Is al Qaeda threat to USA overblown?

You would have the same chances of becoming a victim of al Qaeda as being killed by a comet, a US academic contends.

india Updated: Feb 17, 2007 19:58 IST

The threat from al Qaeda to the United States since the September 11, 2001, attacks has been "overblown" by officials, with the chances of becoming a victim the same as being killed by a comet, a US academic contends.

Professor John Mueller, chairman of National Security Studies at Ohio State University, says in a new book that politicians and security officials overreacted to the threat and exaggerated what was really a small risk.

"The threat is overblown. It doesn't mean it doesn't exist but I don't think it's of a cosmic nature. It's not a threat to survival," Mueller told Reuters at a high-profile security conference in London where he was one of the guest speakers.

In his book Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them, Mueller analysed public statements from senior politicians and security officials since September 11.

He questioned why al Qaeda had failed to attack the United States again since then, despite numerous grim warnings that had suggested that Osama bin Laden's group was active and on the verge of attacks.

He cited comments such as those made by FBI director Robert Mueller who said in 2003: "The greatest threat is from al Qaeda cells in the US that we have not yet been able to identify."

The reason nothing had come to pass, he argued, was because the threat was nowhere near as serious as claimed, and that al Qaeda probably had little or no US presence.

Professor Mueller's claims in his book that the al Qaeda threat is vastly overblown

"If the FBI says we can't find any al Qaeda cells one reaction is, why are we giving you so much money?" said Muller, whose The Remnants of War won an award for best book on international relations in 2004.

"It's to your advantage to exacerbate the threat and say it's really out there."

Mueller said the Department for Homeland Security had identified 80,000 potential targets from shopping malls to the Weeki Wachee Springs water park in Florida.

But the chances of being killed by an act of terrorism are 80,000 to 1, he contends, the same as being killed by a comet or an asteroid.

According to his calculations, about 200 people worldwide have died in non-combat areas as a result of al Qaeda action since September 11.

"That's 200 too many but not a threat to an international system or any modern state," he reasoned.

"Two to three hundred die every year in the United States alone from drowning in a bath tub."

Mueller stressed that there was a threat from a small group of extremists but he argued they were not as sophisticated, and so not as much of a risk, as the authorities made out.

"More and more when you look at these cases you do find they are not the sharpest knives in the drawer," said Mueller, who is familiar with militant attacks after two of his students were killed in the bombing of an airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

"Many of them seem to clearly be nut cases, probably more dangerous to themselves, but they might blow something up.

"Nutty people have done horrible things before."

But while he accused politicians and officials of racheting up fear and security costs, he didn't doubt their sincerity. However, he doubted they would ever publicly support his views.

"Then they'd be soft on terrorism. They're afraid to say what I've said in case they are going to lose votes. Maybe they're right."

First Published: Feb 18, 2007 03:30 IST