A top Pentagon official admitted that the U.S. government may have misjudged the actual threat posed by Al Qaeda in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. More than a decade later, Michael A. Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict, told an audience Tuesday, “Quite frankly, we, the American people, were asleep at the switch, the U.S. government, prior to 9/11. So an organization that wasn’t that good looked really great on 9/11.”
Sheehan, speaking at a Special Operations, Low Intensity Conflict Planning conference, questioned Al Qaeda’s capabilities:
Everyone looked to the skies every day after 9/11 and said, ‘When is the next attack?’ And it didn’t come, partly because al-Qaida wasn’t that capable. They didn’t have other units here in the U.S. … Really, they didn’t have the capability to conduct a second attack.
Sheehan credited the American military’s “brilliant operation” in October 2001 that ousted the Taliban from power but also emphasized that Al Qaeda’s limited capabilities were one of the key reasons the U.S. hasn’t suffered a terrorist attack since 2001.
Unrealistic estimates of Al Qaeda’s reach and strength weren’t the only overblown fears after the 9/11 attacks. A new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University and RTI International study [PDF] finds that counterterrorism officials’ warning about a potential wave of homegrown terrorism have not materialized. Moreover, numbers of U.S. Muslims with any suspected links to terrorism have been declining since 9/11. The study found that 20 Muslim-Americans committed or were arrested for terrorist crimes in 2011, down from 26 in 2010 and 49 in 2009. A chart from the report illustrates the data:
“Those who predicted an inevitable, rapid increase of homegrown violent extremism among Muslim-Americans were wrong,” said David Schanzer [DOC], director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security and professor of public policy at Duke. UNC professor Charles Kurzman, author of the report, called terrorism by Muslim Americans “a minuscule threat to public safety.”
In September, Kurzman’s new book The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists found that Al Qaeda and its affiliates have “failed so dismally” because they have been unable to recruit American Muslims. Putting the homegrown terrorist threat in context, Kurzman pointed out that in the ten years since 9/11, Muslim American terrorist plots have killed 33 people in the U.S. but there have been more than 150,000 murders.