imperial Presidency

Based on a broad theory of executive power, President Obama, and possibly his successor, has the authority to target people for death—including American citizens—without a semblance of transparency, accountability, or congressional consent. Since 9/11, officials and analysts have touted drone strikes as the most effective weapon against al Qaeda and its affiliates. Drones have become a tool of war without the need to declare one. The latest front is Yemen, where a dramatic escalation of drone strikes could be enlisting as many militants as they execute.

“In Yemen, U.S. airstrikes breed anger, and sympathy for al-Qaeda,” a headline blared in last week’s Washington Post. The evidence of radicalization comes from more than 20 interviews with tribal leaders, victims’ relatives, human rights activists, and officials from southern Yemen, an area where U.S. drone strikes have targeted suspected militants affiliated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The escalating campaign of drone strikes kills civilians along with alleged militants. Tribal leaders and Yemeni officials say these strikes have angered tribesmen who could be helping to prevent AQAP from growing more powerful.

According to the Post, in 2009, U.S. officials claimed that AQAP had nearly 300 core members. Yemeni officials and tribal leaders say that number has grown to 700 or more, with hundreds of tribesmen joining its ranks to fight the U.S.-backed Yemeni government. “That’s not the direction in which the drone strikes were supposed to move the numbers,” wrote the Atlantic’s Robert Wright.

As the majority of U.S. missile assaults shift from Pakistan to Yemen—allowing foreign policy planners to wage undeclared wars on multiple fronts—Americans should pay close attention to a few important and complicating factors that make the conflict in Yemen unique. First, the self-proclaimed Marxist state of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) only merged with its northern neighbor, the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), in 1990. In 1994, the two countries fought a bloody civil war that did not result in a smooth reunification. The International Crisis Group’s “Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question” summarizes competing North-South narratives:

Under one version, the war laid to rest the notion of separation and solidified national unity. According to the other, the war laid to rest the notion of unity and ushered in a period of Northern occupation of the South.

Media reports asserting that AQAP is taking advantage of the South’s hunger for independence should be understood in the context of this Northern-Southern divide. Rather than encourage the Yemeni government to respond to southern demands for greater local autonomy, Washington’s tactics are helping the U.S.-backed Yemeni government repress Southern separatists. Indeed, many residents in Abyan, in southern Yemen, claim that the Yemeni government intentionally ceded territory to domestic enemies in order to frighten the West into ensuring more support against the indigenous uprising.

These developments are troubling, as the escalation of drone strikes could be creating the self-fulfilling prophecy of helping alleged AQAP-linked militants gain ground and increasing local sympathy for their cause. As Ben Friedman wrote recently, the misperception that comes with conflating AQAP with the broader insurgency is that it “invites a broad U.S. campaign against Yemen’s southern Islamists, which could heighten their enthusiasm for attacking Americans, creating the menace we feared.” That assessment echoes the sentiment of The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill, who has done intrepid reporting in Yemen. He recently said the campaign being conducted “is going to make it more likely that Yemen becomes a safe haven for those kinds of [terrorist] groups.”

The Oval Office seems to be giving this issue of sympathy short shrift. President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, has publicly argued that the precision of drone strikes limits civilian casualties. However, the New York Times revealed last week that the president and his underlings resort to dubious accounting tricks to low-ball the estimate of civilian deaths, counting “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants” while the Department of Defense even targets suspects in Yemen “whose names they do not know.” The Times’ article recounts one of the administration’s very first strikes in Yemen:

It killed not only its intended target, but also two neighboring families, and left behind a trail of cluster bombs that subsequently killed more innocents. It was hardly the kind of precise operation that Mr. Obama favored. Videos of children’s bodies and angry tribesmen holding up American missile parts flooded You Tube, fueling a ferocious backlash that Yemeni officials said bolstered Al Qaeda.

As foreign policy planners in Washington deepen our military involvement in Yemen, the American people—rather than focusing on the number of senior al Qaeda killed—should be asking whether we’re killing more alleged militants than our tactics help to recruit.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Ignatius on Pakistan: Actually, We May Have Only Had One Year

In today’s Washington Post, David Ignatius writes that Pakistan is reaping the whirlwind of homegrown terrorism by having “squandered the opportunity presented” with a large-scale U.S. troop presence next door and for refusing to work with Washington to stabilize its mountainous tribal region. Recent history suggests a more complex reality.

Mr. Ignatius is correct when he writes that Pakistan has pursued self-defeating policies, as I have written about extensively and at length. In the seven-year period leading up to 9/11, Islamabad directly armed, funded, and advised the Taliban regime that provided sanctuary to al Qaeda. As former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice explained in April 2004:

Al-Qaida was both client of and patron to the Taliban, which in turn was supported by Pakistan. Those relationships provided al-Qaida with a powerful umbrella of protection, and we had to sever them. This was not easy.

Indeed, it was not. Years of assistance to select militant groups cemented ideological sympathies for radicalism among elements of that country’s armed forces and civilian political elite. Such sympathies cannot be turned off overnight. After former President-General Pervez Musharraf deployed 70,000 troops to the fractious tribal areas in early March 2004, and ordered the ham-fisted raid on Lal Masjid in July 2007, Pakistan and its porous border with Afghanistan became even more inflamed. Over the past couple of years, this author has become far more pessimistic about Pakistan’s viability as a functioning state, given the continuing devolution of power to incompetent local bodies and the disturbing increase of Punjabi militants.

Given all of this, it is mistaken for Mr. Ignatius to leap to the assumption that by deploying over 100,000 foreign troops to Afghanistan nearly a decade after 9/11, the U.S. and its allies could have miraculously stabilized the region. If anything, right after 9/11, Islamabad and Washington had dropped the ball. Back in 2008 when I was in Lahore, I bumped into a former head of Pakistan’s military-dominated spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence. We had very brief and candid discussion about the forgotten war raging next door. He said quite explicitly that Pakistan was willing to relinquish support for the Taliban, but that after President George W. Bush lost Osama bin Laden and turned his sights on Iraq, the Pakistanis believed (and understandably so) that the United States didn’t care about the region. Pakistan continued to pursue its own objectives since the United States was focused elsewhere. In essence, he said, Washington had one year after the initial invasion to leverage Islamabad and persuade it to alter its strategic policies.

Of course, who knows for sure? Alas, we will never know, but it was immediately after the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and sadly, it seems, we may never recoup the goodwill we reaped and eventually—and gratuitously—squandered.

Washington Post Defines Worst Fears Down

“Al-Qaeda bombmaker represents CIA’s worst fears.”

That’s the headline of a Washington Post story on Yemeni terrorists’ attempt to down a U.S. bound flight by placing a bomb on the body of an operative that turned out to be a CIA and Saudi agent. By straining to alarm readers about the bomb-maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the story makes three errors.

First, by defining the CIA’s “worst fears” as “a highly skilled terrorist determined to attack the United States,” the Post underestimates the imaginative capacity of intelligence officials and overrates Asiri’s prowess. The article uncritically quotes House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King’s claim that “Asiri is an evil genius. He is constantly expanding, he is constantly adjusting.” Whatever King means by “expanding,” “failing” would have been a better choice of words. In just one of the four Asiri plots mentioned in article did his bomb detonate properly. That one killed only its bearer, al-Asiri’s brother. The nearby target, Saudi’s Prince Nayef, suffered only minor wounds.

Second, the article dubiously claims that two of those plots nearly wreaked great damage:

If it were not for a technical problem (Abdulmutallab’s device failed to detonate) or solid intelligence tips (Saudi counterterrorism officials alerted authorities in Dubai and Britain to intercept the cargo planes), Asiri would have succeeded in staging a catastrophic disaster in American skies.

It is, however, questionable whether Abdulmutallab’s bomb, had it properly detonated, was powerful enough to cause his plane to crash. Even if it opened a hole, the plane might not have crashed.

In the second case, where bombs were hidden in printer cartridges on cargo planes, authorities tell us the detonators probably would have worked and could have downed the planes. But there remains a decent chance that detonation would have occurred while the planes were on the ground. Also, one reason that the devices made it on to cargo planes without detection is that they contain few people and thus justify less security. The death of a crew would have been tragic, of course, but “catastrophic disaster” is a stretch.

The likely success of terrorist plots can’t be assessed simply by looking at the stage of the plot that caused its failure. As Jim Harper argues, plots require success in a series of tasks, each of which drives down the odds of overall success. Bombs that are both difficult to detect and easy to detonate are tough to make, and competent bombers are hard to find. Borders have guards. Intelligence services employ double agents.

The article’s third error is its assertion that the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda has “taken advantage of Yemen’s political turmoil and seized large swaths of territory in the south.” That language conflates the terrorist group with a broader insurgency, confuses their goals, and overstates the group’s potency. The misperception invites a broad U.S. campaign against Yemen’s southern Islamists, which could heighten their enthusiasm for attacking Americans, creating the menace we feared.

Let’s review the record of the bombmaker who is labeled our “worst fear.” His organization has made no discernible progress towards its murky political objectives—though its Islamist protectors have gained territory amid a power vacuum. He has never produced mass violence nor apparently come close, and his most successful act of terrorism was to help his brother blow himself up. His next best effort resulted in a severe crotch burn for the bomber, who survived, talked to U.S. authorities for months, and is serving a life sentence.

That is “success” only under an exceedingly capacious definition. Bin Laden and his acolytes are being grandiose when they talk about bankrupting us. But their boasts show that “terrorism” remains a good label for their misbegotten efforts. They sustain their endeavors by imagining that violence, by generating fear and cost, will cause their enemy to fold and to accommodate their goals. By hyping their menace, we help them cling to that fantasy.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Security Pact Ensures America’s Presence in Afghanistan

President Obama’s arrival in Afghanistan and signing of the strategic partnership agreement with President Karzai supposedly represents yet another corner turned in our nearly eleven year (and counting) war. The commander-in-chief’s arrival in secrecy, under darkness, and without live coverage of the signing is reminiscent of Bush the Younger’s many trips to war-torn Iraq and displays just how bad security is in Afghanistan. Indeed, despite the administration’s talk about drawing-down, the strategic partnership agreement signed today in Kabul extends Washington’s military and financial support to the endemically corrupt Karzai regime well beyond 2014.

The Taliban’s most powerful narrative is that foreigners are occupying Afghanistan and supporting its corrupt centralized government. That is more than mere propaganda. It is reality. Transparency International was correct—save for North Korea and Somalia, Afghanistan is the most corrupt country in the world. The Karzai cartel and its band of thugs and warlords are the embodiment of social injustice. The nation-building mission in Afghanistan is a failure not of democracy promotion, but the result of bringing injustice and crony capitalism to a desperate and war-ravaged people.

As America climbs out of the worst financial crisis in a generation, the American people pour tens of billions a year into a poverty-stricken narco-stateaccording to the late-Richard Holbrooke—while the Karzais and their cronies build mansions in Dubai. The American people’s hard-earned tax dollars are funding Afghanistan’s “1%.” As I said last week about the agreement, it is nation building by another name. The American people have come to realize that the nation-building mission in Afghanistan is a needless waste of blood and treasure and unnecessary for our vital security interests. U.S. officials should recognize this and expedite our withdrawal, rather than continue to tread water in a desperate attempt to stave off disaster.

A senior administration official today warned of repeating the mistake of allowing the Taliban to reemerge in Afghanistan. In the process, however, the United States is repeating a mistake that experts contend helped to contribute to the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001unwavering economic support and political cover to the Muslim world’s most corrupt and illegitimate regimes. Some will argue that America has a moral obligation to prevent the reemergence of reprehensible groups like the Taliban. But America never made a substantive policy shift toward or against the Taliban’s misogynistic, oppressive and militant Islamic regime when it controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s. Thus, the present moral outrage against the group can be interpreted as opportunistic. Sadly, Washington’s current embrace of the kleptocratic Karzai regime not only contradicts the basic moral principles that America purports to impose on the rest of the world, but also does little to advance our security, drives foreigners to commit terrorist acts, and is detrimental to our long-term goal of advancing our country’s most cherished values.

Obama Visits Afghanistan, Perpetuates Misguided Policy

President Obama’s surprise visit to Afghanistan shows that he is determined to use the bin Laden killing to his political advantage. He also hopes to win points for ending two unpopular wars.

That is understandable. If nothing else, it allows him to draw distinctions between both his predecessor, who failed to find bin Laden, and the eventual GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, who argues against withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

But the policy that President Obama is pursuing in Afghanistan is still at odds with what most Americans desire. The strategic partnership agreement signed by Obama and President Hamid Karzai embodies this policy.  He chose to expand the U.S. presence in Afghanistan in 2009, and will now draw down to levels at or near those when he took office. That doesn’t go far enough: a majority of Americans want all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan within a year, and a large-scale military presence isn’t needed to continue to hunt al Qaeda. The organization is a shadow of its former self, and has shifted its operations and tactics to many other places. We are still spending tens of billions of dollars in a desperate nation-building mission; this money could be spent much more effectively elsewhere, including here in the United States.

Moreover, President Obama lacks the authority to make the promises that he has extended to the Afghan government and people. For example, he pledges to leave some unspecified number of troops in the country until well past the end of his second term (if there is a second term), but Congress determines funding for overseas military operations, including troop deployments, and there is no reason to believe that future Congresses (or future presidents) will feel bound by Barack Obama’s promises.

After 9/11, the American people rightly demanded that the U.S. government hunt down Osama bin Laden, and perhaps even to move heaven and earth to do it. It made sense to punish al Qaeda and degrade the organization’s ability to carry out another attack. Those tasks have been fulfilled. The mission of preventing the Taliban from rising again in Afghanistan is a hopelessly quixotic crusade, and one that we would be wise to abandon.