Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

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.

Assad forces gain momentum in Syria
Inside the battle for Damascus
Syria a 'lightning rod' for jihadists

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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT