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The Truth About 9/11 and Terrorism

In this special episode of the podcast Michael Shermer honors the 20th anniversary of 9/11 with a commentary on the truth about that event and how it changed our lives, 7 myths about terrorism that need debunking if we are to understand how we should respond to this threat, and why we need not sacrifice liberty for security.

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Today is the 20th anniversary of 9/11, so I have titled this solo episode “The Truth about 9/11 and Terrorism”. It’s a play on words, given that the so-called “9/11 Truthers” have attempted to abscond with that word and turn it into something quite the opposite of truth.

So let me say up front that I agree, 9/11 was a conspiracy. Say what? I define a conspiracy as two or more people or a group plotting or acting in secret to gain an advantage or harm others immorally or illegally. So, by definition, 19 members of al-Qaeda plotting to fly planes into buildings without warning us constitutes a conspiracy. The ultimate failure of the 9/11 conspiracy theorists is their inability to explain away the overwhelming evidence of the real conspiracy by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. For example, to name but a few incriminating facts:

  • The 1983 attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon by a radical Hezbollah faction.
  • The 1993 truck bomb attack on the World Trade Center.
  • The 1995 attempt to blow up 12 planes heading from the Philippines to the U.S.
  • The 1995 bombings of U.S. Embassy buildings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 12 Americans and 200 Kenyans and Tanzanians.
  • The 1996 attack on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. military personnel.
  • The 1999 failed attempt to attack Los Angeles International airport by Ahmed Ressam.
  • The 2000 suicide boat attack on the U.S.S. Cole that killed 17 sailors and injured 39 others.
  • The well-documented evidence that Osama Bin Laden is a major financier for and the leader of al-Qaeda.
  • The 1996 fatwa by Bin Laden that officially declared a jihad against the United States.
  • The 1998 fatwa calling on his followers “to kill the Americans and their allies— civilian and military is an individual duty for any Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.”

Given this background, since Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda have officially claimed responsibility for the attacks of 9/11, we should take them at their word that they did it. But what bothers me most about the 9/11 Truth movement is that it is a distraction from the real conspiracy of al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and other such extremist organizations plotting to kill Westerners in Europe and America through countless low-level and nearly indefensible targets such as streets, subways, theaters, stadiums, Christmas markets, churches, and anywhere else that large crowds of people gather. Those are real conspiracies, organized and implemented by real conspirators. Let’s not lose sight of them while anomaly hunting among the rubble of 9/11.

I have spent the past week watching a stream of documentaries and specials on 9/11 and the political ramifications of that event, and the United States’s mostly disastrous response to it. For example, I recommend the two-hour PBS Frontline documentary America After 9/11, along with Netflix’s 5-part series, Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror, most notably the final episode on Afghanistan, appropriately titled “The Graveyard of Civilizations.” I distinctly recall a conversation I had with my father at a lunch we shared the day the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. He said if the mighty Soviet empire with their world-class military couldn’t do it in ten years and they’re located right next door, what hope is there for us 7,000 miles away?

As we have seen this past month, it went even worse for us than it did Soviet Union, and looked what happened to them shortly after. I don’t think this is the beginning of the end for the U.S.—not remotely so—but that we spent over $2 trillion dollars on the war on terror and have next to nothing to show for it, is depressing, especially with all the domestic problems we face for which that money could have been better spent. There’s a scene in that final episode of the Netflix’s doc showing footage of the massive airbases we built in Afghanistan just to handle our military jets and equipment. These bases looked to be about the size of JFK and LAX airports combined, and we built a number of these, and then bulldozed them into rubble so they couldn’t be used by the Taliban or al Qaeda, which our $2 trillion dollars evidently failed to fund a victory over these militant and terrorist organizations. Just imagine if we had put all those resources into reinforcing the infrastructure of the United States, now in disrepair for which the current administration is proposing spending…$2 trillion dollars. Interesting.

But, we’re told, if we didn’t do all that then the next terrorist attack would have been in the form of a mushroom cloud. Nonsense. This is like the proverbial elephant repellant: ever since I sprayed it in my home I have not experienced a single elephant attack. It works! I know, that’s not a perfect analogy since 9/11 really did happen, and nothing like it has happened since. But why? I contend it is because terrorism is not the existential threat we’ve been told it is. Here I will highlight some excerpts from my chapter on war and terrorism in my book The Moral Arc.

Excerpt on Terrorism from The Moral Arc

Terrorism is a form of asymmetrical warfare by non-state actors against innocent noncombatant civilians. As its name suggests, it does so by evoking terror. This exercises our alarmist emotions, which in turn confounds our reasoning, making clear thinking about terrorism well nigh impossible. As such, I suggest that there are at least seven myths that have arisen that need to be debunked to properly understand the causes of terrorism in order to continue to reduce its frequency and effectiveness.

1. Terrorists are pure evil. This first myth took root in September, 2001 when President George W. Bush announced “We will rid the world of the evil-doers” because they hate us for “our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”1 This sentiment embodies what the social psychologist Roy Baumeister calls “the myth of pure evil”, which holds that perpetrators of violence act only to commit senseless injury and pointless death for no rational reason. The “terrorists-as-evil-doers” myth is busted through the scientific study of violence, of which at least four types motivate terrorists: instrumental, dominance/honor, revenge, and ideology.

In a study of 52 cases of Islamic extremists who have targeted the U.S., for instance, the political scientist John Mueller concluded that terrorist motives include instrumental violence and revenge: “a simmering, and more commonly boiling, outrage at U.S. foreign policy—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular, and the country’s support for Israel in the Palestinian conflict.” Ideology in the form of religion, “was a part of the consideration for most,” Mueller suggests, “but not because they wished to spread Sharia law or to establish caliphates (few of the culprits would be able to spell either word). Rather they wanted to protect their co-religionists against what was commonly seen to be a concentrated war upon them in the Middle East by the U.S. government.”2 As for dominance and honor as drivers of violence, through his extensive ethnography of terrorists cells the anthropologist Scott Atran has demonstrated that suicide bombers (and their families) are showered with status and honor in this life (and, secondarily, the promise of virgins in the next life), and that most “belong to loose, homegrown networks of family and friends who die not just for a cause, but for each other.” Most terrorists are in their late teens or early 20s, especially students and immigrants “who are especially prone to movements that promise a meaningful cause, camaraderie, adventure, and glory.”3 All of these motives are on display in the 2013 documentary film by Jeremy Scahill called Dirty Wars, a sobering look at the effects of U.S. drone attacks and assassinations in foreign countries such as Somalia and Yemen—countries with whom the U.S. is not at war—in which we see citizens swearing revenge against Americans for these violations of their honor and ideology.4

2. Terrorists are organized. This myth depicts terrorists as part of a vast global network of top-down centrally-controlled conspiracies against the West. But as Atran shows, terrorism is “a decentralized, self-organizing, and constantly evolving complex of social networks,” often organized through social groups and sports organizations, such as soccer clubs.5

3. Terrorists are diabolical geniuses. This myth began with the 9/11 Commission report that described the terrorists as “sophisticated, patient, disciplined, and lethal.”6 But according to the political scientist Max Abrahms, after the decapitation of the leadership of the top terrorist organizations, “terrorists targeting the American homeland have been neither sophisticated nor masterminds, but incompetent fools.”7 Examples abound: The 2001 airplane shoe bomber Richard Reid was unable to ignite the fuse because it was wet from the rain and his own foot perspiration; the 2009 underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab succeeded only in setting his pants ablaze, burning his hands, inner thighs, and genitals, and getting himself arrested; the 2010 Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad managed merely to torch the inside of his 1993 Nissan Pathfinder; the 2012 model airplane bomber Rezwan Ferdaus purchased C-4 explosives for his rig from FBI agents who promptly arrested him; and the 2013 Boston marathon bombers were equipped with only one gun for defense and had no money and no exit strategy beyond hijacking a car with no gas in it that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev used to run over his brother Tamerlan, followed by a failed suicide attempt inside a land-based boat. Evidently terrorism is a race to the bottom.

4. Terrorists are poor and uneducated. This myth appeals to many in the West who like to think that if we throw enough money at a problem it will go away, or if only everyone went to college they’d be like us. The economist Alan Krueger, in his book What Makes a Terrorist, writes: “Instead of being drawn from the ranks of the poor, numerous academic and government studies find that terrorists tend to be drawn from well-educated, middle-class or high-income families. Among those who have seriously and impartially studied the issue, there is not much question that poverty has little to do with terrorism.”8

5. Terrorism is a deadly problem. In comparison to homicides in America, deaths from terrorism are in the statistical noise, barely a blip on a graph compared to the 13,700 homicides a year. By comparison, after the 3,000 deaths on 9/11, the total number of people killed by terrorists in the 38 years before totals 340, and the number killed after 9/11 and including the Boston bombing is 33, and that includes the 13 soldiers killed in the Fort Hood massacre by Nidal Hasan in 2009.9 That’s a total of 373 killed, or 7.8 per year. Even if we include the 3,000 people who perished on 9/11, that brings the average annual total to 70.3, compared to that of the annual homicide rate of 13,700. No comparison.

6. Terrorists will obtain and use a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb. Osama bin Laden said he wanted to use such weapons if he could get them, and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge pressed the point in calling for more support for his agency: “Weapons of mass destruction, including those containing chemical, biological or radiological agents or materials, cannot be discounted.”10 But as Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations reminds us, “Politicians love to scare the wits out of people, and nothing suits that purpose better than talking about nuclear terrorism. From President Bush warning in 2002 that the ‘smoking gun’ might be a mushroom cloud, to John Kerry in 2004 conjuring ‘shadowy figures’ with a ‘finger on the nuclear button’ and Mitt Romney invoking the specter of ‘radical nuclear jihad’ last spring, the pattern is impossible to miss.”11; But most experts agree that acquiring the necessary materials and knowledge for building either weapon is far beyond the reach of most (if not all) terrorists. George Harper’s delightful 1979 article in Analog entitled “Build Your Own A-Bomb and Wake Up The Neighborhood” is revealing in showing just how difficult it is to actually make a bomb:

As a terrorist one of the best methods for your purposes is the gaseous diffusion approach. This was the one used for the earliest A-bombs, and in many respects it is the most reliable and requires the least sophisticated technology. It is, however, a bit expensive and does require certain chemicals apt to raise a few eyebrows. You have to start with something on the order of a dozen miles of special glass-lined steel tubing and about sixty tons of hydrofluoric acid which can be employed to create the compound uranium-hexaflouride. Once your uranium has been converted into hexaflouride it can be blown up against a number of special low-porosity membranes. The molecules of uranium hexafluoride which contain an atom of U-238 are somewhat heavier than those containing an atom of U-235. As the gas is blown across the membranes more of the heavier molecules are trapped than the light ones. The area on the other side of the membrane is thus further enriched with the U-235 containing material; possibly by as much as ½% per pass. Repeat this enough times and you wind up with uranium hexafluoride containing virtually 100% core atoms of U-235. You then separate the fluorine from the uranium and arrive at a nice little pile of domesticated U-235. From there it’s all downhill.12

In his book On Nuclear Terrorism, Levi invokes what he calls “Murphy’s Law of Nuclear Terrorism: What can go wrong might go wrong,” and recounts numerous failed terrorist attacks due to sheer incompetence on the part of the terrorists to build and detonate even the simplest of chemical weapons.13 In this context it is important to note that no dirty bomb has ever been successfully deployed resulting in casualties by anyone anywhere, and that according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission—which tracks fissile materials—“most reports of lost or stolen material involve small or short-lived radioactive sources that are not useful for a RDD [radiological disbursal device, or dirty bomb]. Past experience suggests there has not been a pattern of collecting such sources for the purpose of assembling a RDD. It is important to note that the radioactivity of the combined total of all unrecovered sources over the past 5 years would not reach the threshold for one high-risk radioactive source.”14 In short, the chances of terrorists successfully building and launching a nuclear device of any sort is so low that we would be far better off investing our limited resources in diffusing the problem of terrorism in other areas.

7. Terrorism works. In a study of 42 foreign terrorist organizations active for several decades, Max Abrahms concluded that only two achieved their stated goals—Hezbollah achieved control over southern Lebanon in 1984 and 2000, and the Tamil Tigers took over parts of Sri Lanka in 1990, which they then lost in 2009. That results in a success rate of less than 5 percent.15 In a subsequent study, Abrahms and his colleague Matthew Gottfried found that when terrorists kill civilians or take captives it significantly lowers the likelihood of bargaining success with states, because violence begets violence and public sentiments turn against the perpetrators of violence. Further, they found that when terrorists did get what they want it is more likely to be money or the release of political prisoners, not political objectives. They also found that liberal democracies are more resilient to terrorism, despite the perception that because of their commitment to civil liberties democracies tend to shy away from harsh countermeasures against terrorists.16 Finally, in terms of the overall effectiveness of terrorism as a means to an end, in an analysis of 457 terrorist campaigns since 1968 the political scientist Audrey Cronin found that not one terrorism group had conquered a state and that a full 94 percent had failed to gain even one of their strategic political goals. And the number of terrorist groups who accomplished all of their objectives? Zero. Cronin’s book is entitled How Terrorism Ends. It ends swiftly (groups survive only 5–9 years on average) and badly (the death of its leaders).17

A rejoinder I often hear when recounting these studies is that terrorism has worked in terms of terrorizing the government into expending enormous resources into combatting its threat, and along the way sacrificed our freedom and privacy. It’s a valid point. The U.S. alone has spent upwards of $6 trillion dollars since 9/11 on two wars and a bloated bureaucracy in response to the loss of 3,000 lives,18 less than a tenth of the number of people who die annually on American highways. The explosive revelations by Edward Snowden about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs launched a national conversation about the balance between privacy and transparency, freedom and security. As Snowden told the 2014 TED audience in Vancouver via video link from an undisclosed location in Moscow:

Terrorism provokes an emotional response that allows people to rationalize and authorize programs they wouldn’t have otherwise. The U.S. asked for this authority in the 1990s; it asked the FBI to make the case in Congress, and they said no, it’s not worth the risk to the economy, it would do too much damage to society to justify gains. But in the post 9/11 era, they used secrecy and justification of terrorism to start programs in secret without asking Congress or the American people. Government behind closed doors is what we must guard against. We don’t have to give up privacy to have good government, we don’t have to give up liberty to have security.19

That balance between liberty and security is one all governments contend with in many areas of society.20 We must be vigilant always, of course, but these seven myths point to the unavoidable conclusion that in the course of history terrorism fails utterly to achieve its goals or divert civilization from its path toward greater justice and freedom unless we fall victim to fear itself.

  1. Quoted in: Perez-Rivas, Manuel. 2001. “Bush Vows to Rid the 1 World of ‘Evil-Doers’.” CNN Washington Bureau. September 16,
  2. Mueller, John and Mark G. Stewart. 2013. “Hapless, Disorganized, and Irrational.” Slate, April 22.
  3. Atran, Scott. April 22. “Black and White and Red All Over.” Foreign Policy, April 22.
  4. Scahill, Jeremy. 2013. Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. Sundance Selects.
  5. Ibid.
  6. The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004. xvi.
  7. Abrahms, Max. 2013. “Bottom of the Barrel.” Foreign Policy, April 24.
  8. Krueger, Alan B. 2007. What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 3.
  9. Bailey, Ronald. 2011. “How Scared of Terrorism Should You Be?” Reason, September 6.
  10. Quoted in: Levi, Michael S. 2003. “Panic More Dangerous than WMD.” Chicago Tribune, May 26.
  11. Levi, Michael S. 2011. “Fear and the Nuclear Terror Threat.” USA Today, March 24, 9A.
  12. Harper, George W. 1979. “Build Your Own A-Bomb and Wake Up The Neighborhood.” Analog, April, 36–52.
  13. Levi, Michael S. 2009. On Nuclear Terrorism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 5.
  14. 2012. “Fact Sheet on Dirty Bombs.” United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, December.
  15. Abrahms, Max. 2006. “Why Terrorism Does Not Work.” International Security, 31, 42–78.
  16. Abrahms, Max and Matthew S. Gottfried. 2014 “Does Terrorism Pay? An Empirical Analysis.” Terrorism and Political Violence.
  17. Cronin, Audrey. 2011. How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  18. Global Research News. 2014. “US Wars in Afghanistan, Iraq to Cost $6 Trillion.” Global Research, February 12,
  20. See the response to Snowden’s TED appearance by NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett:

This episode was released on September 11, 2021.

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