Threat Inflation 6.0: Does al-Shabab Really Threaten the U.S.?

By Stephen M. Walt 

September 27, 2013 “Information Clearing House – “FP” –  Sometimes you read a news story that brilliantly illuminates just what is wrong with the basic U.S. approach to national security these days. Case in point: today’s New York Times story headlined “U.S. Sees Direct Threat in Attack at Kenya Mall.” Of course we do. When was the last time something bad happened somewhere and the U.S. government didn’t see it as a threat?

The article goes on to describe how the FBI has already sent more than 20 agents to investigate the bombing, and it quotes various government officials and think-tank pundits about the need to respond lest al-Shabab (the Somali extremist group that conducted the attacks) turn its attention to America.

For instance, here’s former counterterrorism official Daniel Benjamin: “You never know when a terrorist attack in a faraway place could be a harbinger of something that could strike at the United States.” Of course, we also never know when such an attack is a harbinger of nothing at all. The article also quotes Katherine Zimmerman of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute: “One of the misconceptions is that we can let al Qaeda or other terrorist groups stay abroad and not fight them there, and that we would be safe at home.” The Times’ reporters adopt this same line themselves, writing that “the American government has learned the hard way what happens if it does not contain groups responsible for faraway attacks,” a point they illustrate by referring to al Qaeda’s attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in the 1990s.

Got it? For Americans to be 100 percent safe on American soil, the U.S. government has to get more deeply involved in the local politics and national security problems of this troubled East African region — using the FBI, CIA, special operations forces, drones, whatever — in order to root out bad guys wherever they might be.

There are two obvious problems with this line of reasoning. First, it fails to ask whether America’s repeated interference in this and other parts of the world is one of the reasons groups like al Qaeda and al-Shabab sometimes decide to come after us. Indeed, to the extent that the United States might face a threat from al-Shabab, it might be because Washington has been blundering around in Somali politics since the early 1990s and usually making things worse. The same goes for Kenya too. Al-Shabab attacked the mall because Kenya sent troops into Somalia in 2011 and their intervention had undermined al-Shabab’s position in that troubled country. Kenya may have had its own good reasons for intervening; my point is simply that the tragic attack it suffered wasn’t a random act. On the contrary, it was a direct consequence of Kenya’s own policy decisions. To say that in no way justifies this heinous attack — it merely identifies cause and effect.

Ditto al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden didn’t get up one day and decide he wanted to launch a few terrorist attacks, pull out his atlas, and pick the United States at random. His decision to attack U.S. military forces and government installations, and then to attack the United States directly, was reprehensible and an obvious threat, but it didn’t come out of nowhere. On the contrary, the emergence of al Qaeda was a direct response to various aspects of America’s Middle East policy (e.g., blanket support for Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia and the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf through the 1990s). As I’ve noted before, the United States has devoted most of its energy and effort since then to chasing down bad guys and killing them, but hardly any time trying to act in ways that would make the terrorists’ message less appealing to potential recruits.

So before we declare the Kenyan bombing a direct threat to the United States and get more directly involved in a set of regional dynamics that we don’t understand very well, we ought to ask ourselves if this will make the terrorism danger that we face worse or better.

The second problem is that the rather breathless language of the Times’ story exaggerates the actual danger. One cannot completely rule out the possibility that al-Shabab might try to send a few of the Americans it has recruited back to the United States, with orders to try something similar here. It is also possible — though unlikely — that they will succeed in doing something reprehensible, if not on the scale of the recent attack in Kenya. It would be bad if they succeeded — even in just a small way — or if other terrorists managed to shoot American tourists or business people over in Kenya. But is that possibility really so scary, especially relative to other dangers?

Back here in the United States, we’ve already seen several mass killings of innocent people in the past year: 27 slain in the Newtown school shooting and 12 killed in the recent Navy Yard attack. Here in Boston, there were 51 murders in 2012, and there have been more than 30 already this year. Nationwide, over 30,000 Americans are killed by guns each year (about two-thirds are suicides, but those deaths are still tragic and that still leaves more than 10,000 victims of gun violence). Yet there doesn’t seem to be a groundswell of public clamor to declare this obvious danger to American well-being a “national security threat” or to actually do anything about it.

I am not arguing for a retreat to Fortress America or saying that the United States should not devote some of its vast intelligence and national security budget to monitoring possible terrorist groups. But we really do need to ask ourselves if chasing every terrorist group that might have some reason to target the United States (or U.S. citizens abroad) is going to make the problem bigger or smaller. And that is especially the case when these groups emerged largely or entirely in response to local political developments, as was the case with al-Shabab. We have no reason to like such groups at all, but getting in their face is probably the best way to get them in ours.

As the Times article shows, the view expressed here doesn’t seem to be very common in the U.S. national security establishment, which never saw a threat that it didn’t want to go after (or exaggerate). But it would have been nice if the Times had found space for this view in its article on the subject, instead of making it sound like the U.S. government’s view is the only one worth hearing.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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