How Big A Threat From Jihadist Organizations? Too much hype coming from the media. There is danger; but it is not that big

WASHINGTON – The tricky part of any asymmetric warfare threat –now I am referring to the anti-Western Jihadist organizations spread around the Middle East and beyond– is that it is really difficult to assess its strength.

They are coming, by the thousands

For months Fox News, (a top rated US cable TV channel), has been telling  America that there are tens of thousands of would-be jihadists, (most of them “self-radicalized” young Muslims), who had gone to fight in Syria and Iraq. And now, after intense training received over there, they are coming back to unleash a wave of terror in America and in Europe.

A real threat, but not so huge

Look, no doubt there is some truth in this assessment. But only some. For sure, young people went to Syria to fight. For sure, some came back with bad intentions. And the recent killings in Paris, (Charlie Hebdo, and the Jewish super market), are evidence of what armed people with bad intentions can do. For all these reasons, counter terrorism agencies have to be extra vigilant. There is a real threat out there.

We are all targets

But the point is that we were told by dozens of security experts paraded on TV to expect waves of attacks perpetrated by thousands of determined warriors-terrorists.

We were told that any soft target in America (shopping malls, schools, train stations) has become a target. And we were also told that somehow this horrible development –the metastasis of the terror cancer– is Obama’s fault because our President has (stupidly?) under estimated the terror threat.

No wave of attacks

Well, while it is unwise to make blanket statements about a developing phenomenon, so far we have seen no waves of attacks. Yes, we have seen some. And this is bad enough. But the West is not about to be destabilized by thousands of suicide terrorists. Yes, there have been some instances of violent attacks. And no doubt other plots have been uncovered before the jihadists could make a move.

But overall, this is not a New Apocalypse. This jihadist phenomenon, with large cells in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and also Nigeria, is a nasty brew animated by a millenarian ideology that surprisingly finds believers willing to fight for the violent recreation of a New Caliphate, or anything close to it. As absurd as all this sounds, it is nonetheless true.

No Clash of Civilizations

But this is not the prophesied “Clash of Civilizations”. The Islamic State, IS, in Syria and Iraq, as resilient as it is, is not going to transform all Muslim societies, from Morocco to Indonesia. IS will not turn their citizens into vast armies of pious fighters willing to die in order to destroy all the heretics and unbelievers.

Yes, we can count on more attacks, whether plotted in Yemen, or concocted by local “lone wolves”, in Paris, London or Minneapolis. This is most unpleasant. It means we are at risk. But let’s keep this in perspective. There are other risks, many of them bigger, if we measure them by the loss of life, that get almost no attention.

Only certain types of deaths matter

For instance, I just saw on TV that several hundreds Americans get killed by trains every year, because many pedestrians carelessly walk on and across railroad tracks, notwithstanding clear signs indicating that this is both very dangerous and strictly prohibited. And yet, this shocking statistic of hundreds (almost a thousand) of totally preventable deaths occurring every year gets barely a mention.

By the same token, sadly in the US there are frequent instances of deranged individuals shooting people in shopping malls, schools, or work places. But, somehow, since these are “regular killings”, we do not care that much.

However, if someone else does exactly the same thing –shooting innocent people without any rational motive– shouting “Allahu Akbar”, (“God is the Greatest”), then we are told by terror experts that the entire country is in mortal danger.

Not an existential threat

As a society, we should re-consider how we assess threats and how we talk about them. Don’t get me wrong. The jihadists are a real problem. Still, they are not an existential threat.

But somehow the media created the impression that they are a formidable force composed of determined fanatics about to destroy us. And this is simply not true.

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