The Five Urban Legends of Terrorism

By Matthew Harwood

Alan B. Kreuger, an economist at Princeton and recent author of "What Makes a Terrorist," writes in The Washington Post that there are five key myths we associate with terrorists.

They are:

  • Terrorism is a random act carried out by irrational people who hate our way of life.
  • Terrorists are no different than ordinary criminals.
  • Terrorists are likely to cross into the United States from Mexico.
  • Terrorism is mainly perpetrated by Muslims.
  • Terrorism never succeeds.

Kreuger proceeds to show empirically how all these common assumptions or beliefs about terrorism are wrong, but gain credence due to constant recitation from politicians. As Kreuger notes, "It doesn't help that many politicians exploit the anxiety that terrorism evokes to promote their own agendas."

Case in point, the possibility terrorists may cross into the United States from Mexico. Kreuger admits it may happen, but if we took a look a the evidence, politicians and pundits should direct more attention to the Canadian border.

In a recent Nixon Center study of 373 Islamist terrorists, Robert Leiken and Steven Brooke concluded: "Despite widespread alarms raised over terrorist infiltration from Mexico, we found no terrorist presence in Mexico and no terrorists who entered the U.S. from Mexico." By contrast, the authors found "a sizeable terrorist presence in Canada and a number of Canadian-based terrorists who have entered the U.S."

One area where Kreuger is technically right, but doesn't provide enough context is the popular myth, "Terrorism is mainly perpetrated by Muslims." Even a cursory glance at the past 100 years shows this to be overwhelmingly false: the Irish Republican Army of Ireland, the Red Brigades of Germany, the Weather Underground of the United States, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, the ETA of Spain, and so on. However, the inauguration of jihadist terrorism has inverted the rationale for terrorism. Whereas terrorists used to, in Brian Michael Jenkins parlance, "want a lot of people watching, not a lot people dead," this "New Age of Terrorism" we find ourselves in is characteristic of a new trend: indiscriminate massacre.

Explaining the difference between the new age of terrorism's most dutiful adherents and its former partisans, Jenkins writes:

At one time, I wrote that terrorists wanted a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead. They were limited not only by access to weapons but by self-constraint. Mayhem as such was seldom an objective. Terrorists had a sense of morality, a self-image, operational codes, and practical concerns—they wanted to maintain group cohesion, avoid alienating perceived constituents, and avoid provoking public outrage, which could lead to crackdowns. But these constraints gave way to large-scale indiscriminate violence as terrorists engaged in protracted, brutal conflicts; as the more squeamish dropped out; as terrorism became commonplace and the need for headlines demanded higher body counts; and as ethnic hatred and religious fanaticism replaced political agendas.... [J]ihadists seem ready to murder millions, if necessary. Many of today’s terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead.

This is a distinction policy makers must give precedence to if our strategies for defense and offense are to be correctly aligned.

All in all though, Kreuger does a real service in stripping away the false assumptions about terrorism that can guide policy in the wrong direction, and in the process, make us less safe.



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