For today’s example of this phenomenon, the Wall Street Journal’s Siobhan Gorman previews a RAND study that sounds pretty terrifying from the headline: “Jihadist Groups’ Threat To U.S. Grows, Report Says.” The first few paragraphs of her story are equally disturbing:
The threat to the U.S. from global jihadist groups has escalated in the past three years, with the number of groups increasing by more than 50% and the estimated number of militants doubling, according to a report to be released on Thursday.The report by the Rand Corp. think tank, which used public data to take a kind of global census of al Qaeda and related groups, will say the civil war in Syria has been the largest driver of the growth of jihadist activity. Syria is the location that has seen the greatest growth in number of groups and numbers of militants, which now make up more than half of the number of al Qaeda-sympathizing jihadists world-wide.“It’s become a breeding ground for jihadist activity,” said the report’s author, Seth Jones, associate director of Rand’s International Security and Defense Policy Center….The Rand findings also cast doubt on the Obama administration’s efforts to end the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by 2016 and keep Syria at arm’s length.
Whoa!! More terrorists and more groups targeting the United States?! This sounds pretty friggin’ scary… not to mention a powerful indictment against President Obama’s policies in Syria and Afghanistan. It kinda makes me feel like this.
The RAND study is not yet available, but Gorman does provide more detail in the last few paragraphs that suggests maybe the headline might be hyping the results a wee bit:
The biggest increase during that period came in Syria. But there were ample increases in North Africa as well, particularly in Libya….The report found that at the moment, though, al Qaeda and its affiliates are largely focused on attacking “near” local enemies instead of “far” Western ones, with 99% of the al Qaeda-related attacks in 2013 targeting “near enemies” in North Africa and the Middle East.The report supports broad findings by U.S. intelligence agencies that al Qaeda and its affiliates are increasingly decentralized, and the report paints a picture of a diverse set of groups that often disagree on key issues such as the advisability of allowing civilian casualties and whether to attack abroad or within their countries or regions (emphases added).
And here we get to the nub of the findings, which are a hell of a lot more nuanced than the lead paragraph suggests.
First, it turns out that both greater and lesser U.S. intervention can trigger an increase in the number of anti-American jihadists. This is important when considering the possible alternatives to existing policies. Indeed, given the arc of U.S. policies in Libya and Syria, it would seem that the best options to minimize the number of anti-American terrorists is either complete non-intervention or over-the-top intervention.
Second, and equally important, I’m not seeing all that elevated of a threat to the United States homeland — which is what most readers will infer from that headline. These groups seem far more concerned about local politics rather than world politics. It’s certainly more accurate to say that these groups threaten “U.S. interests in the Middle East,” rather than just “the United States.” But the latter is definitely more eye-catching.
Finally, it’s not clear whether the increase in the number of terrorist groups should be all that disconcerting. The heterogeneous nature of of these groups, and the lack of consensus over tactics, suggest that they are just as likely to be targeting each other as the United States.
We’ll have to wait until Thursday to see the guts of the RAND report. And I don’t mean to minimize the worrying long-term prognosis. If terrorist actors can develop a safe base of operations, then they can start to think about going global. But let’s be equally clear: the guts of the Journal’s story suggest that the headline is, at best, wildly misleading.
So now I’m feeling more like this.
How do you feel?