Terrorism is all too real a threat, and mass attacks cause a special kind of fear. Terrorist movements like ISIS kill innocents for the worst of causes and the worst of reasons. They seek to use fear to separate the West from the Muslim world, and to divide the Muslim world and dominate it. They try to use alienated Muslims in the West to create a growing climate of anger and distrust with Europe and the United States. They deliberately seek to get the West to overreact and lash out against all Muslims and Islam, just as they try to use extremism and violence to try to get the populations of Muslim countries to attack their own governments.
They also feed on Western ignorance of Islam, and the fear of new and unfamiliar risks. We in the West have learned to live with most forms of our mortality. We accept the fact that life has a wide range of risks, almost all of which are far more serious than terrorism: Lightning, suicide, traffic, disease, home accidents produce far more deaths than terrorism.
However, we are just beginning to learn a reality at the popular and political level that many security and counterterrorism experts have known for years. Even the most effective counterterrorism efforts can contain and limit terrorism, but stops short of “defeating” it. It is possible to sharply reduce the levels of terrorism, and to contain and deter many attacks. It is not possible to fully secure open societies, prevent sudden attacks by the alienated and disturbed, or defeat Islamic extremism by any mix of counterterrorism and military force than does not address the causes of Islamic extremism.
The Forces that Will Maintain the Threat for At Least the Next Decade