Program at Peters Township Library Attempts to Answer: ‘Are We Safer?’

Below is the October 20, 2016 article by Harry Funk, Multimedia Reporter, The Almanac. View the original article.

Thomas Sanderson spoke on Oct. 19 at Peters Township Public Library.
Thomas Sanderson gets ready to speak Oct. 19 at Peters Township Public Library.

In the reality that is 2016 America, hardly a day passes when we’re not reminded of the threat of terrorism.

“Are we safer? I get this question from the media all the time,” Thomas Sanderson told the capacity crowd Wednesday at Peters Township Public Library.

During his 90-minute program, “ISIS and Al-Qaeda: Degraded, But Still Deadly,” the director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Transnational Threats Project provided a sweeping overview of the history, causes and current conditions of notable terrorist groups.

With regard to the often-asked inquiry about safety, he provided a balanced answer.

“Well, we have certainly greatly improved our security, in this country and elsewhere,” he said.

But those who threaten the world’s well-being – members of the two terrorist groups listed in his talk’s title just scratch the surface – demonstrate the ability make adjustments.

“They innovate,” Sanderson explained. “Real-world battle makes you an innovator. Many of our best tools and equipment and concepts in warfare come out of actual battle, where people are testing things on the ground, and they realize what works and what doesn’t work.

“Well, same goes for the bad guys.”

In his position with CSIS, a 54-year-old think tank that examines political, economic and security issues around the globe, Sanderson has led a study of emerging trends in terrorism covering the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. Having conducted field research in more than 60 countries, his resulting perspective tends to mix optimism with more than a hint of pessimism.

“We have much better intelligence, and law-enforcement sharing and cooperation,” he said about the United States and its situational allies, be they nations or ethnic groups fighting a common enemy. “But those guys, the bad guys, have great advantages. They are covert by nature. It’s hard to find them.”

Yet they also tend to have some disadvantages.

“Thankfully, lots of guys in the United States – some girls, too, but mostly guys – can’t help but talk about what they want to do to Assad,” Sanderson said, referring to embattled Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad, “or to the U.S. or to other places.

“And they say it on Facebook, and the FBI hears about it,” he continued. “And they put an informant in there with them. They get the guy to talk about it. They meet at XY&Z Café, and then they nail them.”

Sanderson further addressed the safety question by presenting a hypothetical situation and its ramifications: “Even if you killed or captured every single ISIS or al-Qaeda fighter tomorrow, you would still have the following conditions that lead people into violence.”

His list:

• Poor governance

• Government corruption

• Government repression

• Income inequality/poverty

• Political, social, cultural, economic marginalization

• Failed development

• Religious radicalization

• Sectarianism

• Ignorance

• Demographic pressures

• Environmental stress

• Racism

In that context, his final statement on the matter provided an answer that was anything but mixed.

“Don’t expect an end to the violence but an evolution to the violence, because all the conditions are there,” he said. “Someone will take advantage of those conditions.”