Is the July 4th terror threat hyped?

Story highlights

  • There are vague but unnerving warnings about a possible terrorist threat targeting the United States on the Fourth of July holiday
  • Buck Sexton: Are terrorists really about to try something in the United States over the next few days?

Buck Sexton is a political commentator for CNN and host of "The Buck Sexton Show" on TheBlaze. He was previously a CIA counterterrorism analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)The recent terror attacks in France, Tunisia and Kuwait are a bloody reminder that jihadist violence is global, with varied targets and tactics that are difficult for even the most adept security forces to counter.

And while the front lines of Iraq, Syria and other hot spots are distant from U.S. shores, America is still a favorite symbolic target for jihadist terrorism. As is so often repeated, it seems only a matter of time before we are hit again, and some are suggesting that time is almost here.
As we approach our Independence Day celebrations, media outlets are reporting that government agencies are issuing vague but unnerving warnings about a possible terrorist threat targeting America over the Fourth of July weekend.
    Instinctively, we know that we are susceptible. We know terrorists want to hit us because they say so. The question is: Are they really about to try something here in the U.S. over the next few days?
    Buck Sexton
    As Americans get ready for the holiday weekend, the Department of Homeland Security, FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center have issued a bulletin to law enforcement across the country warning of the possibility of an imminent strike against the United States. Intelligence agencies are watching as online chatter rises.
    Perspective is important here. While they sound ominous, many of these warnings and precautions are also pretty routine. Any holiday weekend, and especially the Fourth of July, is a ripe target for a terrorist attack since more civilians travel and there are large ceremonial gatherings. In fact, we already suffered an act of terrorism on July 4, 2002, when an Islamic terrorist shot up Los Angeles Airport's El Al ticket counter, killing two Israelis.
    But there is also a growing sense that something is different right now, and more dangerous. Former senior CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell said he was "worried about this one," referring to the Fourth of July threat reporting. Other officials have made similar statements, and this comes at a time when the overall risk from terrorism, according to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, is the "highest ever" in the post-9/11 era.
    America is in a unique threat environment largely because of ISIS' success as a global jihadist entity. ISIS has seized a large piece of territory spanning parts of Iraq and Syria and held it for more than a year. Its ranks have swelled with thousands of recruits from around the world, and its self-declared caliphate operates more like a functioning government with every passing month.
    Through social media and online radicalization efforts, ISIS has found a potent weapon against Western states. Plots directed or inspired by ISIS have been put into action in Europe and on U.S. soil. So far, through a combination of good law enforcement work and luck, we have not suffered a big attack at ISIS' hands inside America's borders.
    Of course, that could change in a matter of days. So is the ISIS threat really higher this holiday weekend than any other?
    The answer is: Probably not.
    The overall odds are low that a major terrorist attack will be attempted over the July Fourth weekend. Authorities say there is "no specific, credible threat," which is bureaucrat-speak for "we don't really know" and is a strong indicator that our intensified counterterrorism posture is based more on gut instinct than actionable intelligence.
    There is also a tendency in some government analysis to instinctively err on the side of caution. "Duty to warn" in a post-9/11 world is a widespread government mantra. It's always safer -- as much for reasons of politics as anything else -- to raise the terrorism alarm and be wrong, even if the threat is statistically very small and there is no intelligence to indicate an imminent plot.
    Most government analysts and law enforcement personnel fall into this pattern of overwarning, which is not entirely without costs. Terror alert fatigue has to be balanced against public vigilance. If not, the public is likely to distrust or ignore future elevated risk assessments. We got rid of color-coded national terror warnings for a reason. We had five levels -- green, blue, yellow, orange and red -- until 2011, when the Department of Homeland Security got rid of the system because after a while, it all seemed gray anyway.
    Ultimately, we can't allow the terrorists to dictate our behavior. Americans should, as always, celebrate our Independence Day with pride, and not let ISIS fears loom over every national holiday. We must be vigilant against the threats that are out there, but also be confident that our intelligence and law enforcement agencies are doing everything in their power to lower those risks.
    Correction: An earlier version of this commentary incorrectly stated that the FBI is establishing command centers to monitor terror threats over the holiday weekend.