Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Forecasts of terrorist apocalypse? Never mind

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
updated 12:15 PM EST, Wed February 26, 2014
Sochi 2014 came to a close Sunday amid a blaze of fireworks and celebration. Fears over potential terrorist attacks, protests and the weather dominated the build-up to the Games but, with the Olympics now behind us, was Sochi a success? Sochi 2014 came to a close Sunday amid a blaze of fireworks and celebration. Fears over potential terrorist attacks, protests and the weather dominated the build-up to the Games but, with the Olympics now behind us, was Sochi a success?
HIDE CAPTION
Captivating climax
Accomodations
Weather
Sporting success
Doping
Terrorism
Protest
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Before Sochi Olympics, predictions of terrorist action were rampant
  • Peter Bergen says the Games were unaffected and predictions turned out to be wrong
  • He says such forecasts fit into a long history of "sky is falling" warnings
  • Bergen: Statements that al Qaeda represents big threat to U.S. now are off base

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad."

(CNN) -- "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future" is an aphorism attributed to the great baseball player Yogi Berra.

But one topic where pundits, politicians and prognosticators of every persuasion don't have any problem about making pessimistic predictions is terrorism.

The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, was an Olympic-level example of this. In the lead-up to the Games, the airwaves were filled with glum predictions that Sochi would be the 1972 Munich Olympics on steroids.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, told Fox News, "There's a high degree of probability that something will detonate, something will go off. ... But I do think it's probably, most likely going to happen outside the 'ring of steel' at the Olympic Village."

Similarly, Michael G. Grimm, co-chair of the House Russian Caucus, issued a press release headlined, "Sochi Olympics Cannot Become a Benghazi Nightmare." The New York Republican warned, "We cannot sweep these threats under the rug, like we did with Benghazi or the warnings from Russia on the Tsarnaev brother behind the Boston Marathon bombing. Each time we fail to recognize these threats, we not only risk the lives of innocent Americans, but appear weaker and vulnerable in the eyes of the enemy."

Bill Rathburn, who directed security for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, in an interview with Yahoo News predicted of Sochi, "It's not a matter of whether there will be some incident, it's just a matter of how bad it's going to be."

Terrorists near Sochi target planes
U.S. on alert for terror in Sochi
Terrorism in Russia and the Olympics

No wonder that two days before the Sochi Olympics, more than half of Americans believed a terrorist attack on the Games was likely, according to a CNN/ORC poll.

Now cue up the swarms of "black widows" descending on Sochi to kill themselves along with many Olympic spectators.

And then the Games were held and ... nothing happened

It turned out that the most terrifying image from Sochi was the look of disgust on the face of American figure skater Ashley Wagner when she learned of her lower-than-expected score.

Sochi is only the most recent example of the hyperventilating hyperbole of the doomsday terrorism prognosticators. Because so many folks were caught flat-footed by 9/11, some seem to overcompensate by keeping up a steady drumbeat of dire terror warnings.

In November, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, told CNN that al Qaeda "poses a bigger threat to attack inside the U.S. right now than it did before 9/11."

Rogers' statement defies common sense.

Before 9/11, al Qaeda had an entire county, Afghanistan, as a safe haven; its training camps there churned out thousands of militants every year; it had access to funding substantial enough so that it could spend several hundred thousand dollars on the 9/11 plot. It was a formidable enemy.

Now al Qaeda's safe haven is long gone; the group hasn't mounted any successful attack in the States since 9/11 or, for that matter, anywhere in the West since the London transportation system bombings in 2005.

On 9/11, the United States had never used armed drones in combat. Since then, the CIA has launched 370 drone strikes at suspected militant targets in Pakistan. During President Barack Obama's tenure alone, those drone strikes have killed more than 30 of al Qaeda's leaders in Pakistan.

Not only that: The United States is a much harder target than it was on 9/11. Then there were 16 people on the U.S. "no fly" list.

Today there are more than 20,000. In 2001, there were 32 Joint Terrorism Task Force "fusion centers," where multiple law enforcement agencies worked together to chase down leads and build terrorism cases. Now there are 103.

The U.S. intelligence budget also grew dramatically after 9/11. In 2010, the United States spent more than $80 billion on intelligence collection and other covert activities, much of it directed at terrorist groups -- more than three times what the country spent in 1998.

At the time of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Transportation Security Administration all didn't exist. All these new post-9/11 institutions make it much harder for terrorists to operate in the United States.

The gloom and doom about terrorism becomes much worse when the specter of terrorists deploying chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons is added to the mix.

Graham Allison, the respected political scientist and founding dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, published a book in 2004 titled "Nuclear Terrorism, which garnered considerable attention with its prediction that "on the current path, a nuclear terrorist attack on America in the decade ahead is more likely than not."

Of course, now we are a decade later, and nothing of the sort has happened.

Indeed, a striking finding of a database of every jihadist terrorism case in the United States since 9/11 maintained by the New America Foundation is that not one of the more than 200 individuals who were indicted or convicted of a jihadist terrorism crime acquired, manufactured or deployed chemical, biological or radiological weapons, let alone a nuclear device.

It's relatively easy to say the sky is always falling. Indeed, given the human capacity for evil, bad things are, indeed, going to happen. But when the sky doesn't fall, which is much of the time when it comes to terrorism, the doomsday prognosticators are rarely held to account. In any event, they are too busy warning of the next catastrophe.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:06 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 7:17 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 7:37 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT