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Global Issues >> Terrorism


Perception of Risk of Terrorist Attacks
An overwhelming majority believes that there is a significant likelihood of further terrorist attacks on US soil and expresses concern and worry about the prospect. About half worry that a close friend or relative will be a victim of an attack, but only a minority are concerned that it would happen in their community. The onset of military action in Afghanistan has not led to notable changes in these attitudes. Though traditional attacks, such as truck bombs, are seen as the most likely terrorist threat, the majority believes that - terrorists have access to weapons of mass destruction and are likely to use them at some point. Of these weapons, chemical and biological agents are seen as a greater danger than nuclear arms, and concern about a chemical or biological attack has grown over the past weeks. Americans have been fairly pessimistic about the prospect of eliminating terrorist attacks for some time.

An overwhelming and fairly consistent majority believes that there is a significant likelihood of further terrorist attacks on US soil. A New York Times poll taken October 25-28 found that 88% believed it very likely (53%) or somewhat likely (35%) that there would be "another terrorist attack on the United States within the next few months." Belief in the likelihood of an attack does not appear to have subsided over the past few weeks. The same question was posed in a CBS News poll conducted October 8, when 85% believed another attack in the next few months was very likely (46%) or somewhat likely (39%). Similarly, in an October 7 NBC News poll (taken the day of the initial strikes against Afghanistan), 91 % said that in the next several months it is very likely (65%) or fairly likely (26%) that "terrorists will retaliate and strike again in America." Responding to a more specific question on October 11-12, 85% told Newsweek that it is likely (48% very likely) that "more terrorist attacks will be carried out against major US cities, buildings or national landmarks in the near future." When Newsweek asked the same question September 13-14, 82% thought it likely (43% very) that such attacks would occur. Asked to think about the next ten years, 75% thought it very (41%) or somewhat (34%) likely that "the US will be attacked by terrorists in a similar way that it was attacked this week" (NBC/Wall Street Journal, September 15-16). [1] However, only, a minority feels that "terrorist acts like the ones we just experienced" will be "very common" (8%) or "somewhat common" (31%) in the future. Fifty-three percent think they will be "not too common" (39%) or "not at all common" (14%). [2]

Large majorities continue to express concern or worry about the prospect of future attacks, though the intensity of that worry has declined somewhat. An October 15 ABC News/Washington Post poll indicated that 78% worried a great deal (35%) or somewhat (43%) about "the possibility there will be more major terrorist attacks in the United States." Only 23% said it worried about them "not too much" (14%) or "not at all" (9%). Between September 27 and October 7, three other ABC/Washington Post polls asked the same question, and each found about four in five saying they were at least somewhat worried. When the question was asked on September 11, over 90% expressed worry. As time has passed the percentage saying they worry about the possibility of more major attacks a "great deal" has declined from 49% on September 11 to 35% on October 15. [3] The Pew Research Center, in a poll conducted October 10-14, asked how much respondents worried that there will "soon be another terrorist attack on the United States" (emphasis added). In this case, a smaller but still robust majority of 67% said they were at least somewhat worried (37% very worried). [4] On September 20, - an NBC News poll also asked about worry - that the United States will experience another major terrorist attack. Using a slightly different set of response options, it found 30% very worried, 29% somewhat worried, 40% only slightly worried, and 26% not really worried.[5]

About half say they worry about the possibility that a family member might "become a victim of a terrorist attack." An October 11-14 Gallup poll found 51% worried (18% very), and an October 10-14 Pew poll found 50% worried (again, 18% very worried). On October 8, when ABC News gave respondents just two options, an even smaller percentage (44%) expressed worry that "a close relative or friend might be the victim of a further terrorist attack." In the September 20 NBC poll, only about one in four worried that they or someone they love would "be the victim of a terrorist attack," while 71% were not worried. However, as above, the NBC poll is not quite comparable because respondents tend to gravitate to "slightly worried" when it is the third option, rather than "not too worried", which is the third option in the other polls. [6]

A clear minority of Americans are worried that a terror attack will occur in their community and few report avoiding certain areas because of fear of terrorism. On October 17-18, only 43% told Fox News that they are very (12%) or somewhat (31%) worried that "terrorist attacks might take place where [they] live or work." A majority of 56% said they were not very (28%) or not at all (28%) worried about this. Similarly, on October 8, 30% said they personally worried about "a terrorist attack in the area where [they] live" (CBS News). According to an October 11-13 Zogby poll, even fewer (27%) felt it was likely that their "hometown" would be the "target of a terrorist attack." In an October 12 Harris poll, just 32% said they "personally worry" about terrorism when they are in "public places". And a Pew poll taken October 11-12 found that only about 1 in 10 (12%) reported "avoiding certain buildings or landmarks" as a result of the New York and Washington attacks.[7]

When asked specifically about the linkage between the current military action in Afghanistan and the likelihood of future terror attacks, the public shows a level of worry similar to its worries about future terrorist incidents in general. But, interestingly, smaller majorities believe the war will make future attacks more likely. In the October 11-12 Newsweek poll, 80% said they were worried (41% very worried) that "the military action will lead to... more terrorism against US citizens at home." In the same survey, 83% were worried (44% very) that our action in Afghanistan would result in "more terrorism against US citizens abroad." These results mirror questions mentioned above that found 4 in 5 worried about future terror attacks overall. (When asked by Zogby in an October 11-13 survey if they were "afraid" that US military action in Afghanistan would "lead to more terrorism aimed at the US", a smaller majority of 57% said they were and 40% said they were not.) An intriguing finding, however, is that while polls from mid-October find more than 4 in 5 feel that future terror attacks against the US are "likely", a substantially smaller majority (66%) told Harris Interactive that "the military action in Afghanistan had made a terrorist attack in the US" more likely (October 12). As noted elsewhere in this report, while a majority of Americans think military action will probably lead to future attacks, they believe doing nothing is even more likely to lead to future incidents. Finally, when asked in the Harris Interactive survey whether the action in Afghanistan would make an attack on "the community in which you live" more likely, just 23% felt that would be the case.[8]

A modest to very strong majority thinks that a whole range of terrorist incidents are likely to occur in the US. A Harris Interactive survey conducted October 12 asked respondents about several types of terror attacks and asked whether they were "likely or not likely to occur in the United States in the next 12 months." All but one on the list were deemed to be likely by a majority, including:

A bomb carried in a car or truck -- 83% likely
A chemical or biological weapon other than anthrax -- 70% likely
At a major public event like a concert or athletic event -- 67% likely
On some part of the nation's water supply - 64% likely
Against the Internet - 59% likely
On a nuclear power plant - 58% likely

Interestingly the only type of attack not seen as likely by a majority was one "against another skyscraper like the Empire State Building or Sears Tower in Chicago." Forty-seven percent considered such an attack likely, while 50% thought it unlikely.[9]

Terrorist Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction

A majority believes that terrorists have access to weapons of mass destruction and are likely to use them at some point in the future. In a Fox News survey (September 19-20) nearly two-thirds (63%) agreed that it is "likely that terrorist groups like bin Laden's currently have access to nuclear weapons." Just 23% did not think so, with 14% unsure. [10]

Additionally, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (September 15-16) that asked respondents to think about threats the US "might face in the next ten years" found substantial majorities believing that weapons of mass destruction will be used. A strong majority (68%) said the US was likely to "be attacked within its borders by terrorists possessing nuclear or biological weapons." When asked about nuclear threats only, a somewhat smaller majority (57%) believed the US "will face an attack by a single nuclear missile from a terrorist or nation." [11]

Probably as a result of the anthrax attacks, biological and chemical weapons are becoming a larger concern. As noted above, the October 12 Harris Interactive poll found 70% saying it is likely that a "chemical or biological weapon other than anthrax" will be used in the US in the next twelve months. Similarly, on October 8-9, four in five (80%) told ABC News they were at least somewhat concerned (37% very concerned) "about the possibility of a terrorist attack in the United States using biological or chemical weapons." That level of concern is much higher than in an NBC poll completed October 7 -- just after the first anthrax victim but before the second. In that poll, a bare majority of 51% thought that such an attack in the near future was very (23%) or fairly (28%) likely. At that point, the level of concern was not substantially higher than in an April 1997 Pew poll. Asked how much they worried "about the chance that terrorists could use a nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon to attack a US city," about half (48%) said they were worried "a great deal" or "somewhat," and the other half (51%) said they were "not at all" or "not much." [12]

When asked about nuclear threats only, a somewhat smaller majority (57%) believed the US "will face an attack by a single nuclear missile from a terrorist or nation." [13]

The public clearly perceives chemical and biological weapons to be a greater danger than nuclear weapons at this time. Given a list of four potential kinds of terrorist strikes in an October 18 Fox News poll, a strong majority (62%) chose "chemical or biological" weapons as the "biggest threat." Only 9% chose "tactical nuclear weapons" while 14% chose "truck or car bombs" and just 5% thought the biggest threat would be "planes being hijacked and crashed." Likewise, a September 19-20 Fox poll also found lower concern about nuclear weapons than chemical or biological weapons. Asked whether they believed "nuclear weapons or chemical and biological weapons" were "more of a real danger right now", the vast majority said chemical and biological weapons (75% to 13%). [14]

Past data suggest a low level of confidence that the government is prepared for terrorism with biological weapons. According to a February 1998 Newsweek survey, just 35% believed the US to be "well prepared to deal with the threat of terrorists armed with biological weapons." A slim majority (52%) felt the US was not well prepared. [15]

Long-Standing Pessimism

While recent events appear to have increased worries, past data show a long- standing pessimism about the prospect of eliminating terrorism. In an October 1998 Gallup survey, just 23% felt the "threat of terrorism" would be better by 2025. Seven in ten (70%) thought it would be worse, and 4% volunteered that it would be about the same. [16] An April 1995 Pew poll taken just prior to the Oklahoma City bombing found that only a small minority (19%) felt the US was "making progress" on the "problem of international terrorism." An overwhelming majority felt the US was either "losing ground" (36%) or that the situation was staying "about the same" (40%). This question also received virtually identical results in March 1994. [17] Also in April 1995, 76% said it was very likely (48%) or somewhat likely (38%) that "an act of terrorism will occur somewhere in the United States in the next twelve months" - only moderately less than the perceived likelihood today. [18]

However, there is some evidence that concerns may have been moderating somewhat prior to the New York and Washington attacks. For example, when asked in January 2000 whether "in the next century…acts of terrorism would increase, decrease, or remain about the same," 45% felt they would increase and 43% thought they would stay the same. Just 5% thought they would decrease (CBS News). While this response is quite consistent with the overall pessimism about terrorism, it is a good deal more optimistic than the response to the same question two years earlier, in March 1998. At that time, a strong majority (61%) thought acts of terrorism would increase, 29% felt they would remain about the same, and 7% thought they would decrease. [19] The foiled plots surrounding the millennium celebrations may partly explain the difference. Yet a similar shift took place between March 1997 and November 1999 in a Time/CNN question about air transport issues. When asked about "the threat of terrorism…making it less safe to fly on commercial airplanes these days," 43% said it was a "big problem." A slim majority (51%) felt it was a "not so big a problem." This was a far more optimistic response than in early 1997, when nearly two in three (62%) thought it to be a big problem, and just 34% saw it as not a big problem. [20]



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