Al Qaeda? North Korea? Who Americans see as greatest security threat.

A Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll asked which countries or groups pose the greatest threat to the US. The responses suggest that Americans differentiate among threats 'realistically.'

Ahn Young-joon/AP
A North Korean soldier stands guard at the border village of the Panmunjom, South Korea, Wednesday. North Korea is seen by Americans as the country that is the greatest threat to US security, according to a Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll.
The Christian Science Monitor is teaming up with TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence (TIPP) to poll Americans on important public policy issues.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans consider Al Qaeda and its affiliates to pose the most serious security threat the US faces, well above that from a saber-rattling North Korea or a fiery-tongued Iran.

When asked in a recent poll to rate a list of countries or entities on a 1-to-10 scale based on the threat they pose to the United States, 61 percent of Americans placed Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist organization in the 9-10 or “very high” threat level.

North Korea came in second, earning a “very high” threat rating from 42 percent of those polled, while Iran was third at 37 percent. Afghanistan earned the “very high” threat rating from 31 percent of Americans, Pakistan from 22 percent, and America’s next-door neighbor Mexico from 9 percent. Israel and Venezuela were tied at the bottom, with each considered a “very high” threat by 5 percent of Americans.

“What Al Qaeda coming out on top tells us is that the American people are more realistic than sometimes we might think,” says Robert Pape, a University of Chicago associate professor and leading expert on suicide terrorism. “To put Al Qaeda above Iran is quite remarkable, it shows [Americans] are realistically weighting and differentiating” threats amid all the “media noise” they hear on the topic, Dr. Pape says.

The findings on Americans’ assessment of major threats are from a Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll conducted between Nov. 29 and Dec. 4. The poll was conducted shortly after North Korea shelled a small South Korean island off its coast, drawing the US into the Korean Peninsula’s heightened tensions. That context could help explain North Korea’s significant “high threat” rating.

But the poll’s findings also suggest that Americans differentiate between threatening rhetoric – of the variety often used by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – and the very real security threats posed by an entity with a track record of striking or trying to strike the US. Not only do American remember the 9/11 terrorist attacks, of course, but the poll was taken just weeks after an attack using package bombs on airplanes and hatched by Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula was foiled at the last minute.

What the poll’s results suggest, Pape says, is that Americans do not lump together all “Muslims” or Muslim countries as a significant threat, but do consider very dangerous those terrorists – in this case radical Muslims – who have attacked the US and continue to demonstrate a desire to inflict more harm.

Pape says there is something of a silver lining in Al Qaeda’s placement at the top of the security threats the US faces, because it is not a “hopeless” threat but one that a change in US policy of the last 20 years can reduce.

Islamist terrorists, and suicide terrorists of all stripes, have been very clear that the motivation for their attacks is foreign occupation of their lands, Pape says. He says the seeds of Al Qaeda’s “war” on the US can be found in American “boots on the ground” in the Arabian Peninsula since the 1990’s.

What that means, he says, is that the US has the key to reducing what Americans appear to consider the number-one threat the US faces, which is terrorist attacks. And that key is pulling back on what is perceived as American “occupation” of Muslim lands.

Pape concedes that some Americans might view that position as appeasement, but he disagrees, taking the view that America has other means to project power and defend its interests without antagonizing local populations.

“As long as we are overseas in the places we are and in the numbers we are,” Pape says, “these attacks are going to be more numerous than we’d like.”

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