Is the Islamic State the Biggest Threat Facing the U.S.?

By Erik Goepner

While the situation on the ground today remains largely unchanged to that of October last year, Americans assessing the IS threat as extremely important or critical has jumped from 36% to 84%. Might their grotesque killings and the free media advertising they receive in response explain much of the difference in threat perceptions?

Looking at the numbers, since September 10, 2001 three thousand forty-eight people have been killed by terrorists in America’s borders. If you exclude 9/11, that number drops to 51. In the 14 years before 9/11, 223 lost their lives at the hands of terrorists in the homeland.[1]

Though precisely determining the threat posed by the Islamic State is impossible, we can be more precise in defining why the threat concerns us. For many, the concern is death, more specifically a horrific death that comes as a surprise and leaves its victim feeling powerless. There is, however, no concern that the Islamic State could one day invade the U.S. or otherwise pretend to have a military force even remotely comparable to ours. They will always be Pop Warner to America’s Super Bowl winner. In the end, the concern is death.

One way, then, to compare the threat posed by the Islamic State with other threats is to look at what kills Americans. Including 9/11 and all terrorist attacks within the homeland since, an average of 234 lives have been lost per year. During the same time period, approximately 16,000 Americans have been murdered each year, 34,000 took their own lives, and more than 500,000 died annually from cancer. If you lengthen the timeframe to fifty years, the likelihood of being killed by terrorists in America roughly equates to the likelihood of being killed by a lightning strike or an allergic reaction to peanuts.[2]

Looking at the broader geo-political landscape provides another way to help place the threat of IS within the range of threats facing America. Perhaps Iran sits atop that list. On the Department of State’s list as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984, their latest report, from 2013, notes Iran has “increased its presence in Africa and attempted to smuggle arms to Houthi separatists in Yemen.” These are the same separatists who recently overthrew the Yemeni government. Additionally, Iran is pursuing a nuclear program, peaceful or otherwise. Russia presents another potential threat.  In 2008, they invaded Georgia and in 2014 they annexed portions of Ukraine. Might a NATO country be next, such as Latvia, Estonia, or Lithuania? Other potential threats include China as it asserts its presence in the South China Sea and elsewhere, North Korea, or even America’s rising debt which may increasingly constrain future U.S. options.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

[1] See UMD’s Global Terrorism Database.
[2] John Mueller, Overblown, see “The Limited Destructiveness of Terrorism” chapter.

3 thoughts on “Is the Islamic State the Biggest Threat Facing the U.S.?

  1. So If the ISIS threat to American lives is, literally, peanuts, the next question is, what other threat(s) does it pose?
    Looking forward to Goepner’s thoughts in future columns.


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