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Terrorism Expert Breaks Down Differences In U.S., European Approaches to Extremism

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In the nearly 15 years since 9/11, Islamic terrorists have coordinated murderous attacks on hundreds of innocent people in countries as far-flung as Russia, Pakistan and Kenya, and in cities across the European continent from London to Madrid to Paris to Brussels.

The terror attacks in those four European cities alone resulted in over 400 casualties. But with the exception of a handful of incidents involving lone actors, the United States has been spared the devastation of those kinds of large-scale terrorist attacks since that tragic day in New York and Washington, D.C., years ago. Daniel Benjamin, one of America’s leading experts on terrorism, says there are some good reasons for that.

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Photo: Dartmouth College / Eli Burakian
Daniel Benjamin

Benjamin served as the top counterterrorism official in the second term of President Bill Clinton’s administration and, more recently, as Hillary Clinton’s chief counterterrorism coordinator at the State Department. He is also a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine who has co-authored several books, including “The Age of Sacred Terror” and “The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right.” He now serves as director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth University and nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. Benjamin also remains an in-demand terrorism analyst across the major media spectrum.

Writing for Politico Magazine in the wake of the Brussels terrorist attacks, Benjamin argued that, “While the jihadist threat is genuinely global, it is by no means equally distributed. There is, of course, no such thing as perfect security, and as we saw as recently as the San Bernardino shootings in December of last year, there are individuals in the United States who are prepared to commit violence against other Americans. But the European context underlying the attacks at Brussels Airport and the downtown Maelbeek subway station — one of alienated, underemployed and ghettoized Muslims as well as subpar security — differs dramatically from anything found in the United States.”

In an interview with The Washington Diplomat, Benjamin said that the U.S. response to 9/11, which included roughly $650 billion in security infrastructure improvements, is probably the number-one reason why America hasn’t endured the kinds of bloody, mass killings that jihadists have carried out elsewhere.

But other dynamics, such as geography, demographics and the mindset of the terrorists themselves, also factor into the equation. We spoke to Benjamin about why the U.S. appears to be better able than Europe to ward off major terrorist attacks, why it’s so hard to coordinate counterterrorism efforts among sovereign nations, the difference between the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, U.S. gun culture, Donald Trump’s inflammatory comments about Muslims and more.

The Washington Diplomat: In a nutshell, why haven’t terrorists managed to create more large-scale destruction in the U.S. as they have in other countries?

Daniel Benjamin: For the United States, 9/11 was a profoundly catalytic moment. It was the biggest loss of life we had suffered in a single day since World War II and it happened on our own territory. That for us was unprecedented. We poured enormous resources into intelligence, law enforcement, border security and the like, and it’s really been priority number one since that day. It’s a sad but true fact that many governments have recognized that the threat is real, but until they are actually hit they don’t really seem to ever get up to speed as they should. The U.K. has been very, very serious about their counterterrorism measures and the French have been up to a point, but lots of countries in Europe didn’t focus on it as much as they should have because they thought it was a threat aimed at the U.S. and they didn’t have that really powerful prod.

The other thing is the nature of the Muslim minority communities in Europe, which tend to be larger, poorer, less educated and more discriminated against, and have overall higher degrees of radicalization. That is not to say that the vast majority of European Muslims aren’t patriotic; polls even show they are more patriotic on average than the non-Muslim populations. But in these sizable populations, there are elements that are more disposed to accept the jihadist agenda. I think it’s when you put those two things together and you add the fact that geography makes it easier for jihadis to get into Europe and to leave Europe.

TWD: You have said that the United States spent upward of $650 billion on homeland security since 9/11 — a staggering amount of money even in the context of a massive federal budget. Has it been money well spent?

Benjamin: I think for the most part the money has been well spent. Government is a big spender and often maybe doesn’t target resources as precisely as it should, but I think in this particular case overshooting the mark was preferable to undershooting it. I think by and large we’ve gotten a lot of benefit from the money we’ve spent. One of the things I find dismaying is how little public appreciation there is for the improvements that have been made. A lot of them are very technical and hard to understand, complex and obscure. But I don’t think there is enough of a public understanding of how much has changed in the intervening years.

TWD: One of the developments in recent years that makes many Americans nervous is that continued instability in places like Iraq and Syria has resulted in a flood of refugees. Some Americans are very nervous that terror networks are using the refugee crisis to effectively smuggle jihadis to American shores. Is that a legitimate concern in your opinion?

Benjamin: We have incredibly detailed vetting processes that take a very long time — on the order of two years. This is completely different than what we see in Europe. We have brought thousands of Iraqi refugees to this country and the number of bad apples was very small and we caught them. It disappoints me that there isn’t a better understanding of that and it disappoints me as well that the people who have suffered the most from the Syrian crisis, that is to say the Syrians themselves, are being victimized again in terms of not being given access to a country that can give them asylum and resettle them. The United States can’t take care of the whole refugee problem by a longshot, but I think that we do have a responsibility to be a good global citizen and take a share of those refugees.

TWD: How would you characterize cooperation among the U.S., which has a very sophisticated and — at least in recent years — largely successful anti-terror strategy, and countries in Europe, which have been less successful?

Benjamin: We have different ways that we cooperate. We have strong relationships in intelligence and law enforcement and we work together in the multilateral arena. It’s a bit of a challenge in that we don’t fund anything. We don’t pay for programs in most categories in Western Europe, which is very, very wealthy.

But it’s also important to understand these are proud countries and absent dramatic events, their willingness to make big changes has been historically limited. We’ve had a lot of success at the cost of hard diplomacy in getting them to exchange information with us, for example on aviation travel, because Congress made it a condition of the visa waiver programs. It took several years to get all the visa waiver programs signed up and to do all the exchanges they needed to. But the irony is that many of those countries don’t exchange that information among themselves. They may have felt like they were coerced into doing it with us, but they haven’t taken the initiative to do it among themselves, which we think is extraordinarily important. Our leverage is limited. We’re very forthcoming on all kinds of best practices, but there is no lever here to press them to do it in many cases unless they want to do it.

We hope the events in Paris last fall and the events in Brussels this spring are a wakeup call. A number of countries have started pushing their budgets upward and increasing staff. It doesn’t change things overnight but it will in the long term. And we hope it demonstrates a major turn in how they view this threat.

TWD: You’ve written that intelligence-sharing between the U.S. and its European allies, and among the European countries themselves, is weak and ineffective. Why is that?

Benjamin: All countries are very protective of the information they gather and despite the EU and its unification, intelligence is the last place they will pool and share (information) naturally, if you will. I think these are just cultural issues that need to be overcome. During the Cold War in the U.S., there was a lot of suspicion among different agencies and lots of stovepipes that needed to be broken down. Those stovepipes are bigger and tougher when they are maintained by sovereign countries as they are in Europe. Many of these countries had not really thought the threat was imminently directed against them. And so they’re in a difficult position right now.

TWD: One of the shifts in strategy among terrorists seems to be the willingness to use simple firearms to carry out attacks, as we saw in Paris last November when 130 people were killed. Does that not make U.S. society, which is awash in guns, more vulnerable?

Benjamin: That side of the equation is very worrisome to the United States, although there are more and more weapons available in Europe from various sources. The availability of weaponry in the U.S. is a very big problem, particularly when you have a terrorist group that believes you should act wherever you can and doesn’t have the kind of obsession with extremely complex covert operations with multiple attacks and large explosives or even WMDs, as al-Qaeda did. The barrier to entry has fallen in a lot of places because the terrorists are prepared to use cruder instruments to carry out their violence. That’s a problem.

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Photo: Miguel Discart on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 Wikimedia Commons
People gather around chalk drawings and flowers honoring the victims of the March 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels. The largest message in French says "Brussels is beautiful," as well as "stop violence, stop war, unity, and humanity."

The flipside to that is that we seem to be — and no one can confirm this with any kind of certainty and we still need to be vigilant — a bit safer from catastrophic threats than we were in 2001 to 2003. I’m sure there is someone at ISIS (Islamic State) who would like to carry out a spectacular attack, but that has not been the primary focus of their plotting to date.

TWD: What is the biggest difference between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda and the kinds of Islamic terror groups that plotted successfully against the U.S. in the 1990s and early 2000s?

Benjamin: The biggest difference here is that ISIS, led by their founder (Abu Musab) al-Zarqawi, focused on holding territory, on creating a caliphate and pursuing a sectarian agenda and really focusing on killing Shia. Whereas (al-Qaeda leader Osama) bin Laden opposed the notion of holding territory because he thought it was really hard to preserve a state that was essentially at war with all of its neighbors and an entire international community. His view was that he wanted to damage the U.S. and the West efficiently so it would get out of the Middle East, so it would no longer prop up the apostate authoritarian governments of the Middle East.

He had a long game he was playing and he thought that was the most sensible way to go. That did not really galvanize the masses in the Muslim world, so he did not attract the kind of following that ISIS has with its effort to create its own caliphate, create an ideal state that would fulfill the dreams and ambitions of Muslims around the world. That was a very different approach on the part of al-Zarqawi and a lot more magnetism for the admittedly small number of people who believe it. As a percentage of the global Muslim community, the believers are small in number but enough that you have 30,000 or 40,000 fighters come into ISIS-controlled territory. I think ISIS recognized that fighting Shia, particularly Shia in Iraq, was going to be more palpable, more immediate and attractive to lots of would-be fighters.

ISIS grows out of al-Qaeda and they both have their same roots in Saudi and Egyptian extremism in the mid to late 20th century, but they have taken fairly different paths in terms of their grand strategy.

TWD: One consistent characteristic of the response to terrorist attacks around the globe among the U.S. population is the notion that moderate Muslims should be more vocal in denouncing the killings and shaming those who support them. What is your reaction to that sentiment, which is shared by many non-Muslim Americans?

Benjamin: I think it’s usually misplaced. It comes from people often not looking in the right places and not knowing who to listen to and not being tuned into those communities. And often it’s not having a clear sense of the language those communities speak. I think in the U.S. right now there is enormous concern about young people being lured away by an ideology that is totally alien and anathema to everything those communities believe in. There may be some hesitancy because these are not immigrant communities that have been in the U.S. for 200 years, but I think by and large those communities should be and can be and often are in the frontlines in the fight against extremism. I think it’s often too glib to expect them to speak in the same language that commentators on FOX News do.

TWD: Speaking of FOX News, it’s been interesting to watch the feud between that network and Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner for president of the United States. Trump’s rhetoric toward Muslims in America has been fairly extreme. He’s suggested banning Muslims from the U.S. and in mid-March proclaimed that “Islam hates us,” meaning the United States. What effect does Trump’s rhetoric have on the Muslim world, here and abroad?

Benjamin: Trump has brought out an incredibly ugly streak in public opinion and has had a deeply unsettling effect on lots of communities in the United States and around the world. It’s not a unique phenomenon. We’ve seen nativist parties and individuals come to the fore in many different countries, but it’s particularly distressing when it’s your own country and when it’s so vitally important that Muslims remain trusting of the authorities. Damaging that trust is really disastrous for our efforts to defend ourselves and it’s also distressing and kind of horrifying in a country that has such a history of welcoming migrants and integrating them over the long term. A strong and competent nation ought not to let a threat change entirely the way it does business.


About the Author

Michael Coleman (@michaelcoleman) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat

Last Edited on May 4, 2016