As a journalist, I spent much of the two years after Sept. 11, 2001, trying to find friends, relatives and acquaintances of the hijackers who would be willing to talk. I became convinced that they were so difficult to find primarily because they sympathized, on some level, with what the terrorists had done. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the planner and operational director of the Sept. 11 attacks, famously told interrogators that al-Qaeda was over-subscribed for martyrs. There were more men willing to die in suicide missions than there were missions to put them in, he told the intrepid Al Jazeera reporter Yosri Fouda.
This might have been pure bluster, but in 2002 nobody took it as such. This led me to write later that I feared there were a great many more men just like the 19 hijackers out and about in the world. We were likely to have a period, I thought, similar to the early 2000s in Israel, where on any given weekend a bomber was apt to blow himself up in a mall or a sports stadium somewhere in America. I was hardly alone in thinking this. Life will never be the same, we were told. Terrorism would be a cost of doing business in the 21st century.
This thankfully has not come to pass. Other than the anthrax killings and the odd mad gunman, the United States has been largely spared domestic terror attacks. Certainly, enhanced border security and better law enforcement account for some of this absence, but they are unlikely to have prevented every attack. The United States, with its great size, porous borders and social liberties, is impossible to defend perfectly from such invisible armies. So what happened?
Now comes Charles Kurzman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who attempts to answer the question in “The Missing Martyrs.” I’m not sure he meets the challenge in this curious, brief and breezy book.
Kurzman zeroes in on a couple of questions, beginning with his subtitle: Why are there so few terrorists? He answers this by saying we overestimated their number, a viable proposition but one that prompts his second question:Why did we think there were so many? Why were we so afraid?
Kurzman argues that in estimating the number of terrorists we made a category error — somehow imputing from the total number of Muslims a number of terrorists that was far too large. Al-Qaeda was a very small minority among the Muslim population. It was, he argues, a small minority even among the number of Muslim dissidents. “Global Islamist terrorists have managed to recruit fewer than 1 in 15,000 Muslims over the past quarter century and fewer than 1 in 100,000 Muslims since 9/11,” he writes, citing estimates up to 2008 from the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. Kurzman points out that Muslim public opinion did not agree with the Islamists. Whatever support it gave was largely symbolic, not strategic. Most opposition to Arab rule in the Muslim world, as has been amply demonstrated this spring, comes from the opposite side – from the liberal left rather than the reactionary right.
All of this is almost certainly true. Al Qaeda supporters never constituted a majority of Muslims; they were always on the margins. Still, this isn’t an answer. No one ever thought all Muslims wanted to attack the United States. It was always assumed that the attacks came from a radical fringe, a cult, as it were, from within Islam, not Islam itself.
So why were we so afraid? Kurzman argues that the simplest answer is that we were told to be. Repeatedly, loudly. Successive presidential campaigns promised that only this candidate could protect the country from such a terrible menace. One of Kurzman’s goals, he writes, is “to turn down the volume on terrorism debates.” He is right about the need for this. The reality was that few credible security experts ever saw al-Qaeda as an existential threat to the country. It simply was not an enemy of that scale. It could create havoc, not gain dominion.
It must be recognized that any discussion of a public threat should strike a careful balance between complacency and panic, but there can be no doubt that the United States tipped far to one side. Majorities in Congress were afraid even to hold trials of terrorists lest we give them a platform from which to project inspiration.
Kurzman, who is a noted scholar of radical Shia Islam, writes in non-academic prose that is sometimes striking for its casual tone. He titles one chapter “Radical Sheik,” another “Thoroughly Modern Mujahidin.” He cites public opinion polling, chat rooms and Pakistani pop singers among his sources. He is making a serious argument, but seems to be trying too hard to be accessible.
The best, and I think overwhelming counter-argument against him is that his entire proposition is wrong. There are no missing martyrs. They’re virtually everywhere. You can hardly open a web browser without seeing news of another bombing in Peshawar or Kabul. There are plenty of martyrs. Radical Islamists are not trying to take over the world.
They know, even if we appear at times not to, that they are incapable of this. They are, in their language, attacking the near enemy, not the far. They’re smart enough to go where targets are easiest — Madrid, Morocco, Bali or Mumbai. For the time being, that is not here.
THE MISSING MARTYRS
Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists
By Charles Kurzman
Oxford Univ. 248 pp. $24.95