Bruce Hoffman

Get the Facts, Then Make Up Your Mind

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion,” the late, great Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once observed, “but not his own facts.” Although this quote is at least a couple of decades old, Senator Moynihan could easily have been referring to the ubiquitous Newsweek and Washington Post pundit, Fareed Zakaria.

I don’t know a commentator who has been more consistently factually incorrect about terrorism than Zakaria. He has persisted in the belief that the current wave of suicide terrorism directed against the United States by Muslim extremists is completely sui generis when in fact the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) regularly employed this same tactic against both civilian and military targets alike during the Vietnam War.

More egregiously, and consequentially, Zakaria persists in ignoring al-Qaeda’s direct responsibility for terrorist attacks in places as diverse as Istanbul in 2003, Madrid in 2004, and London in 2005. His column in today’s Washington Post perpetuates that myth.

Factual inaccuracies aside, the central argument of Zakaria’s column—that we overreacted to the September 11, 2001 attacks and thus have created a self-destructive “climate of fear”—is one that merits serious consideration and strenuous debate. But readers wishing to weigh this important point more carefully would do well to look elsewhere for evidence to support it.

“Does an organization that has as few as 400 members and waning global appeal require the permanent institutional response we have created?” Zakaria asks.

Terrorism, as I wrote in this same space some weeks ago, is not a numbers game—despite our attempts to turn it into one. And, while Zakaria may perhaps be correct that our current strategy of expanding overseas military commitments might be disproportionate to 400 or so terrorists; his perfunctory dismissal of the effects that even a handful of terrorists can achieve is completely misguided.

After all, just 19 terrorists changed the course of history on September 11, 2001. It took only four bombers to shatter Britain’s security on July 7, 2005 in London. And, of course, it was a lone gunman who assassinated the heir to the Hapsburg throne in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 and thus set in motion the chain of events that led to World War I.

Moreover, as Peter Bergen and I wrote on page 5 of the report for the National Security Preparedness Group titled, Assessing the Terrorist Threat, that was released on Friday,

al-Qaeda has always been a small, elite organization. There were only 200 sworn members of al-Qaeda at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and al-Qaeda’s role has always been as an ideological and military vanguard seeking to influence and train other jihadist groups.

Zakaria goes on to provide a scattershot list of six attacks since 2002 supposedly perpetrated by

smaller local groups, self-identified as affiliates of al-Qaeda, against much easier sites—the nightclub in Bali; cafes in Casablanca and Istanbul; hotels in Amman, Jordan; train stations in Madrid and London.

What he neglects to add is that al-Qaeda had a prominent or direct role in most of those incidents. Nor were any the casual, almost spontaneous low-level attacks Zakaria implies. Each of them required considerable planning and often sophistication. And, perhaps most revealing, all but one entailed simultaneous, well-coordinated suicide attacks.

Ted Koppel, the former managing editor of ABC News Nightline and now a contributing analysts to BBC World News America, made a similar argument in yesterday’s Washington Post Outlook section. He did so both more persuasively—and accurately.