Terrorism is not so much a military strategy as a public relations strategy. The aim of terrorists is not to defeat their enemies militarily, but to provoke some kind of a response. Al Qaeda has never had any hope of directly destroying the U.S. But by attacking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon the group could bring enormous amounts of attention to its cause, make American citizens fear for their safety, and bait the U.S. into a response that would drive a wedge between the U.S. and the Middle Eastern moderates.
That’s not to say that there’s no reason for concern. The September 11 attacks were devastating and many Americans lost people they loved. Even if Al Qaeda doesn’t represent the same kind of existential threat that the Soviet Union or the Nazis did, even one death is too many and we would be foolish to close our eyes the danger of another major attack.
But, as Daniel Drezner suggests, some perspective is in order. CIA Director Leon Panetta told Jake Tapper in June that the number of actual Al Qaeda operatives was down to “50 to 100, maybe less.” And a recent Pew poll finds that Al Qaeda is fairly unpopular throughout most of the Muslim world. As Peter Bergen writes in Vanity Fair, “it’s not the West that faces an existential threat, but Al Qaeda.” Bergen argues that
... citizens in the West must come to understand—and their leaders must drive the point home—that although terrorist attacks, including attacks by al Qaeda, will continue to happen, the real damage is done by the panic and lashing out that follows. This is the reaction that al Qaeda craves—and it is why terrorism works. It's easy to understand the emergence of a culture of paranoia coupled with rhetoric of vengeance. Prudence, calmness, and patience seem almost pusillanimous by comparison. But they work. Rare is the threat that can be defeated in large measure simply by deciding that we will not unduly fear it. Terrorism is one such threat.
As National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter recently said, it may be time to stop treating terrorists as if they were “10 feet tall”—not when in fact, as Spencer Ackerman points out, they are mostly like failed underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. By making the fight against terrorism the focal point of our foreign policy—as well as by detaining and torturing people suspected of a connection to terrorism in violation of our own laws and principles—we drastically inflate the importance of groups like Al Qaeda, and give them precisely the platform they desire.