With the death of a U.S. ambassador on President Obama's watch last year and this week's closing of 22 American embassies and corresponding travel alerts, the prevailing assumption has been that the our diplomats are facing more danger than ever. But new attention on useful data on the global terrorist threat may shed some more optimism on the issue than some expect.
While the particular concerns facing Americans in the region this week remain unclear as information on the current threats are still coming to light, available State Department data suggests that attacks on U.S. diplomatic targets have, actually, been on an overall downturn.
Some policymakers have identified recent terrorist threats this week as indicative of an alleged uptick in Al-Qaeda strength. Representative Peter King (R-NY), for example, told This Week that the diplomatic lock-down in the Middle East this week is a "wake-up call" that "Al-Qaeda is in many ways stronger than it was before 9/11." Jim DeMint echoed these claims when he said on Fox News, "It's clear that Al-Qaeda may be more of a threat to us than they were before 9/11 ... And the perception of weakness in this administration is encouraging this kind of behavior."
But, while the actual "strength" of terrorist threat at any point in time is exceedingly difficult to measure, these suggestions seem to ignore a number of today's studies that suggest that global terrorist strength, and Al-Qaeda in particular, are actually on the decline. Attacks on U.S. diplomatic targets were, in fact, in their biggest spike long ago in the 1990s, particularly under George H.W. Bush, and have significantly dropped in the 2000s under George W. Bush and Obama.
An overall downturn in terrorist incidents does not necessarily indicate a downturn in terrorist capabilities for future attacks or their destructive capabilities for inflicting more concentrated instances of pain and ruin. The number of deaths from attacks tends to fluctuate more with some tragic and concentrated events taking place in recent years. But the available data still indicates a general declining trend that is worth noticing. Since the State Department's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism began tracking over four decades of data on terrorist activity (including measures such as global terrorism deaths and instances of terrorism within the United States over time), most measures imply an overall decline in incidents and deaths globally.
While actual links to a particular organization can be difficult to track, Wikipedia has collected a comprehensive timeline of known Al-Qaeda attacks since the 1990s. Brian Jenkins of RAND has studied the timing and nature of these attacks alongside some offensive U.S. gains with the take-down of bin Laden and other affiliates to argue that Al-Qaeda's operational capabilities have significantly reduced in recent years. Audrey Cronin at the Kennedy School has even argued that the organization is set to disappear for good in the coming years.
This is not to say that Al-Qaeda (or other burgeoning organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah) do not have the capability of inflicting major and tragic destruction on Americans today in our embassies and beyond. The unfortunate nature of the modern terrorist threat is that the risks are entirely unpredictable, and the safety of our diplomats should always be a prime concern for policymakers in the difficult position of crafting our policies in the Middle East. But the degree of alarm sounded this week with the unprecedented diplomatic lockdown across the Middle East and North Africa should not be devoid of the overall context of state of global terrorism today.