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Hyping the terror threat?

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
December 3, 2013 -- Updated 1916 GMT (0316 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Heads of intelligence committees tell CNN U.S. is no safer than in 2011
  • Peter Bergen: Evidence suggests that fewer plots are being directed against the U.S.
  • There's little sign of Americans being trained by jihadists overseas, he says
  • Bergen: The committee chiefs are correct about stepped up jihadist activity in Mideast

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad."

(CNN) -- On Sunday's CNN "State of the Union" show, anchor Candy Crowley asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D- California), the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and her counterpart in the House, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Michigan), a simple question: "Are we safer now than we were a year ago, two years ago, in general?"

Feinstein's' answer was unambiguous, "I don't think so. I think terror is up worldwide. Statistics indicate that. The fatalities are way up. ... There are more groups than ever, and there is huge malevolence out there."

Crowley seemed surprised by this response: "I have to say, that is not the answer I expected. I expected to hear, oh, we're safer."

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

Rogers backed up Feinstein's gloomy assessment, saying, "Oh, I absolutely agree that we're not safer today."

Both Feinstein and Rogers are able public servants who, as the heads of the two U.S. intelligence oversight committees, are paid to worry about the collective safety of Americans, and they are two of the most prominent defenders of the NSA's controversial surveillance programs, which they defend as necessary for American security.

But is there any real reason to think that Americans are no safer than was the case a couple of years back? Not according to a study by the New America Foundation of every militant indicted in the United States who is affiliated with al Qaeda or with a like-minded group or is motivated by al Qaeda's ideology.

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In fact, the total number of such indicted extremists has declined substantially from 33 in 2010 to nine in 2013. And the number of individuals indicted for plotting attacks within the United States, as opposed to being indicted for traveling to join a terrorist group overseas or for sending money to a foreign terrorist group, also declined from 12 in 2011 to only three in 2013.

Of course, a declining number of indictments doesn't mean that the militant threat has disappeared. One of the militants indicted in 2013 was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is one of the brothers alleged to be responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings in April. But a sharply declining number of indictments does suggest that fewer and fewer militants are targeting the United States.

Recent attack plots in the United States also do not show signs of direction from foreign terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda, but instead are conducted by individuals who are influenced by the ideology of violent jihad, usually because of what they read or watch on the Internet.

None of the 21 homegrown extremists known to have been involved in plots against the United States between 2011 and 2013 received training abroad from a terrorist organization -- the kind of training that can turn an angry, young man into a deadly, well-trained, angry, young man.

Of these extremists, only Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the alleged Boston bombers, is known to have had any contact with militants overseas, but it is unclear to what extent, if any, these contacts played in the Boston Marathon bombings.

In short, the data on al-Qaeda-linked or -influenced militants indicted in the United States suggests that the threat of terrorism has actually markedly declined over the past couple of years.

Where Feinstein and Rogers were on much firmer ground in their interview with Crowley was when they pointed to the resurgence of a number of al Qaeda groups in the Middle East.

Al Qaeda's affiliates in Syria control much of the north of the country and are the most effective forces fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

In neighboring Iraq, al Qaeda has enjoyed a renaissance of late, which partly accounts for the fact that the violence in Iraq today is as bad as it was in 2008.

The Syrian war is certainly a magnet for militants from across the Muslim world, including hundreds from Europe, and European governments are rightly concerned that returning veterans of the Syrian conflict could foment terrorism in Europe.

But, at least for the moment, these al Qaeda groups in Syria and Iraq are completely focused on overthrowing the Assad regime or attacking what they regard as the Shia-dominated government of Iraq. And, at least so far, these groups have shown no ability to attack in Europe, let alone in the United States.

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