How Many Terrorists Are There: Not As Many As You Might Think

from the and-even-if-we-count-generously dept

Terrorism is a deadly, ever-present menace from which Americans should spare no expense or effort in protecting themselves. Or so our rulers claim.

For example, Rep. Mike Rogers warns, “The threat from Al Qaeda-linked terrorists is continuously evolving as they seek new safe havens from which to recruit, train and conduct operations against Americans and our interests…. terrorists tell us they want to strike American and other Western targets.” And John Pistole at the TSA excuses his agency’s sexual assaults of passengers by incoherently intoning, “The reason we are doing these types of pat downs and using the advanced imagery technology is trying to take the latest intelligence and how we know al Qaeda and affiliates want to hurt us, they want to bring down whether it is passenger air craft or cargo aircraft.”

It would seem that terrorism runs rampant, as the Feds remind us with each new infringement of our freedom. Which means there must be millions of terrorists out there, right?

Nope. The same government that spends trillions of our dollars and sacrifices our few remaining rights fighting terrorists also publishes a census of sorts on them – though apparently the Feds don’t read it. Country Reports on Terrorism appears annually courtesy of the US Department of State. And each year, it explodes the myth that jihadists lurk on every airport’s concourse. In fact, bureaucrats at just one of the agencies supposedly battling them, the Department of Homeland Security, far outnumber them.

Naturally, the enemy is too busy plotting America’s destruction to fill out questionnaires, so the Reports relies on educated guesses: statements such as “membership is estimated in the low hundreds” and “core membership is believed to be fewer than 100” abound. And of the 51 “Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) … designated by the Secretary of State in accordance with section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)” that the Reports surveys, the “Strength” of 15 remains flatly “unknown.”

Nonetheless, adding these figures together should yield a rough idea of how many foes scheme to blow us sky-high.

While crunching numbers, we’ll give the Feds something they never give us: the benefit of the doubt. We’ll take the higher figure each time we encounter a range (“Reports of Jundallah membership vary from 500 to 2,000” counts as 2000, for instance). And we’ll interpret “several,” “few” or “low” as 5, so that “several thousand” or “membership in the low thousands” becomes 5000. Finally, we’ll double our tally to cover those 15 “unknowns” and their no doubt huge enrollments.

So how many participants in “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” worldwide menace America’s “national security?” How many threaten us so badly that our rulers insist on suspending much of the Bill of Rights to counteract the danger?

Try 184,000.

Yep, just 184,000. Even big, bad “Al-Qa’ida (AQ)” and its three affiliates (“Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula”; “Al-Qa’ida in Iraq”; and “Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb”) boast only 4000 bad guys combined. (The main Al-Qa’ida’s “strength” is “impossible to estimate,” but the Reports admits that its “core has been seriously degraded” following “the death or arrest of dozens of mid- and senior-level AQ operatives.” “Dozens,” not “hundreds.” Hmmm.)

And remember, 184,000 is a ridiculously inflated figure – both because of our generous accounting and also because governments often expand a word’s meaning well beyond the dictionary’s. You may recall the Feds’ contending with straight faces in 2004 that if “a little old lady in Switzerland gave money to a charity for an Afghan orphanage, and the money was passed to al Qaeda,” she met the definition of “enemy combatant.” Five years later, a federal Fusion Center decreed that “if you’re an anti-abortion activist, or if you display political paraphernalia supporting a third-party candidate or [Ron Paul], if you possess subversive literature, you very well might be a member of a domestic paramilitary group.” No telling how many confused Swiss grandmothers and readers of Techdirt’s subversive articles cluster among those 184,000.

That number grows even more absurd when we compare it with the aforementioned Homeland Security’s 240,000 Warriors on Terror. Meanwhile, something like 780,000 cops stalk us nationwide, whose duties also encompass tilting at terrorism’s windmill. And that’s to say nothing of the scores of other bureaucracies at the national, state, and local levels hunting these same 184,000 guerrillas as well as an additional 1,368,137 troops from the armed forces [click on “Rank/Grade – current month”].

Nor do American armies, bureaucratic or literal, battle alone. Britain, Europe and assorted allies aim at that grotesquely outnumbered 184,000, too.

It gets worse. Country Reports also lists “Location/Area of Operation” for our 51 groups. Surprisingly, most of them harbor extremely modest ambitions, especially for folks who hate our freedom (or what’s left of it): they’re far more interested in their own backyards than ours. For example, the Abu Sayyaf Group “operates primarily in the provinces of the Sulu Archipelago, namely Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi. The group also operates on the Zamboanga Peninsula.” And though American politicians suspect it of hoping to overthrow the Great Satan, it instead “claims to promote an independent Islamic state in western Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago.”

Ditto for the Continuity Irish Republican Army (“Location/Area of Operation: Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic”); the Haqqani Network (“…active along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and across much of southeastern Afghanistan”); Lashkar i Jhangvi (“…active primarily in Punjab, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Karachi, and Baluchistan”); and even the National Liberation Army (“Mostly in the rural and mountainous areas of northern, northeastern, and southwestern Colombia, as well as the border regions with Venezuela”). In fact, despite the State Department’s insistence that “the organization’s terrorist activity or terrorism must threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security (national defense, foreign relations, or the economic interests) of the United States” for inclusion in the Reports, it’s incredibly difficult to see how most of these associations pose any peril whatever to the US.

It’s even harder – some would say impossible – to understand how protecting ourselves from these distant dissidents requires forfeiting even one of our rights, let alone the wholesale evisceration of freedom the Security State demands.

Becky Akers is a free-lance writer and historian who has published two novels, Halestorm and Abducting Arnold. Both are set during the American Revolution, when terrorists overthrew the world’s most powerful empire.

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Comments on “How Many Terrorists Are There: Not As Many As You Might Think”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

I’d say the estimates here are grossly inaccurate, after all, if you believe the government’s excus- I mean statements, there’s at least 300+ million ‘potential terrorists’ in one country alone!

With those kinds of numbers, of course they’ve got to shred the rights of the people left and right, they’ve got over 300 million people to protect from those 300 million potential threats!

300 million!


Be afraid!


jupiterkansas (profile) says:

It doesn’t matter how many terrorists there are. The point is there will always be terrorists. They’ll never go away. There’s no surrender, no negotiations or peace treaties, no final victory, no need to ever end the gravy train of war. In fact, the more you fight terrorism, the more likely it is that you’ll just create more terrorists to fight. I suspect we’ll be at war against terror for the rest of my life.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Maybe, but at some point they may find a new bogeyman to declare “war” on to justify their actions. They got this when they found out how profitable it was fighting fascism. So once that was no longer sellable, they turned it into a dire fight against Communism which they were able to milk for well over 40 years. Then drugs became the new bogeyman. Now that that is tired, it’s terrorism. It’s not a matter of whether the terrorists still exist or not. Fascists, Communists, and Drugs all still exist. They didn’t go away. It’s just that the people don’t jump the same way anymore when the government yells “Boo!” Terrorism is quickly becoming the same thing and I’m sure they are looking as we speak for the the next bogeyman that will rekindle the effect.

Anonymous Coward says:

k12 schools are more dangerous

There is a better chance I would get knifed in a k12 school here in the states than that I would ever come across a terrorist.

Our president and his NSA, CIA, ETC… are a bunch of self serving a-holes looking for a paycheck. If they really were there to protect us, they themselves would be the first ones they attacked for the amount of damage their terrorist actions have done to our country and others.

LAB (profile) says:

Number of terrorist in 9/11= 19, number of deaths= 2,977, Number of non fatal injuries= 6,000, property damage $10 billion.
Though I disagree with many governmental policies associated with national security, I would very much like to hear the author’s definition of “the wholesale evisceration of freedom.” In addition, if one could better define the “Security State” in which we live, I would better be able to grasp the author’s argument. Because there aren’t many terrorists we should….? Is the argument, there are less terrorist today than there where before? I would think the number would be about the same. I suppose labeling elected officials as “our rulers” is a bit more telling…..

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: For a little perspective:

‘Number of terrorist in 9/11= 19, number of deaths= 2,977, Number of non fatal injuries= 6,000, property damage $10 billion.’

Number of deaths for leading causes of death(2010):

-Heart disease: 597,689
-Cancer: 574,743
-Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 138,080
-Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 129,476
-Accidents (unintentional injuries): 120,859
-Alzheimer’s disease: 83,494
-Diabetes: 69,071
-Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 50,476
-Influenza and Pneumonia: 50,097
-Intentional self-harm (suicide): 38,364

Terrorism kills a lot of people in a short amount of time, but long term, there are countless threats that massively overshadow terrorism as a cause of death.

Also, if the idea is to protect/save as many lives as possible, just imagine how many lives could have been saved had the money spent towards ‘fighting terrorism’ been applied to R&D and improved services for the threats listed above. We’re talking billions upon billions of dollars, each year, for a ‘fight’ that is essentially unending, think of how much good even some of that money could do if applied to help deal with and manage other, greater, threats.


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: For a little perspective:

The point is in the scope of things to worry about, your chance of dying as the result of a terrorist attack is quite low, especially compared to such things. Yet we let terrorism scare us to the point that we allowed many of the basic principles on which our country was founded on to be subverted via an irrational fear.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: For a little perspective:

What I’m trying to point out is that comparatively, terrorism doesn’t even come close to a major threat, so treating it as though it’s this world-class problem, and needs to have everything possible done to combat it, when other, more serious threats get much less funding and attention, seems like both massive overkill, and handing victory of the perpetrators of terrorism, by being overly influenced by it.

Remember, the goal of terrorism is not to kill people, it’s to cause them to panic, to be in fear, and change their behavior because of it. By that metric, the idea that it’s acceptable to sacrifice rights, and spend billions ‘just in case’, is doing nothing more than playing right into the terrorists’ hands, and doing their work for them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 For a little perspective:

I wonder how many of those 38,364 people committed suicide because of the War on Terror? I’ve seen several stories on Techdirt about what the US government does to the aforementioned confused grandmothers; they get kidnapped and subjected to psychological torture to make them confess to whatever fictitious crime they happen to need a patsy for.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: For a little perspective:

Have a look at that list again, and check out how many of them (particularly the ones at the top) are indeed “caused by the willful acts of others,” specifically by pollution, adulteration of food and water supplies, producing and heavily advertising unhealthy food, unhealthy drinks, tobacco products, poorly-tested or fraudulent pharmaceuticals, etc. Those top causes of death aren’t things that “just happen to people” any more than terrorism is.

JMT says:

Re: Re: Re: For a little perspective:

“I fail to see why a list of items not caused by the willful actions of others would bring perspective on terrorism.”

You fail to see why spending billions of dollars trying to save a statistically minute number of lives is a stupid idea compared to spending that money in ways that could save tens or even hundreds of thousands of lives, maybe millions if the benefits could spread around the globe. You fail as a human being.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 For a little perspective:

“You fail as a human being.”

Really. When someone disagrees with you, I hope this is not your go to response.

Let’s address world hunger or the lack fresh water for many people on this planet or the fact that many people around the world live in countries that do not grant them the most basic of human rights. Of course there are other issues to. My point is that the metric to measure how important terrorism is has nothing to do the number of terrorists identified in a report, released to the public, by the state department. My figures demonstrated that very few people(19) caused the death or injury to 8,977 people and $10 billion dollars in damage. In addition, those things listed (heart disease, Cancer, etc…)have nothing to do with stopping a person who, for religious reasons,is willing to blow up a plane or a building. The number of terrorist has very little to do with if there should be airport screenings by the TSA. Those screenings also prevent people domestically from boarding planes with weapons and explosives.

“That number grows even more absurd when we compare it with the aforementioned Homeland Security’s 240,000 Warriors on Terror.”

The Department of homeland Security was created in 2002 and includes 22 different governmental agencies including the Coast Guard, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the U.S. Customs service. To say that they are all battling terror is just inaccurate. It ignores the fact that many of the agencies and employees existed before 9/11 and were placed in a DHS as part of a re-organizational effort. Some belonged to the Department of Transportation, the Dept of the Treasury and the Dept of Agriculture to name a few. The Coast guard alone has over 89,000 members.

“sacrifices our few remaining rights fighting terrorists.”

Few remaining rights? Please explain all the rights we have lost?

“And that’s to say nothing of the scores of other bureaucracies at the national, state, and local levels hunting these same 184,000 guerrillas as well as an additional 1,368,137 troops from the armed forces.”

I hope this is not meant to imply entire purpose of the military is to find terrorist.

JMT, did we read the same article? Do you agree with all of the facts and figures stated in this piece? Do my thoughts really make me “fail as a human being?”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: For a little perspective:

How do you think cancer or heart disease would do if we stopped watching them and putting money into them? Do you think they would get worse or better? Same logic applies to terrorism. Is it the best way to spend our money? Maybe not. But do you want to watch family or friends be blown up in a public place at age 30…or maybe die of cancer at 70?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

And about 8-9 of those “terrorists” aren’t even dead, well weren’t dead as of sept 12 2001, some were Saudi Airlines pilots and some people who had their passports stolen in the 90’s.

Believing this 19 highjackers thing is too hilarious to sustain for me, gonna have to leave the desktop.

Anonymous Coward says:

Just a few more countries to “liberate” and you will get your one million terrorists.
>conduct operations against Americans and our interests
how dare they fight back against those who murder their families? Yes, be surprised. They hate the US because democracy, freedom and whatever else is the hip thing these days…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Haven’t you heard ? Since there was no reason to attack Iran and that their nuclear research for electricity is monitored 24/7 and that Israel has 200 nukes at least anyway so why be scared of them and how Russia kept warning Bush and Mrs Clinton not to attack Iran, you’re suddenly cool with Iran and you just bypassed the bullshit by declaring Russia the real enemy again!

PRMan (profile) says:

Article is disingenuous

The Abu Sayyaf Group has probably kidnapped more Americans than almost any other group on this list. Meaning, they have committed more actual violence to US citizens than most.

Mike dismisses them with a handwave because they operate on small islands in the Philippines, but there is a LOT of American time and money spent on that group negotiating the return of kidnapped Americans and cooperation with foreign governments compared to many others.

CK20XX (profile) says:

Re: Article is disingenuous

You’re missing the point. The point is that the world is not overrun with Abu Sayyaf Groups, so there’s no point in panicking and restricting basic freedoms just because people like them exist. In fact, if the country wasn’t panicking, we’d probably be able to deal with terrorist groups like that more effectively and have the respect of the world again on top of that.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Article is disingenuous

While this isn’t Mike writing this article, I’ll thank you for this comment. I actually have a TON of problems with this article, but the section on Abu Sayyaf is downright insane.

Case in point, characterizing their goal as wanting an Islamic govt. on their little plot of land instead of their actual STATED goal, creating a new caliphate-led theocracy as a FIRST STEP, is disingenuous in the extreme.

For all my war-weary fellow Americans who want it all to not be true and for their to be no danger, man up and get ready, because there sure is an ideological war to be fought, and it will come to our shores once more, so you might as well be prepared for it….

Whatever says:

Re: Re: Article is disingenuous

My problem with the article is that it tries to create a black and white is a terrorist / is not a terrorist classification when that isn’t the reality in the field.

The reality is much more than there are certain hardcore fighters, that much is clear. But there is also the much larger problem of sympathizers, supporters, those who give aid, housing, arms, transport, and money towards the cause. They may not jihad you ass in the k-mart parking lot, but they are certainly part of the problem.

It’s another case of an article that tries to hard to hit a target and instead fails by showing how poorly the facts are considered.

Shaky says:

Re: Re: Re: Article is disingenuous

i wonder why some muslims symphatize with them, hmmm. cant be because of all the hundreds of thousands of civilian lives lost thanks to the US? you do realize that those innocent people had mothers, fathers brothers, sisters, uncles and cousins which loved them with just as much passions as you or i love our loved ones. try to put youself in theyr shoe, maybe then one day you will understand this war is just tragic. i dont know about you, but if this happened to me, i would spend the rest of my life trying to avenge theyr death. i would be filled with so much hate because of this unjust.

Anonymous Coward says:

I just can’t trust these politicians and agencies anymore. They have lied and lied again to get it their way. They have tortured, killed innocents without remorse and probably worse.
Call me paranoid, but I am not sure anymore that these people, if they were in danger of losing power, wouldn’t let someone “slip” through the net just to refresh peoples memories of the boogeyman.

I am aware it sounds like a bad movie, but this is how little I think of them now. Not all of them are bad, but those who aren’t, are locked down by those who are.

madasahatter (profile) says:

Good post

Many terrorists are only peripherally interested in an attack on the US because their political goals are local. Another issue is most terrorist groups are only effective if they can keep a tightly knit cadre that is difficult ot penetrate. This puts an effective upper limit on the size fo the group. If you get to large, you can not always properly vet new members and most governments will attack the group if it gets too large.

Part of the success of 9/11 was the incompetence of the FBI, CIA, and Immigration in properly following up leads and warnings. As long imbeciles run these agencies the terrorists will always have a chance for success. The problem with the current security theater is it is refighting the last war not the current war.

Anonymous Coward says:

Seems to me we are the terrorists now, at least our “elected” representatives in D.C. are. We should be concerned about the threat from within, Bin Laden was a stroll in the park compared to these people. Nero is playing, Rome is burning. Constitutional convention anyone, or don’t you all have the stones or the stomach for it?

Wesley Parish says:

Coulda told you that

People have been making such comments for ages now:

It wasn’t their fault, as he himself had pointed out to an over-inquisitive reporter in a phone interview just a few minutes ago ? it was hardly their fault that terrorists had developed ever more effective means of camouflaging themselves, and so the inspections had to become ever more intrusive. One did not expect women to be so fanatical that they would replace their saline and silicone inserts with plastic explosives. But someone had written a short story about such a thing happening, and it had been made into a movie, so they were doing their duty in protecting the public by…damn, he was going to have to put that reporter on the no-fly list, wasn’t he! Obnoxious little puppy, he should’ve been drowned at birth!

Anonymous Coward says:

With secret interpretation, anyones a terrorist, if you threaten their hold, guess
what, you might be a terrorist, saying no to something with no choice, guess what….terrorist…….the only real option given, with any semblence of artificial freedom, is yes, and unwavering support, honest support not required, just the impression of support amongst your peers, the biggest pressure of them all

jimjfox (profile) says:

Re: Robert

Yes, indeed. Because security services are imperfect, make mistakes [hello, they’re run by HUmANS] then we can ignore terror?
That Islamists, like Nazis are/were few in number has no bearing on their influence; it is the Gov’ts duty to protect citizens and yes, some liberties will be infringed, to some degree.
The alternative is chaos, open season for lunatics.

jimjfox (profile) says:

Terrorism? What Terrorism?

SO– what should be done?
According to this article and the bulk of comments…NOTHING!!

Since terrorism is no threat at all, terrorists should be ignored.
No security is needed AT ALL, according to this stupidity.
Give them free access to airports, all means of public transport,
weaponry, open borders, no passports, etc, etc.

Great Idea! We can save so much expense and have no limit on our freedoms. DO YOU SERIOUSLY BELIEVE THIS SHITE???

Not Dead Yet (profile) says:

The point is to be angry at the government and not angry about the dissolving of people in acid, the beheadings and the chainsawing. The drowning, burning alive and more.

The goal of salafists is to kill everyone and bring about armageddon. It’s not a bad idea to be vigilant whatever their numbers since they inspire nutjobs to come forward and kill like in the Orlando nightclub.

Not to mention bringing down the twin towers. So it’s not a completely ridiculous concept and not so for the Yazidis and others being killed in a genocide.

We don’t have to be nuts ourselves and when the govt takes steps to preclude terrorism isn’t often a boondoggle and hard to keep up with the new terrorists that we’ve armed and sent to do some regime change somewhere. Hopefully the new administration will insist that we don’t try to do Nation Building as that has failed miserably as well as my lost elation when I realized that the Arab Spring was just an opening for more crazies with weaponry to take over from the ousted dictators.

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