Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Forecasts of terrorist apocalypse? Never mind

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
February 26, 2014 -- Updated 1715 GMT (0115 HKT)
Sochi 2014 came to a close Sunday amid a blaze of fireworks and celebration. Fears over potential terrorist attacks, protests and the weather dominated the build-up to the Games but, with the Olympics now behind us, was Sochi a success? Sochi 2014 came to a close Sunday amid a blaze of fireworks and celebration. Fears over potential terrorist attacks, protests and the weather dominated the build-up to the Games but, with the Olympics now behind us, was Sochi a success?
HIDE CAPTION
Captivating climax
Accomodations
Weather
Sporting success
Doping
Terrorism
Protest
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Before Sochi Olympics, predictions of terrorist action were rampant
  • Peter Bergen says the Games were unaffected and predictions turned out to be wrong
  • He says such forecasts fit into a long history of "sky is falling" warnings
  • Bergen: Statements that al Qaeda represents big threat to U.S. now are off base

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) -- "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future" is an aphorism attributed to the great baseball player Yogi Berra.

But one topic where pundits, politicians and prognosticators of every persuasion don't have any problem about making pessimistic predictions is terrorism.

The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, was an Olympic-level example of this. In the lead-up to the Games, the airwaves were filled with glum predictions that Sochi would be the 1972 Munich Olympics on steroids.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, told Fox News, "There's a high degree of probability that something will detonate, something will go off. ... But I do think it's probably, most likely going to happen outside the 'ring of steel' at the Olympic Village."

Similarly, Michael G. Grimm, co-chair of the House Russian Caucus, issued a press release headlined, "Sochi Olympics Cannot Become a Benghazi Nightmare." The New York Republican warned, "We cannot sweep these threats under the rug, like we did with Benghazi or the warnings from Russia on the Tsarnaev brother behind the Boston Marathon bombing. Each time we fail to recognize these threats, we not only risk the lives of innocent Americans, but appear weaker and vulnerable in the eyes of the enemy."

Bill Rathburn, who directed security for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, in an interview with Yahoo News predicted of Sochi, "It's not a matter of whether there will be some incident, it's just a matter of how bad it's going to be."

Terrorists near Sochi target planes
U.S. on alert for terror in Sochi
Terrorism in Russia and the Olympics

No wonder that two days before the Sochi Olympics, more than half of Americans believed a terrorist attack on the Games was likely, according to a CNN/ORC poll.

Now cue up the swarms of "black widows" descending on Sochi to kill themselves along with many Olympic spectators.

And then the Games were held and ... nothing happened

It turned out that the most terrifying image from Sochi was the look of disgust on the face of American figure skater Ashley Wagner when she learned of her lower-than-expected score.

Sochi is only the most recent example of the hyperventilating hyperbole of the doomsday terrorism prognosticators. Because so many folks were caught flat-footed by 9/11, some seem to overcompensate by keeping up a steady drumbeat of dire terror warnings.

In November, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, told CNN that al Qaeda "poses a bigger threat to attack inside the U.S. right now than it did before 9/11."

Rogers' statement defies common sense.

Before 9/11, al Qaeda had an entire county, Afghanistan, as a safe haven; its training camps there churned out thousands of militants every year; it had access to funding substantial enough so that it could spend several hundred thousand dollars on the 9/11 plot. It was a formidable enemy.

Now al Qaeda's safe haven is long gone; the group hasn't mounted any successful attack in the States since 9/11 or, for that matter, anywhere in the West since the London transportation system bombings in 2005.

On 9/11, the United States had never used armed drones in combat. Since then, the CIA has launched 370 drone strikes at suspected militant targets in Pakistan. During President Barack Obama's tenure alone, those drone strikes have killed more than 30 of al Qaeda's leaders in Pakistan.

Not only that: The United States is a much harder target than it was on 9/11. Then there were 16 people on the U.S. "no fly" list.

Today there are more than 20,000. In 2001, there were 32 Joint Terrorism Task Force "fusion centers," where multiple law enforcement agencies worked together to chase down leads and build terrorism cases. Now there are 103.

The U.S. intelligence budget also grew dramatically after 9/11. In 2010, the United States spent more than $80 billion on intelligence collection and other covert activities, much of it directed at terrorist groups -- more than three times what the country spent in 1998.

At the time of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Transportation Security Administration all didn't exist. All these new post-9/11 institutions make it much harder for terrorists to operate in the United States.

The gloom and doom about terrorism becomes much worse when the specter of terrorists deploying chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons is added to the mix.

Graham Allison, the respected political scientist and founding dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, published a book in 2004 titled "Nuclear Terrorism, which garnered considerable attention with its prediction that "on the current path, a nuclear terrorist attack on America in the decade ahead is more likely than not."

Of course, now we are a decade later, and nothing of the sort has happened.

Indeed, a striking finding of a database of every jihadist terrorism case in the United States since 9/11 maintained by the New America Foundation is that not one of the more than 200 individuals who were indicted or convicted of a jihadist terrorism crime acquired, manufactured or deployed chemical, biological or radiological weapons, let alone a nuclear device.

It's relatively easy to say the sky is always falling. Indeed, given the human capacity for evil, bad things are, indeed, going to happen. But when the sky doesn't fall, which is much of the time when it comes to terrorism, the doomsday prognosticators are rarely held to account. In any event, they are too busy warning of the next catastrophe.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
ADVERTISEMENT