The reason America appears weak, especially in the Middle East, is because America is reluctant to use military force in the region. And although the war in Afghanistan was a failure in many ways, the reason American is less willing to use military force in the Middle East is in part a result of the success in the “war on terror.”
I know my conclusion will surprise some readers but it is important to remember that for Americans inside the United States the last 20 years have not seen a new wave of attacks from foreign terrorists. That is a success. Since September 11, there was only one terror attack inside the United States that came from orders from the al-Qaeda organization. (The attack at the naval base in Pensacola, Florida in December 2019 killed three Americans, and the orders according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations – the FBI – came from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.)
Without any major terror attacks inside America, public opinion is less worried about terrorism. According to an early September 2021 opinion survey from the Gallup organization, only 36 percent of Americans worry about being a victim of a terror attack, compared to 58 percent in September 2001. An opinion survey in February 2021 from the Chicago Council of Foreign Relations showed that only ten percent of Democrats and 15 percent of Republicans thought that foreign terrorist organizations are the biggest threat to American security. People more often pointed to China, Russia or the Covid pandemic.
I must acknowledge here that the American media has said little about the tens of thousands of civilians we killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and other countries in this war on terrorism.
But Americans usually don’t pay attention to the world abroad, and in comparison to 20 years ago, they worry less about a huge new foreign terrorist attack and worry more about domestic terrorism and especially rightist extremists.
According to a report last week from the New American research institute in Washington, since September 11 domestic terrorists who claimed to have “jihadi” goals killed 107 Americans in attacks and with one exception all those killers were American citizens or had an American green card and were not working under orders from outside the country. Meanwhile, after September 11 rightist extremists, especially white supremacist militias, have killed 114 inside the United States. In March this year President Biden’s Secretary of Homeland Security said that domestic extremism is the biggest terrorism threat for the United States. The January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol building in Washington shined a light on these right-wing extremists again after they killed dozens in attacks in Texas, Pennsylvania and other states.
While the Biden administration was preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan last spring it was also beginning to implement a new strategy to confront domestic extremists. In June, the American Attorney General announced that the Department of Justice arrested 480 persons connected to the January 6 attack and was pursuing hundreds of criminal cases in the court system. The Attorney General, the highest legal official in the US, said that while the American government cannot forget about international terrorism it must respond to domestic terrorism with the same energy and determination.
That is a difficult mission because America is so divided. According to the February 2021 Chicago opinion survey, 47 percent of Democrats consider domestic extremism the biggest threat in America but only three percent of Republicans agree. The Republican Party in Washington resists investigations into the January 6 attack and many Republican leaders refuse to call the attackers terrorists or even extremists.
American politicians and the public accepted restrictions on freedoms after the September 11 attack in order to confront foreign terrorist organizations. The federal government’s authority to conduct secret surveillance on citizens expanded in a huge way. This surveillance disrupted some terrorist attacks, but that authority also reduced trust in government, especially among American conservatives.
A Pew organization survey showed that 60 percent of Americans trusted their government after September 11, but only 25 percent still trusted it in April 2021. It will be harder to mobilize a strong response against American extremists and reduce recruitment if there is a lack of trust in the government.
Former President Bush said last Saturday that domestic extremists are not from the same culture as the al-Qaeda attackers of September 11 but they are “children of the same foul spirit.” Bush urged national unity, and Democrats applauded his statement. However, several supporters of former President Trump who are now in election campaigns immediately rejected it. And the police in Washington are redeploying fences at the Capitol building before a September 18 rightist demonstration in Washington that will show support for the accused in the January 6 attack.