Why Aren't There More Terrorist Attacks?

As the details of the Times Square car bomb attempt emerge in the wake of Faisal Shahzad’s arrest Monday night, one thing has already been made clear: Terrorism is fairly easy. All you need is a gun or a bomb, and a crowded target. Guns are easy to buy. Bombs are easy to make. Crowded targets—not only in New York, but all over the country—are easy to come by. If you’re willing to die in the aftermath of your attack, you could launch a pretty effective terrorist attack with a few days of planning, maybe less.

But if it’s so easy, why aren’t there more terrorist attacks like the failed car bomb in New York’s Times Square? Or the terrorist shootings in Mumbai? Or the Moscow subway bombings? After the enormous horror and tragedy of 9/11, why have the past eight years been so safe in the U.S.?

There are actually several answers to this question. One, terrorist attacks are harder to pull off than popular imagination—and the movies—lead everyone to believe. Two, there are far fewer terrorists than the political rhetoric of the past eight years leads everyone to believe. And three, random minor terrorist attacks don’t serve Islamic terrorists’ interests right now.

Hard to Pull Off

Terrorism sounds easy, but the actual attack is the easiest part.

Putting together the people, the plot and the materials is hard. It’s hard to sneak terrorists into the U.S. It’s hard to grow your own inside the U.S. It’s hard to operate; the general population, even the Muslim population, is against you.

Movies and television make terrorist plots look easier than they are. It’s hard to hold conspiracies together. It’s easy to make a mistake. Even 9/11, which was planned before the climate of fear that event engendered, just barely succeeded. Today, it’s much harder to pull something like that off without slipping up and getting arrested.

Few Terrorists

But even more important than the difficulty of executing a terrorist attack, there aren’t a lot of terrorists out there. Al-Qaida isn’t a well-organized global organization with movie-plot-villain capabilities; it’s a loose collection of people using the same name. Despite the post-9/11 rhetoric, there isn’t a terrorist cell in every major city. If you think about the major terrorist plots we’ve foiled in the U.S.—the JFK bombers, the Fort Dix plotters—they were mostly amateur terrorist wannabes with no connection to any sort of al-Qaida central command, and mostly no ability to effectively carry out the attacks they planned.

The successful terrorist attacks—the Fort Hood shooter, the guy who flew his plane into the Austin IRS office, the anthrax mailer—were largely nut cases operating alone. Even the unsuccessful shoe bomber, and the equally unsuccessful Christmas Day underwear bomber, had minimal organized help—and that help originated outside the U.S.

Terrorism doesn’t occur without terrorists, and they are far rarer than popular opinion would have it.

Small Attacks Aren’t Enough

Lastly, and perhaps most subtly, there’s not a lot of value in unspectacular terrorism anymore.

If you think about it, terrorism is essentially a PR stunt. The death of innocents and the destruction of property isn’t the goal of terrorism; it’s just the tactic used. And acts of terrorism are intended for two audiences: for the victims, who are supposed to be terrorized as a result, and for the allies and potential allies of the terrorists, who are supposed to give them more funding and generally support their efforts.

An act of terrorism that doesn’t instill terror in the target population is a failure, even if people die. And an act of terrorism that doesn’t impress the terrorists’ allies is not very effective, either.

Fortunately for us and unfortunately for the terrorists, 9/11 upped the stakes. It’s no longer enough to blow up something like the Oklahoma City Federal Building. Terrorists need to blow up airplanes or the Brooklyn Bridge or the Sears Tower or JFK airport—something big to impress the folks back home. Small no-name targets just don’t cut it anymore.

Note that this is very different than terrorism by an occupied population: the IRA in Northern Ireland, Iraqis in Iraq, Palestinians in Israel. Setting aside the actual politics, all of these terrorists believe they are repelling foreign invaders. That’s not the situation here in the U.S.

So, to sum up: If you’re just a loner wannabe who wants to go out with a bang, terrorism is easy. You’re more likely to get caught if you take a long time to plan or involve a bunch of people, but you might succeed. If you’re a representative of al-Qaida trying to make a statement in the U.S., it’s much harder. You just don’t have the people, and you’re probably going to slip up and get caught.

This essay originally appeared on AOL News.

EDITED TO ADD (5/5): A similar sentiment about the economic motivations of terrorists.

Posted on May 5, 2010 at 7:09 AM121 Comments


george May 5, 2010 7:19 AM

Agree 100%. Let’s just turn off the news, our computers, the interwebs; go outside and play.

freedomofeverything May 5, 2010 7:30 AM

I think we’ve lost track of what a terrorist really is – the Austin IRS guy doesn’t qualify.

‘Terrorist’ is one of those words politicians like to throw at anything they don’t like in order to gain power over it, because people are still afraid of the concept – I don’t even think the word has a proper definition anymore, and has come to mean “Anybody that does anything that makes any person afraid of any thing.”

Robby May 5, 2010 7:31 AM

Is it possible that the amateur-hour incidents are only tests? Send a lone actor out with some training (but not enough for a high probability of success) to see what the response will be to certain types of attacks? This would be a more sophisticated approach than what you ascribe to the major terrorist groups in the essay – but is it possible?

Tim May 5, 2010 7:42 AM

“Note that this is very different than terrorism by an occupied population”

very different to ….

Eric May 5, 2010 7:44 AM

I think the news media is also desperate for “news” topics and tend to exaggerate the danger that these untrained and unskilled morons represent. They later get labled as terrorists to grab headlines.

Rob May 5, 2010 7:51 AM

I think there’s also currently a lot of ‘noise’ about so-called terror so that any ‘signal’ sent by an attack is more difficult to use. The ‘noise’ ranges from the terrible, the seemingly incessant sequences of deaths from Afghanistan and Iraq, and bombings in Pakistan through to the ludicrous – such as the trivialising of ‘terror’ by arresting a man for taking a photograph of a fish and chip shop or of Christmas lights.

BF Skinner May 5, 2010 7:58 AM

My answer to this is pretty much I wrote to yesterdays blog.

Did we know there were several bombings this year in N.Ireland? Real IRA work it seems.

I didn’t and I watch for Irish news. Didn’t hear it in ours. Didn’t hear it in the BBC world report. I’ve started to watch Al Jazeera and their coverage is fairly broad.

I learned about it during research for . . . a thing I’m doing.

Morley May 5, 2010 8:00 AM

For a good example of a larger group attempt, look at the Toronto 18. They had at least 1 or 2 members working for CSIS (Canada’s Intel agency), and the people they were supposed to buy their fertilizer from were also working for the Government.

By the time they had managed to get 18 people involve, too many people knew, too many people reported things, and pretty quickly it went bust.

Good police work, good counter-terrorism, and even better, many of them have gotten psychological help- which is what a lot of these home grown ‘terrorist’ need.


Scott Rubin May 5, 2010 8:11 AM

I think the simpler answer is that anyone who is smart enough to pull off a successful attack is also smart enough not to be a terrorist. Someone who is crazy enough to be a terrorist is probably not smart enough to pull off a successful attack.

Any nerd who watches Mythbusters knows how to make some extremely dangerous explosive contraptions. Meanwhile, the Times Square bomber was so moronic that he just tossed some bags of non-explosive fertilizer in the truck.

Let’s be thankful that anyone who is smart enough to cause a great deal of damage is smart enough to have no desire to do so.

steve May 5, 2010 8:20 AM

Very good points.

Does make me laugh, the global jihad we have all been taught to fear, has brought us so few attacks.

Maybe as the ‘terrorists hate our freedom’ all the freedoms taken away have helped calm them. (of course the terrorists don’t hate our freedom, they hate the fact we murder their people, take their resources and build military bases on holy lands)

AppSec May 5, 2010 8:23 AM

“Remember, if it’s in the news don’t worry about it. The definition of “news” is something that almost never happens.”

I always thought news was defined as an event which happened recently. Frequency is a matter of opinion. US Presidential elections occur every four years and are pretty news worthy..

Now, I won’t discount that a lot of “news” that is shown or talked about is “spectacular” news in order to boost ratings and garner attention, but does that make it any less news?

B. Real May 5, 2010 8:25 AM

@Robby: I understand probing your enemy to see how their systems work, but why send out the expendable nutcase with a weapon that is almost guaranteed to fail? While his success probability may be low, it would be just as easy to give him the real thing and a)at least he’ll be taken seriously when caught b)what the heck – he could get lucky and actually pull off a terrorist act and then you get to really see the response profile you’re looking for.

Hugh Mannity May 5, 2010 8:37 AM

I was told by a gentleman whose job it was to know these things (and who told me in confidence because I didn’t then, and don’t now, have anything close to the security clearance needed even to wish him happy birthday) that at the peak of its operations the IRA had around 200 core members. Of those 200 about 10% were capable of planning an effective terrorist attack, the rest were “just soldiers”.

This was when there was a bomb going off every couple of weeks in London, so I guess that 10% were working pretty hard.

Of course what the IRA did have was hundreds of sympathisers and thousands of people who while they weren’t exactly sympathisers weren’t going to offer any resistance.

Having lived through the IRA’s attacks on London in the 1970s, I’m pretty much immune to being terrorised. The odds of being killed in a terrorist attack were pretty low in London in the ’70s, they’re almost negligible in the US these days.

I figure I’m in more danger from a drunk driver or an over-zealous SWAT team with the wrong address than I am from a terrorist attack.

William Randolph Hearst May 5, 2010 8:38 AM

@ Eric

“You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

freeedomofeverything May 5, 2010 8:40 AM

I think he’s just trying to say that the only reason it’s reported in the first place is because it’s so rare. Every explosion in a war zone doesn’t get its own special coverage because it’s out of the ordinary – the time to really be afraid is when they’re so common people stop taking note.

Arjen Kamphuis May 5, 2010 8:40 AM

“Note that this is very different than terrorism by an occupied population: the IRA in Northern Ireland, Iraqis in Iraq, Palestinians in Israel. Setting aside the actual politics, all of these terrorists believe they are repelling foreign invaders. That’s not the situation here in the U.S.”

Actually several Al Qaida leaders have stated again and again that they want US troops out of the Middle East in general and Saudi Arabia specifically. Saudi being a holy place and all that. The occupation of Palestinian lands is as regularly brought up as a reason. I’m not saying this justifies anything but pretty much all terrorism is some sort of response against an actual or perceived occupation. Actually occupying a list of countries does not help the cast of the West in convincing people of our intentions.

GreenSquirrel May 5, 2010 8:41 AM

@ Bruce Schneier at May 5, 2010 7:22 AM

“Remember, if it’s in the news don’t worry about it. The definition of “news” is something that almost never happens.”

Well said. Probably the best line I’ve read this year and is sums up an entire module of my Criminology course in two sentences. Bravo.

Sadly, I suspect less than 10% of the population realise this and, as a result, assume that if its in the news its a daily occurance….

The world is mad.

Frank Ch. Eigler May 5, 2010 8:43 AM

“There are actually several answers to this question.”

You missed some other possible explanations. Like the US inflicting military punishment in foreign lands, a la http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,591827,00.html

“Small no-name targets just don’t cut it anymore.”

Thus proclaims Bruce, but since the context is funding provided to the terrorists due to attack prestige, where exactly did you learn this? Are you party to some sort of funding vs. attack-severity transaction or database?

GreenSquirrel May 5, 2010 8:48 AM

@ Robby at May 5, 2010 7:31 AM

“Is it possible that the amateur-hour incidents are only tests? Send a lone actor out with some training (but not enough for a high probability of success) to see what the response will be to certain types of attacks?”

Well most things are possible.

Its just monumentally unlikely.

The effort and costs required for sending the low-level threat actor out with some form of device is so close to sending a real, full blown attack in, that there is no rational gain to carrying out a test. Unless the terrorist group is both well organised enough to do this and simultaneously crazy enough to think that there will be no after-action investigation.

Tests and dry-runs may well be carried out but they will [should?] be by completely deniable people, without any incriminating information. At least this way you can gauge the targets security without making him overly alert to the attack vector.

As it stands, if this is a test, what would the organisation have achieved? The response is fairly predictable and now new measures will be put in place to close this specific attack vector (rightly or wrongly, no administration wants to suffer the same attack twice). As a result any lessons learned are pointless.

If whatever terrorist group that carried this out were capable of delivering a functioning device, they would have done it first time. That is what gives them the maximum effect.

HJohn May 5, 2010 9:00 AM

@Note that this is very different than terrorism by an occupied population: the IRA in Northern Ireland, Iraqis in Iraq, Palestinians in Israel. Setting aside the actual politics, all of these terrorists believe they are repelling foreign invaders. That’s not the situation here in the U.S.

I read some commentaries from a former jihadist named Walid Shoebat explaining why he joined jihad and why he left it. He joined it because of everything he was taught growing up–that infidels would drink the blood of his children, maps in schools didn’t have Israel on it and said it was occupied for invaders, and so on. He left it after he was exposed to the so-called “infidels.” When he began studying the “infidels”–including Jews, Christians, Israelis, Americans, etc.–he realized that we were nothing like he was taught about us his whole life.

My point being–leaving the politics out of it as Bruce has asked, and staying off the topic of how true or false their grievances are–we really didn’t understand their mindset. And leaving the justness or wrongness of any of the wars aside, since people rarely changed their minds on it, we definitely were ill-prepared to handle the propaganda war.

I personally find the whole topic both depressing and fascinating. I know that seems an oxymoron, but I find myself often thinking “wow, I didn’t know that, but that is sad.”

Eric May 5, 2010 9:03 AM

Does anyone remember the campus bombings in the 60’s and 70’s? Whatever ended them? Did it have something to do about the bombers growing up? Graduating? End of Viet Nam and the draft? Or what?

HJohn May 5, 2010 9:09 AM

@GreenSquirrel: (rightly or wrongly, no administration wants to suffer the same attack twice).

Unfortunately, that’s true. I would imagine a lot factors into that mindset. I think some of it may be necessary to bring public fears back on par with the actually risk which is small.

For example, while I think the shoe screening policy is mostly a waste of time, I’ll confess I do not have information to measure what the public backlash would be if they didn’t do it. I would imagine there would be enough people worried about shoe bombs to cause a problem. So the screening, while of little benefit from a security standpoint, may have eased the overblow fears of some travelers.

Sadly, but i fearfully true, a leader that correctly reacts to some incidents may pay for being right with his political career.

Josh O. May 5, 2010 9:26 AM

It’s apparently not easy to make a bomb. The last 2 attempts simply fizzled.

shadowfirebird May 5, 2010 9:29 AM

I think I agree with the “if they were smart enough to plan a good attack they wouldn’t be terrorists” theory.

It seems to me that if you are after making the populace scared of their lives, as opposed to dramatically blowing something up, then you could do that quite well without any guns or explosives.

But they don’t. I’m glad, but I don’t really understand why.

3simplewords May 5, 2010 9:44 AM

3 simple words for your readers.FALSE FLAG TERROR (sometimes called STATE SPONSORED TERROR)… google and learn…and wake up…sheep

shadowfirebird May 5, 2010 9:52 AM


You’re not going to convince us by telling us we’re sheep because we don’t believe exactly what you believe.

Especially when you assume that we believe something different to you in the first place, without checking?

Actually, this is such a flawed attempt at an argument I’m assuming that you are a troll.

GreenSquirrel May 5, 2010 9:52 AM

@ HJohn

“a leader that correctly reacts to some incidents may pay for being right with his political career”

Very true.

To an extent as armchair pundits we have the priveledge of being able to say “the chances of them using the same attack twice are so low its a farcical waste of money” but, as you say, what Administration would take that risk?

The (residual) risk and effects of terrorism are different for different people.

A commuter on the London underground is at risk of dying / being maimed by a terrorist attack (IRA, AQ, whoever). The President of the US is not (or at least the risk is so low as to be effectively zero).

However a President who is seen to be “soft on terrorism” (whatever that means) or even God forbid is thought to have allowed terrorists to attack in the same way twice, is at a very real risk of ending his career.

From this perspective, Governmental actions make a bit more sense.

Doesn’t make them right though!

Daniel May 5, 2010 9:52 AM

I would phrase Bruce’s original question slightly differently. The better question is why aren’t there more competent terror attacks.

Chris May 5, 2010 9:56 AM

Some of the targets don’t have the weight they used to. The Sears Tower isn’t even the Sears Tower anymore, it’s the Willis Tower which just increases the “The terrorists attacked what? shrug” factor. In addition to having to attack something that’s significant, they have to attack something that’s in the popular consciousness to be effective.

Stupid corporate renaming of buildings…

shadowfirebird May 5, 2010 10:02 AM


Actually, all they have to do is get on the news, surely?

Maybe that’s why these attempts fail. Because it’s not entirely important that they succeed; just that they look as if they might.

It’s a bizarre thought. The terrorists are only interested in looking as if they are dangerous, and the authorities are only interested in looking as if they were stopping them?

freedomofeverything May 5, 2010 10:03 AM

Not sure troll is the right term. Perhaps overly paranoid.

Conspiracies such as this are really unlikely. Consider that information leakage is pretty common and also that deniable assets have no real reason to keep quiet about who sent them.

There are 3 reasons someone would engage in this kind of activity: ideology (not necessarily religious), financial, or coercion. The government doesn’t need to fake ideological terrorism, there’s enough of that anyway. Financial motives would be too easy to spot, and coercion would usually involve the threat of harm to a loved one, all of which are very hard to keep secret.

HJohn May 5, 2010 10:08 AM

@GreenSquirrel at May 5, 2010 9:52 AM

That’s part of why I cut those in charge a bit more slack than some people do. In regards to some of the waste that is airport screening, it is easy for us to see how low the risk is at the micro level.

The math is much different for the person in charge nation wide. The TSA screens over 2 million passengers a day. To put this in perspective, that is 1 billion screenings every 16 months. Put another way, the number of screenings matches the US population every 5 months. 1 in a million, or 1 in 100 million calculates to be a much different risk over time for the person who will be held responsible if there is an incident anywhere at any time.

In a more rational society that values freedom, we’d understand that occassional attempts are to be expected, but we all know that isn’t the reality of the situation.

A president or the head of TSA, doesn’t matter his/her political party, may correctly explain the situation. However, their political opponent(s) will run adds of weeping relatives juxtaposed with clips of them saying that the terrorist threat is small.

CGomez May 5, 2010 10:17 AM

I disagree with the statement that small attacks aren’t worth it. I am astounded by the stupidity (or perhaps nonexistence) of Al-Qaeda when it simply didn’t follow up 9/11 with small attacks.

Too many Americans conceded that NY was a target and decided they were safe in other places. Too many Americans decided they were safe working in nondescript offices rather than famous ones like the WTC.

The DC Snipers terrorized a region with nothing more than a gun and a van. Al-Qaeda should have been doing DC sniper x 100.

They must be stupid, dead, or don’t exist.

AppSec May 5, 2010 10:24 AM


I understood what he meant, I just don’t necessarily agree with it as it is a little bit off the mark and leads to a false sense of (I really don’t want to use this word) “security”.

Maybe it is just a feeling. But there is just something that doesn’t fit with that argument. It feels like the underlying tone is because the event is rare we shouldn’t worry about it. So we really shouldn’t worry about those businesses that take commit fraud because it is rare? There’s really no reason to worry about Identity Theft becasue it’s on the news, so it’s rare? So, does that mean that I shouldn’t worry about my account?

I know that’s not what he’s saying, but that’s how it comes across… To me… But then again, I maybe reading way too much into it 🙂

aikimark May 5, 2010 10:27 AM

The rules are being changed for airlines. They used to have a 24-hour window to check the no-fly list. That is being changed to a 2-hour window.

The current 24-hour interval is the reason that Faisal Shahzad was able to board the plane.

BF Skinner May 5, 2010 10:30 AM

@Scott Rubin “anyone who is smart enough to pull off a successful attack is also smart enough not to be a terrorist”
Never pays to underestimate your enemies. This is part of a US meme, a stereotype…the ‘terrorist’ is a poor illiterate farmer or cave dweller. Facts dispute this. Bin Laden is said to have studied economics and public admin and has a degree as a civil engineer, Kaczynski was a math Phd, studies seem to indicate that the people committing attacks tend to have higher education and economic classes. Charles Russell and Bowman Miller “Perspectives on errorism” found the same thing with the Japanese Red Army, Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang, and Italy’s Red Brigades. http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/02_23/b3786027.htm

I wonder why this particular meme is still so current. I suspect generic Western chauvinism. How often have the wogs kicks our butts? Just. . . a lot. But that’s an off the cuff evaluation.

Policy, Politics and Journalism
This is a follow up from yesterday’s blog where
@CGomez said,
“both parties and most politicians care about nothing more than the acquisition and maintenance of power”
“Reporters are useful idiots because they have no expertise in anything but reporting, and they are taught in school that everyone has a valid opinion and to be “neutral”.

These touch valid points. What motivates a Fox News or CNN? Thier existence. To exist they must sell ad time and for that ad time to be worth something they’ve got to grab and hold attention. We used to call our local news Blood Witness news for their habit of filming the blood on the street of the accidents. What holds our attention, fear, disgust, anger.
But these are all emotions and they change over time.

Same within politics. Politics is about acquiring and using power. This is the tension between purity and practicallity. You can be as philosophical pure as you want to be but if you can’t get elected you can’t do anything about (fill in with any issue that matters to you). “You gotta get elected to be effective.”
We saw the last administration was very effective in this. But they still had to listen to people en masse. There was a scene during Katrina where the VP was told he had to go down to New Orleans. Cheany is a very pragmatic guy “why me. I’m not a huggy feely guy. we’ve got teams in place.” True but he failed to calculate the political angle. The story goes that POTUS was most annoyed at him. A political example of security theater maybe.

Within both these groups there are charlatans, grifters, demagogues. hacks and poltroons sure. But I’ve met enough of both classes to realize that they aren’t the norm. They are however constrained to the realities of their working enviornment (cf New World Communs. of Tampa, Inc. v. Akre, 866 So. 2d 1231(2003)).

Changing the coverage might help. Copycats and wannabes only copy what they think is cool, sleek, dangerous. Back in the 80s there was a story I think was called A Very Proper Charlie. Where the news agencies were convinced to report every screwup, every fault, and make terrorists look like bumbling morons. As the story went the first thing it affected was the terrorists funding. Dunno if it would work but it’s worth a try.

BF Skinner May 5, 2010 10:35 AM

@3simplewords: “sheep”
Its sheeple isn’t it? Alex Jones & Co. will be perturbed with you if you don’t use proper terminology.

freedomofeverything May 5, 2010 10:36 AM

It’s a fair point, and you’ve struck on that bit of human nature that makes all this possible.

People fear a lack of control more than anything else, and the random nature of a terrorist attack strums that string in just the right way – most other forms of unintentional death can be controlled (even if just the illusion of control) by changing your circumstances: Avoid dying in a plane crash by not flying, avoid dying in a mugging by staying in at night, avoid being the target of a hitman by not pissing off the mob (;]). But since terrorists (and identity thieves) attack random people without prejudice, our fear of that attack grows disproportionately to how likely we actually are to be a victim of it since we have no control over it.

Identity theft is another suitably vague term – what it really means is that somebody is pretending to be someone else, and the purpose doesn’t matter. A kid using someone else’s driver’s license to get into a bar is technically committing identity theft even though the victim never even knew, just the same as that guy who completely drained your bank account.

It’s a random crime that you are very unlikely to ever be the victim of – but the lack of control makes you worry.

B. Real May 5, 2010 10:57 AM

Any day now it will become common knowledge that this alleged “terror attack” was simply a ploy by the oil industry to distract us from the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

(Yes, I am kidding — aren’t I??)

Brian May 5, 2010 10:58 AM

This article seems directly contradictory to your previous statements about “security theatre”. You are describing Movie style plots, and saying they are the only effective ones. Yet you say we shouldn’t protect against them? And you say that its hard to get terrorists into the country, yet also say that stopping many people at the airport is a waste of money.

If they have to divert their tactics, they have to divert them to less effective tactics, which prevents them from doing the movie style plots, and is therefor ineffective as a terrorist action. So, basically, prevent movie style plots without preventing movie style plots?

I think I agree with your prior statements about movie style plots, and that we should focus on intelligence then on movie style plots…

Adam May 5, 2010 11:12 AM

WHAT?!? Why Aren’t There More Terrorist Attacks?

How many attacks would be enough exactly?

NYC, Dallas, Pittsburgh, East Texas, Florida, DC, LAX, London, Moscow, Tokyo… thats just off the top of mind head.

James Gentile May 5, 2010 11:19 AM

I know it’s going to be unpopular here, where the ‘we know more than everybody else about security’ crowd hangs out, but I’m going to wager that we don’t see more terrorist attacks because terrorists know the US will simply destroy another one of the terrorist supporting states and occupy another ‘holy land’. Attacks are easy to pull off, but do the terrorists really want to see Iran and Syria, et al. destroyed and democratized? Not a chance. Ah, what’s the use, I’m just the programmed sleep walking sheep as far as most of the people here are concerned.

Nobodyspecial May 5, 2010 11:31 AM

@Hugh Mannity
I also lived in Belfast and London during the ‘euphemisms’.

It’s funny how with real bombs going off we never needed ID cards, millions of CCTV cameras, bans on taking photographers of tower bridge and naked body scans at airports.

All I seem to remember as a response was removign litter bins from the tube

HJohn May 5, 2010 11:32 AM

The question “why” is something that most people will never really agree on.

If an attack happens: one group will say “see the threat is real” while their opponents will say “no, you’re just incompetent.”

If no attacks happen: one group will say “see, our countermeasures are working” while their opponents will say “no, there just isn’t a threat.”

Reminds me of a manager I worked with (fortunately not my manager). He had two employees, we’ll call them Tina and Shelly. He was close friends with Shelly and wanted her to surpass Tina who worked their longer. Whatever happened, he would spin it to Shelly’s credit and Tina’s detriment.
* If Tina was busy, he’d attribute it to proscrastination. If Shelly was busy, he’d attribute it to dilligence.
* If Tina wasn’t busy, he’d attribute it to laziness. If Shelly was busy, he’d attribute it to efficiency.

Sort of the political dynamic to this. Without interjecting political opinions, I can see where this is destined to go in circles for quite a while. Most have a tendency to spin whatever happens which every way to discredit the situations or leaders who they already think the worst of and to credit the situations or leaders they already think the best of. I don’t even really think it is evil or intentionally, it is just naturally easier to think the best of someone you trust and the worst of someone you don’t.

Ian May 5, 2010 11:40 AM

@James Gentile

Anyone can be an armchair expert on the Internet, but if you’ve spent some time here you’ll have quickly realized that many of the regulars are security professionals or very well-educated amateurs. I claim to be neither, but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night.

Fred X. Quimby May 5, 2010 11:47 AM

NYT: “In addition, the airline he was flying, Emirates, failed to act on an electronic message at midday on Monday notifying all carriers to check the no-fly list for an important added name, the officials said.”

Could it be that the no-fly list is so often abused that airlines aren’t even keep track of it proactively? Or that the list causes so many false positives airlines are leery of angering more customers? This is a subject worth at least one Bruce Schneier Epic Saga-Poem. Oh, nevermind, he already did it.

Dat May 5, 2010 12:00 PM

@Mr. Schneier:

Now it is clear why we want air marshals in planes or keep a good watch at a subway. You need to blow up something as spectacular as that to really grab attention. Protecting high valued targets in that ‘sense’ actually helps!

John Campbell May 5, 2010 12:14 PM

Perhaps terrorisms, being, basically, a spectator sport that has the audience feel like participants, is an effort like “strategic bombing” to “weaken the populace’s will”… which, as we’ve seen, seldom works the way people expect.

When a Unified Theory of Human Behavior finally gets published it will consist, in its entirety, of exceptions.

The real problem is that terrorists give us a common enemy to unite ourselves against (despite the PATRIOT acts efforts to make us distrust each other and “our” government mode) which means that we will respond in a more organized fashion.

The funny thing is that the immoderate Muslims want to lead Islam… and, if they can get the West to persecute even moderate-to-liberal Muslims then they can’t “assume a leadership role” in where Islam is going. I believe that we are being encouraged to antagonize Muslims in order to force ’em to accept the West as a “common enemy” and unite them under this immoderate leadership.

I know, I know, I’m excessively paranoid… but nothing renders a terrorist more impotent than not being taken seriously… and they are desperate to be taken seriously.

If all acts of terrorism are reported during the monologue of the Tonight show or on SNL’s Week-End Update we MIGHT place terrorism where it belongs… but it sells commercials on CNN, Fox, etc, etc… and so those organizations LOVE the events because covering and exaggerating them make them money.

John Campbell May 5, 2010 12:21 PM

Crud… I originally wrote:

“The funny thing is that the immoderate Muslims want to lead Islam… and, if they can get the West to persecute even moderate-to-liberal Muslims then they can’t “assume a leadership role” in where Islam is going.”

I meant

“The funny thing is that the immoderate Muslims want to lead Islam… and, if they can’t get the West to persecute even moderate-to-liberal Muslims then they can’t “assume a leadership role” in where Islam is going.”

So I got it kind of backwards, there.

Ian May 5, 2010 12:24 PM


The point is that there are too many places that would be a good target. You can’t “secure” them all. I understand what you’re saying – Bruce is sort of saying that there are a limited number of good targets in this post, but what he’s not saying here (but has said in the past) is that the number of targets is still so large that you could never hope to keep them all under constant guard. JFK is under guard? Fine, let’s go to Newark. Newark has a lot of cops around? Fine, head to the Meadowlands and blow up a stadium full of people. Meadowlands not panning out? Fine, take an automatic down to the Lincoln Memorial and open up. There are always high-value targets around.

WRT keeping an eye on the subway – here in New York, they do have random searches on the subway, but you can refuse, leave and come back through another entrance to the same station. It’s too large to effectively search enough people to make any kind of real difference. The chances of someone carrying a bomb through one of those checkpoints is slim, and even if they did they almost certainly wouldn’t be stopped, and even if they were stopped the searches are little more than a quick glance in your bag. Even if you had cops posted at every subway entrance, all you would do is slow down everyone on the public transit system and make some other target more attractive. So even if a target IS being watched, that doesn’t mean it’s invulnerable.

GreenSquirrel May 5, 2010 12:32 PM

@ Dat at May 5, 2010 12:00 PM

First you would have to show that Air Marshalls (or whatever) were actually effective at stopping bombs going off on planes. Then we would need to scale up to every plane. And then every subway station. Every bus. Every crowded area. (etc).

Even East Germany would struggle.

Davi Ottenheimer May 5, 2010 12:36 PM

Bruce, I appreciate that you want to simplify.

It obviously has rhetorical advantages, but you often lose a lot of the baby as you toss bathwater:

“if it’s in the news don’t worry about it. The definition of “news” is something that almost never happens.”

Disagree. News can be a new event, but it also can be just a new perspective on something that happens often or something of ordinary human interest.

Not all stories are run because of event timing; the definition of news also includes things like proximity, prominence, and significance. Sensationalized reporting is likely to be your real target of criticism. Ignore real news at your own peril.

bob May 5, 2010 12:39 PM

I stated a while ago that Al-Quaida screwed themselves with the overwhelming success of 9/11. Now to get the headlines they crave (which are a precursor to terrorizing the population which in turn helps motivate political change) they will have to bring down MORE than 2 huge buildings and kill MORE than 3,000 because thats where they left the bar.

Nobody knows who was the 18th person to run the 4 minute mile or the 5th person to walk on the moon.

Accepting this as given (and Bruce said similar up above so it must be true; at least on Bruce’s blog) what we need is a false-flag terrorist attack BY THE US GOVERNMENT (but accredited to AQ) that takes out a large portion of a substantial city, kills 20,000 people outright, disrupts TV and cable for > 1 million people, drops a bridge or two and shuts down an interstate highway for months! Since they could never hope to top that, AQ would have to quit being terrorists!!!

Oh, wait. What would they do with all that free time after they stop being terrorists? They might realize they could do more damage to the US by becoming a politician or attorney (or worst case: both). Nvm, leave them as terrorists…

Davi Ottenheimer May 5, 2010 12:54 PM

“all of these terrorists believe they are repelling foreign invaders. That’s not the situation here in the U.S”

Bruce, check the START report for data on attacks in the US. History shows terrorism related directly to foreign policy:


“Puerto Rican separatists, the Jewish Defense League and an anti-Castro group were the most active in the 1970s, with their attacks tapering off through the 1980s.”

Moreover, when you consider American groups like Minnesota’s White Hammer of the North, the KKK, Henry L. Beach’s Posse Comitatus, the White Order, the Nationalist Movement, the Colorado Skinheads, the Confederate Hammerskins…you quickly will find evidence of US groups who advocate terror to “repel” foreign invaders.

mcb May 5, 2010 1:12 PM

“3 simple words for your readers.FALSE FLAG TERROR (sometimes called STATE SPONSORED TERROR)…google and learn…and wake up…sheep”

Lighten up, Francis

dmmiller2k May 5, 2010 1:30 PM


To my way of thinking, the Times Square attack WAS in fact successful, if only to a point. Had the bomb not fizzled, we would have had a very different last few days.

The fact that it DID fizzle had nothing whatsoever to do with the efficacy or heroism of any of the individual law-enforcement members or agencies involved.

I disagree with your point that it is difficult to pull off an attack.

This guy DID pull it off, to the point of actually assembling an explosive device, delivering and and setting it off in situ; had it been a “successful” explosion, with all the concomitant chaos, I imagine he might well have gotten away without getting caught.

We were lucky, but this guy did (almost) everything right and the fact that his handiwork didn’t explode, in the final analysis, had NOTHING to do with how hard it is to pull such a thing off.

Ian May 5, 2010 1:38 PM


I see what you’re saying, but I disagree. Of your three points – assembling, delivering, and detonating – he accomplished only one, delivery. He did not assemble an explosive device, he assembled some stuff that smoked for a while. That’s easy, I can load a car up with all sorts of crap and park it anywhere and meet those two criteria. Three would be detonation, which was impossible given the stuff he had, so that one is, by default, unsuccessful given the failure of item 1.

Ian May 5, 2010 1:42 PM


Ugh, hit post before I was done. To continue –

I do agree that it had very little to do with law enforcement and more to do with his own lack of know-how.

Anyway, Bruce’s point is not that it’s hard to pull off an attack, but that it’s hard to pull off a SUCCESSFUL attack, which this was not. No real danger, no damage, no injuries, just a singed car, a suspect in custody and a story. Yeah, it could have been bad, but the underwear/shoe/Fort Dix/etc. plots could have been bad if they’d been successful, which they weren’t.

Jeff Towle May 5, 2010 1:57 PM

Why Aren’t There More Terrorist Attacks?

I think there is a direct correlation to one’s happiness, and reason to live, and one’s sadness and motivation to die. Everyone keeps talking about how Faisal Shahzad just screwed everything up (even with training!). Why? Because he had a wife and child. He lived in the free world for 10 years and saw possibilites. Let’s face it, it’s just hard to blow yourself up when you love your kids and spouse.

So I think the reason we don’t see more bombings in the U.S. is because, basically, we have our needs met. This is changing however. Take a job away, or make getting a good education harder and you could easily change that balance of happiness.

Terrorism is fueled by neglect and feelings of hopelessness, which leads to hatred an irrational behaviror.

So it make sense that we don’t experience these bombings on a regular basis in the U.S. Let’s just hope we can keep it that way.

jackit May 5, 2010 2:15 PM

I’ve said this for years now. And not just actual attacks. Why so few fake allerts?

A few people calling different airports every day could stop the fucking country, but it does not happen. Why? Because it’s not about “terrorism”, it’s about the boogeyman: and we should have been grown up to a point where we don’t believe in it anymore.

kevin May 5, 2010 2:20 PM

@Bob: The 5th person to walk on the moon was Alan Shepard. A few of us still remember him. 🙂

Toshi May 5, 2010 2:33 PM

I think a big reason that’s being overlooked for the lack of more terrorist attacks is simply the reality that if it became common for terrorist attacks, the following would result:

a) we as a country would actually care about resolving the issue, which is not what terrorists want. Currently, we simply are apathetic, and put little flags on our cars, but beyond that we don’t do much about it, as a whole.

b) it would desensitize the populace to terror, again not an ideal outcome.

c) It would be impossible for one group to claim all of the attacks, thus negating the high profile that groups like al-Qaida currently benefit from. If they became “just another group of terrorists attacking us” then while the apathy towards the attacks would decrease (due to the quantity of attacks) the apathy toward a group like al-Qaida would actually increase, and the whole point of a terrorist group is to create terror, not apathy.

dmmiller2k May 5, 2010 3:27 PM


For what it’s worth, I pass beneath that rough area of NYC twice every day on my way to and from work, respectively.

The fact that he got the materials there undetected and was able to set it off and get away more or less unscathed in my mind far outweighs the serendipitous result that it didn’t STAY lit and explode.

In other words, I am not reassured by the fact that it was ultimately unsuccessful. The fact that he couldn’t light the thing properly has nothing to do with Bruce’s point; by the time he went to do that he had already made it through whatever paltry gauntlet we have in place to prevent just such an event, and let’s face it, we failed.

R May 5, 2010 4:38 PM

The difficulty of organising a plot without getting caught is a good point.
I generally don’t believe in conspiracy theory because they run counter to the Dilbert principle (People are stupid). The same applies to terrorist plots.
Anyone that has been involved in an organisation of more than trivial size recognises the Dillbert principle. Cock ups happen all the time.

S May 5, 2010 4:46 PM

Bruce, I’ve been wondering if you’ve heard about what happened on rememberance day here, yesterday. During the two minute commemorative silence someone started screaming which made everyone flee in panic. It seems like something you’d find interesting. You can find lots of it on youtube under “dodenherdenking paniek”.


greatscott May 5, 2010 4:58 PM


The fact that he couldn’t light the thing properly has a great deal to do with Bruce’s point.

He couldn’t light the thing because he had no experience. No training. No contact with competent people who could teach him how while shielding him from the authorities.

Says Bruce,
“Putting together the people, the plot and the materials is hard.”

Yes, yes, it is. Otherwise our man in Manhattan might have done better.

Neither his incompetence nor the failure of his plot are chance. In preparing his attack, he obviously couldn’t find the right materials, plot, or people.

Had he spent more effort researching or searching for other terrorists, that would have increased his risk of getting caught; it’s quite likely he was aware of this and so was reluctant to plaster his name all over internet chat rooms.

This is exactly what Bruce’s first two points (It’s hard to pull off and There are only a few terrorists) describe.

He couldn’t do it himself and he couldn’t find anyone else who could.

Brad Templeton May 5, 2010 5:08 PM

In my blog post at http://ideas.4brad.com/terror-and-security about motivations of terrorists and counterterrorists, a commenter pointed to a very interesting paper which posits (and backs up with lots of research) that terrorists commit terrorist acts in order to create bonds with other terrorists.

That sounds crazy, but the paper is surprisingly well researched. It is at http://maxabrahms.com/pdfs/DC_250-1846.pdf

If this is true, it would explain the lack of terrorism in the USA, where you can’t get this benefit as easily.

narok May 5, 2010 6:28 PM

Bruce is right–the goal of terrorisim is to instill fear. A bomb going off in Times Square, like the other terrorist acts in NYC instills fear…in New Yorkers. Frankly, I believe most Americans see them as a New York problem and not one that they have to worry about in Kansas City, Seattle, or small towns across the US.

Bruce is wrong–it doesn’t have to be big to terrorize the nation. A bunch of small attacks, say small bombs going off in random shopping malls, supermarkets, restaurants, etc., across the country, would terrorize lots of people because they would feel it could happen to them or their loved ones.

Lamont Granquist May 5, 2010 8:23 PM

I hate to disagree with Bruce, but the DC sniper attacks easily falsify the idea that small attacks don’t do it anymore.

And AQ or an AQ-related organization could magnify the effect exponentially just by sending 2 snipers at the same time. And they really need to hit targets other than NYC. Targeting shopping malls in suburbia and driving around the country would freak the whole country out.

For bonus points all AQ really needs to do is kill some white, photogenic pre-teen girl coming out of a shopping mall — leverage both terrorism and all the Amber Alert paranoia on Fox News at the same time.

I think the reason why this doesn’t happen is that it doesn’t mesh with how they view themselves and what they’re trying to do battle with. Killing a couple Americans in suburbia won’t play well to the home audience even though it might freak us out completely. Spectacular mass-casualty attacks make it not about the individual target and dehumanizes all the “collateral damage” and the preferred target is really symbols of American power (WTC, Pentagon, White House, Capitol, etc).

Tom T. May 5, 2010 8:35 PM

@ Tim: wrote:

“”Note that this is very different than terrorism by an occupied population”

very different to ….”

Correct en-US usage is actually “different from… ”

I understand that “different to” is an en-BR usage. But agree that “different than”, though common, is incorrect in either.

spoilsport May 6, 2010 12:11 AM

“This guy DID pull it off, to the point of actually assembling an explosive device”

Actually, he assembled a device that emitted a small amount of smoke. Probably he was trying to assemble an explosive device, but if so, he didn’t even come close.

dat May 6, 2010 12:20 AM


It is true that one can find alternate lucrative targets but what if they are less spectacular ones. a plane crashing into a building is far more spectacular than blowing up at a crowded market or bus.

Without the sensationalism, terrorism fails if i read Mr. Schneier’s argument correctly. That probably makes all the airport and aircraft security worthwhile, so that attackers be forced to go and blow up some place else.

This brings to the other question – are there too many ‘spectacular’ targets to police and cover? I don’t know.

@GreenSquirell: its probable they may be able to give airport security and air marshall’s a slip but that is still the best that one can do to prevent or stop attacks.

Robert Merkel May 6, 2010 12:25 AM

One point to keep in mind is that this guy got a bachelor’s degree in computer science and engineering, and an MBA.

Surely somebody with that background should be able to master the fairly simple task of making something explode on cue?

Nick N May 6, 2010 12:39 AM

I’ve always wondered why there weren’t more of the “throw a grenade-like shrapnel bomb into a crowded public area and walk away” type attacks. A few of these a month and people would be terrified of going into public areas. I guess the “terrorists” are more interested in spectacle than actual terror.

Marian Kechlibar May 6, 2010 2:52 AM

Robert, IT types are not very good at chemistry, unless they studied it specifically. Chemistry requires a different kind of experience.

For example, your computer does not really mind if the processor is 45 Celsius hot or 55, at least it does not influence behavior of your program. But mixing up chemicals is another story.

Robert Merkel May 6, 2010 3:46 AM

Sure, Marian. But the point is that we’re talking about somebody who should have some level of planning and research skills to fill in the relevant knowledge gaps.

I don’t have the knowledge to make a complete bomb off the top of my head, either. But give me a year to research and practice and I’d be very disappointed if I couldn’t manage.

GreenSquirrel May 6, 2010 3:59 AM

@ dat at May 6, 2010 12:20 AM

“a plane crashing into a building is far more spectacular than blowing up at a crowded market or bus.”

I sort of agree. However there are many more spectactular attacks available to them. In general, it is the “iconic” nature of the target that makes it significant.

Blowing up a famous landmark is going to get more news coverage than blowing up a random shop.

That said, perception is the key. If the news has nothing else to report, the shop bombing will get a lot of coverage and become spectacular.

It has often been explained that events like the London Underground bombing have less public impact than a plane attack because people have to use the underground daily so they are forced to deal with and realise the risk is minimal. With plane attacks, it adds to an outstanding risk so seems to magnify in perception.

“its probable they may be able to give airport security and air marshall’s a slip but that is still the best that one can do to prevent or stop attacks.”

I disagree. Airport security is the best you can do to prevent an attack at that stage. There are thing you can do well in advance.

The air marshall, however, doesnt seem to add value. He just sits on the plane when it blows up.

GreenSquirrel May 6, 2010 4:49 AM

@ Robert Merkel at May 6, 2010 3:46 AM

“But the point is that we’re talking about somebody who should have some level of planning and research skills to fill in the relevant knowledge gaps.”

But he had an MBA which kind of shows he didnt…..

(joking incase anyone takes it to heart)

dat May 6, 2010 5:42 AM


its true that how the NEWS plays with fear and gives a heightened perception of that. it depends on how the media covers it.

Air marshal’s are useful in certain scenario’s. it can respond well to a hijack threat or if someone tries to force the cockpit to take control of the plane.

GreenSquirrel May 6, 2010 6:31 AM

@ dat at May 6, 2010 5:42 AM

Well sort of useful, I agree, but this is the problem with Air Marshalls – they are an expensive, prone to problem solution to a single, specific, attack vector.

Enhanced screening (done properly) at the airport is much more effective and will combat numerous attacks.

Having a bullet proof, lockable cockpit door kind of makes it hard to hijack the plane.

Ian May 6, 2010 7:56 AM


I agree with you – I’m just saying that the answer to the “are there too many spectacular targets to cover” question is yes. And that doesn’t get in to the questions on the actual worth of the cover, which is an argument that’s gone on for a long time here.

Ian May 6, 2010 8:11 AM


I’m on the other side of Manhattan, so I’m good as long as they don’t bomb City Hall, the Brooklyn Bridge, anything on Wall St… 🙂 I’m not worried – it’s much more likely that something else will happen to do us in. Subway fire, gas pipe explosion, building collapse, getting hit by a cab because they seem to think motorcycles don’t belong on the right side of the road, you name it. Believe me, I hear what you’re saying and it’s not crazy, I just think we’ve got other things to worry about that are much more likely to happen. I’m not too worried about getting struck by lightning, either – but hey, it could happen.

Not Schneier May 6, 2010 8:22 AM


“”Note that this is very different than terrorism by an occupied population”

very different to ….”

How about ‘…very different FROM…’

jprfrog May 6, 2010 9:03 AM

If this guy got his training in a Pakistani camp he should ask for his money back. His procedure sounds like the script for a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler (check out the piano-moving sketch), where everything that can go wrong does.

I passed by the corner of the incident less than 24 hours before it occurred, and as a result I am much more alert to the danger of smoking cars. If the object of terrorism is to terrify, it hasn’t done much for me; I ride the subway a few times a week and will continue to do so. I’m still in more danger stepping off the curb in Manhattan (my closest call was from a messenger bike speeding the wrong way on a one-way street.)

lol May 6, 2010 9:42 AM

I think the point about “people smart enough to commit terrorism are smart enough to not be terrorists” is that the people with the training, experiences and planning skills to pull off terrorist attacks generally aren’t going to sacrifice themselves in an attack. So they need someone else to do it for them.

One, it ensures that their skills remain around to help the next guy for the next attack and two, they probably aren’t too keen on dying or being arrested.

That means they need to involve other people – ideally fervent dolts (who may be highly educated, westernized, etc) who don’t have those skills to pull of an attack but are willing to die for the cause. But that also means they need to involve other people – fervent dolts who are going to screw up and get caught.

9/11 was that rare mix of smart, well-trained and willing to die and in a large group to boot.

Julian May 6, 2010 10:18 AM

I’ve been saying this stuff since 2001. Thanks for putting these arguments out there, and here’s hoping people will actually listen so that I no longer have to explain that al-Qaida is not SPECTRE.

freedomofeverything: Yes, the Austin IRS attack was an act of terrorism. He left a public note before carrying out the attack; his intent was to draw attention to his grievances through an act of extreme violence which sowed fear among those he identified as his enemies and defiance among those he viewed as his fellow travelers. That is terrorism. If his attack wasn’t terrorism, then neither is McVeigh’s, or the various World Trade Center attacks.

Julian May 6, 2010 10:34 AM

lol: And, I would say, ball dropping on the part of those entrusted to protect society. I don’t blame Bush for September 11th, but I do blame him for seeing terrorism as a side issue which Clinton had wasted time and resources on, and for pursuing departmental policies informed by that view.

David Conrad May 6, 2010 11:11 AM


Are we talking about the same guy? The one who left his keys in his car bomb? He most certainly did not succeed it setting it off, and to say that he “got the materials there undetected” is irrelevant. There are no barriers in place to prevent someone from bringing gasoline, propane, fertilizer, or fireworks into New York City, nor do there need to be.


Did you actually know that without looking it up? If so, very impressive.


IMHO, the Austin IRS attack was not terrorism, but it was would-be terrorism. The pilot had a manifesto, he had his grievances, and he hoped to bring about political changes through violence. The problem is, unlike Oklahoma City where if McVeigh had gotten away with it he would still have been on the loose, the Austin pilot committed a suicide attack but had no accomplices or organization. Thus, there is no credible threat that there will be more violence if his demands aren’t met. That threat of “do as I wish or else”, express or implied, is critical to the definition of terrorism, in my opinion, and is absent in Austin.

In Oklahoma City, McVeigh wasn’t a suicide bomber, so he still would have been at large to potentially strike again, if he hadn’t been caught. With the WTC attack, they were suicide bombers, but they had a network behind them that was and is still out there.

The Austin pilot in his manifesto made some vague statement about how he hoped his example would inspire others, but that’s not a real threat. “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”

anonymous May 6, 2010 11:33 AM

“Why Aren’t There More Terrorist Attacks?”

No need. The US government (and by their example all the other governments around the world, in good faith or not) are doing their job for them.
Thank Dubya’s war of terror.

km May 6, 2010 12:18 PM

But I thought all Muslims were 10-foot tall terrorists who could commit mayhem with their very thoughts.

Have I been misinformed?

freedomofeverything May 6, 2010 12:28 PM


Well they aren’t all that tall, but the turbans are deceptively high.

JimFive May 7, 2010 10:17 AM

RE: Adam
“How many attacks would be enough exactly?”

Well, if the goal is to affect U.S. national policy with respect to the Middle East. I’d say on average 3 successful, coordinated attacks per week, in the US.

In addition there would have to be specific announced (reasonable) goals that would allow the populace to pressure the government to change. Currently, none of the attacks have been accompanied by a statement to the effect of “Attacks will continue until U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq”


Wheres_the_Kaboom May 7, 2010 10:44 AM

A quick observation, and perhaps it’s obvious to everyone, but I often see words like “success” and “failure” used without any specific criteria to define them, and without an acknowledgement that multiple criteria may exist. For example, looking at the times square bomber, what groups can ‘claim’ success?

The government can claim success because the bomb didn’t go off and they caught the Shahzad.

The group that trained the Shahzad can claim success because they made they got the worlds attention for a few days, forced changes to security policies and protocols (even if briefly) in NY, caused the TSA to update their policies yet again, forced us to spend a lot of money on an investigation, and didn’t burn a critical asset.

Shahzad can claim he partially succeeded, because he didn’t die, made the news, and ‘furthered the cause’ (whatever that might be).

Arguments can also be made that all of the above ‘failed’.

For quite a while now, I’ve been kicking around the idea that the ultimate intent of the groups training Richard Reid, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, and now Shahzad was to set them up with the little bomb that couldn’t, with the understanding that an attempted bombing followed by the very public arrest of the terrorist – who, by the way, knows nothing of real importance – would cause bigger change from a policy (and therefore monetary) perspective than a bomb that actually exploded. After all, making the determination that a plane was brought down by an intentional explosion is a process that can take months or years to come to, and that doesn’t work well for an organization that wants media attention today.

If the ultimate goal was for the bomb not to detonate, Reid and Mutallab probably wouldn’t have been told, but it all comes back to how you define success & failure.

Perhaps my reasoning is naive, but I’d love to hear thoughts on it.

moo May 7, 2010 7:48 PM

Slightly off-topic, maybe:

I think one of the best responses to terrorism (successful or not) is to mock and ridicule it. In a civilized society, we should not let anyone influence us with violence or terror — whatever our other differences, all civilized persons should stand shoulder-to-shoulder and bravely tell would-be terrorists to piss right off. Mocking and ridiculing them is a proper part of this process, and we need more of it. Especially since the media is so fond of fear-mongering now whenever there’s a terrorist incident! They blow the issue up (pun intended) well beyond its actual significance. Terrorists are just criminals who happen to try to carry out rather heinous crimes, and whose motives are political (or at least, different from the motives of most “ordinary” criminals).

But they’re still just criminals, and we should treat them like other criminals whenever we catch some alive (e.g. we should just use the regular justice system rather than special military tribunals for “enemy combatants” or whatever).

911TRUTH May 8, 2010 1:59 AM

Why ??
Because the “war on terror” is a sham.

The “official” story of 9/11 is nothing but the greatest false flag operation in history which created this new “terror industrial complex”. The only truth about 9/11 is that 3,000 people were slaughtered. According to the FBI, Bin Laden had nothing to do with 9/11. He’s not even wanted in connection with 9/11 on the FBI website.

Even the “underwear bomber” story is another fairy tale. There was no failure to “connect the dots” like we heard a thousand times. According to Congressional testimony on Jan 27, 2010 by Patrick Kennedy of the State Dept, they knew all about that guy and were going to stop him from getting on that flight, but they were overridden by “US intelligence agencies” who wanted him on, and according to eye witnesses, was escorted on that plane.

The next thing we know is that Michael Chertoff is all over the news fearing us up on how we need the airport body scanners. What he neglected to mention is that he represents Rapiscan, the company that makes those machines. But that didn’t stop Obama from handing him a no bid billion dollar contract. So now the TSA Neanderthals get to look at our naked bodies just to get on an airplane and we can possibly even get cancer from them.

The “war on terror” is nothing but BIG business, folks!

Phil Fraering May 8, 2010 2:08 PM

Note that this is very different than terrorism by an occupied population: the IRA in Northern Ireland, Iraqis in Iraq, Palestinians in Israel. Setting aside the actual politics, all of these terrorists believe they are repelling foreign invaders. That’s not the situation here in the U.S.

If that were the case in Iraq most of the terrorist attacks in Iraq would actually be targeted at US troops instead of Iraqi civilians. It’s been portrayed in the western media that it’s an uprising of against an occupation, but look at the actual targets and casualty figures, especially recently, now that US troops have more or less stopped aggressive patrols and returned to their bases. Searching “Baghdad bombing” on google seems to give a decent summary of recent bombings over the past couple months. (If I understand the headlines right, it totals about 42 civilian casualties over the month of April; I understand that it’s probably not a comprehensive list).

Anyway, large scale, and AFAICT unconnected to military action against the American armed forces, terrorism is still ongoing in Baghdad. You may want to take a closer look at it in that light.

Logical Fallacy May 8, 2010 2:23 PM

You could equivalently ask: why weren’t there more attacks before 9/11? It is not that we’ve done something to prevent these attacks, it’s that they are rare in themselves. There is nothing magic about the date, and even the thesis that 9/11 “raised the bar” fails when you think about it. If that thesis were true, there should have been more attacks before 9/11. The frequency of attacks appears to be constant; consider the Wall Street bombing of 1920.

Paul Check May 8, 2010 7:51 PM

“If you think about it, terrorism is essentially a PR stunt. The death of innocents and the destruction of property isn’t the goal of terrorism; it’s just the tactic used.”

I have thought about it quite a bit, actually, and I’m not sure I get it. What, exactly, is the final “goal” of Al Qeida? Some say it’s to get the US out of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East in general, which seems to be a failure overall so far, although there was some reduction in US presence in SA. Others say it’s just to kill people, but they really haven’t killed that many people per year, at least so far. To grind down the US economy? Ok, the attacks took how much off of GDP? Or perhaps it’s just some kind of emotional response to feeling like they are bullied, in which case I’m not sure you can even say that’s a “goal”.

So, BS and crowd…what exactly is their goal? If it is to get the US out of the Middle East, I have a better suggestion for them: Build their economies into powerhouses over the span of, say, 300 years, but unleashing the full productive nature of their human capital, and encouraging investment as well. Now…once you’ve done that, and you’re a world super power, then you can get people out of your backyard very easily. Look at China… The US doesn’t push them around so much any more…do they?

Ok, you guessed it. I’m calling the terrorists stupid, impatient and irrational all over again. What’s great is that for the vast, vast, vast majority of us, life just goes on as we please while they piss against the wind and take out 300 people per year, at best, and for what?


Sysiphus May 9, 2010 8:00 AM

You are a foreign invader in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere. They will attack you wherever they can. They will bleed you dry economically. You fire $10,000 missiles to kill one person, they use 10c AK47 bullets.

SilverMoon May 9, 2010 11:00 AM

The terrorist news has over rated their ability to do worldwide harm. They are still in the primitive stage, at least for now so fewer terrorist attacks.

Paul Check May 9, 2010 12:09 PM

p.s. To my comment above: Even if they detonated a dirty bomb or nuclear device in a major city, they still wouldn’t get what they want, in fact they’d get the opposite. Why is it that these Islamic Fundamentalist Terrorists don’t spend several centuries building their economies into powerhouses by encouraging investment and productive behaviour, THEN they can get what they want? I really don’t understand why they don’t take a more productive, and much more likely-successful path to achieve their goals. WHY? Attacking the US with sporadic attacks will only make their situation worse, and push them FURTHER away from what they want.

Ask yourself this question? If a nuclear device were to explode in Manhattan, what do you think the response would be? On the other hand, if they were to build a very productive economy, what do you think would happen to the US involvement in the area?

Why do they chose the destructive path that will result in a massive failure instead of the constructive path that has much greater chance of achieving their goals? Do you REALLY believe that detonating a nuclear device — forget about a car bomb — would turn the US away? Are you JOKING?

BF Skinner May 9, 2010 1:01 PM

@911TRUTH …redundent string of un-useful conspiracy theory cut…

Prove it.

Not with supposition, interpretation, possibilities, or talking points from the birthers, tea party, Alex Jones or the militia movement but with fact.

Facts can’t be ‘information withheld from us by the banking elite or government’ unless you have the document of questioned and proved provenance.

Prove it not to your satisfaction or mine. Prove it to… say the satisfaction of Richard Clarke.

anon May 10, 2010 4:05 AM

“Note that this is very different than terrorism by an occupied population: the IRA in Northern Ireland, Iraqis in Iraq, Palestinians in Israel. Setting aside the actual politics, all of these terrorists believe they are repelling foreign invaders. That’s not the situation here in the U.S.”

Middle easterns attacking US to stop US from meddling in their affairs and stomping all over them ARE repelling invaders. Just because you don’t see it that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t.

Daniel May 11, 2010 2:44 AM

American journalists to assist terrorists when it comes to Russia

Nick Perumov, famous Russian fantasy-writer, who lives in the USA, in a recent interview described his impressions of how the American media had covered the terrorist attacks in Moscow subway on March 29, which took more than fifty lives.

According to Perumov, The New York Times with no hesitation wrote about terrorists, who killed Russian citizens, as “the Chechen freedom fighters”. “They are not called “terrorists” – but only “rebels”, “insurgents”, “guerrillas”, “partisans” and thus enter the noble context” – noted the writer.

You can watch Perumov’s interview here, but it’s in Russian. So, if anyone speaks Russian, you’re welcome.

“The New York Times” correspondent Clifford J. Levy (the author of the article) who has caused anger and bewilderment of the famous writer, is not alone in his sympathy to the terrorists.

“The Washington Post’s” Moscow bureau Chief Philip P. Pan has also successfully found allegoric names for terrorists. He calls them “suicide bombers” and, again, “Islamist insurgents”.

Different attitude of these “independent media” to terrorist activity causes at least bewilderment.

These media definitely qualify the explosions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Spain, India, the victims of which are innocent people, as terrorism, but similar bombings in Moscow is nothing but a struggle for freedom of “Islamist insurgents”, “rebels” and “separatists”. And measures to resist terrorism in such an ambiguous, confusing and far Russia are served by these media as “brutal suppression of the insurgency of the North Caucasus.”

The spread of the information justifying the terrorists or assisting the terrorists is equal to supporting terrorism in every civilized state.

Are C. Levy and P. Pan’s actions just the result of their incompetence or not knowing Russian reality? It is hard to believe. Both of them hold high ranks in the journalism hierarchy. Both of them had held offices in other countries before going to Moscow bureau of their newspapers. Both of them realize for sure that if they wrote like that about Muslim, Christian or Jewish terrorism in the US, it would certainly have a negative impact on their journalist careers.

It’s really strange that inspite of the sympathy expressed by President Barack Obama for with terrorist attacks in Moscow subway and calling for Russia to take part in the war against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the U.S. newspapers keep on publishing their own opininon, that smells like assisting terrorism? And in this case who is the customer of these materials published in the media?

Craig May 11, 2010 9:23 AM

There are less terrorist attacks because hopefully behind all the security theatre there is effective anti terrorism work being carried out.

Also not to mention that it is a lot harder to organise and execute than the movies and media would lead us to believe, and thank goodness for that.

Jack May 12, 2010 4:21 PM

Part of the problem is that there isn’t an authoritative source of information on global terrorism. This means that there isn’t a single, reliable place to go for data on terrorist attacks. Sure, there have been many terrorist databases (I’ve been involved in some) but what qualifies for inclusion is often questioned.

A related problem is that terrorism still isn’t viewed by many universities as a field worthy of academic study.

Michael Holloway May 16, 2010 5:42 PM

Dear Mr Schneier,

In your May 15th 2010 Crypto-Gram news letter you headlined a piece entitled,

Why Aren’t There More Terrorist Attacks?

"..the tertiary reason: terrorist attacks have a secondary purpose of impressing supporters back home, and 9/11 has upped the stakes in what a flashy terrorist attack is supposed to look like."

I found the article interesting and insightful.

The line quoted above, the third reason there have been so few attacks, addresses the story inherent in a terrorist event. From my experience as a story teller of 9/11, it’s not particularly the size of the object that is attacked (Brooklyn Bridge) that is important to the success of a terrorist attack – but the effectiveness of the story in general.

9/11 was spectacular – it included over 3,000 dead civilians, the tallest towers and the biggest, newest airplanes. But it was not the sizes or the numbers that made the story effective or that created the buzz (as you may know buzz is the marketing term that describes how a campaign sometimes creates a word of mouth sub-culture around a campaign which is bigger and more important to the campaign than the campaign it self) – it was the particular combination of icons that had resonance in the culture here, and that effective terrorizing of us made it successful in the eyes of the extremists over seas.

I think this careful diagramming the these terrible events leads one to a truer picture of what they do to our psyches and how to make sure our decisions in the wake of these events don’t play into the agenda of reactionaries on both sides of the story.

Writing Stories,
Michael Holloway
Michael Holloway’s FilterBlogs

Mike McGuire May 19, 2010 7:43 PM

I do mostly agree with Mr. Schneier’s view that actual, organized terrorists are rare. While the current system is mostly “security theater” vis-a-vis organized, evil but sane and intelligent terrorists, I think they do have the largely unheralded effect of blocking poorly organized crazy people from harming others. (There’ve been a surprising number of deadly weapons ready for use seized at checkpoints from seemingly apolitical Americans.) I think that’s why the airlines put up with them while knowing they don’t really serve their official purpose.

Re the word “terrorism” — it originally meant one who tried to terrorize innocent people, not soldiers or government officials, to panic them and thus gain a political end. (We already had lots of words for those attacking governments or armies, who are better set up to defend themselves.) Even U.S. campus bombings didn’t qualify, as they were aimed at destruction of unoccupied government property and not at injuring anyone. The first unintentional killing of a night janitor at what the bombers thought was an empty building brought an end to that tactic.

Al-Qaida, on the other hand, is trying to deliberately kill people — most of whom worldwide, ironically, have turned out to be Muslims. And that’s to gain political ends that probably wouldn’t get majority support in a free vote in the affected countries.

Our government, like others, throws the word “terrorist” at anyone who disagrees with its foreign policies and who shows the least hint of violence — or who doesn’t, but just holds inconvenient views that threaten to spread. (I do wonder how many peace activists are on the no-fly list.) It’s exactly the misuse of language that George Orwell warned us about.

The Goddam Batman October 15, 2010 5:14 PM

“Why Aren’t There More Terrorist Attacks?”

Because you only need to Brainwash people once in a life.

Tony Stewart P Eng February 6, 2011 9:25 PM

What if CIA knew the attacks were being planned and allowed them to happen and added themite to the hidden sub-floors to ensure all 3 towers fell down by remote control. What caused the 3rd to fall down without cause and why do they all fall like a controlled implosion and totally unlike a failed structured. (see http://www.ae911.com )

There are reasons not made public. Why they wanted Osama to be the scapegoat for dramatic disaster to legalize what they were already doing with wiretapping etc. Yes we are safer but at what price to liberty?

emmet trigg February 7, 2011 6:21 PM

totally disagree; numerous, sporadic, under the radar attacks will do more to disrupt the public conscience and confidence than another ’11 incident. schools, bus stations, parades, sporting events, etc. are the perfect venues. a dozen such events especially throughout the heartland would do it.

Slid March 8, 2018 2:22 PM

Look, I could point out an abundance of facts. However , to be specific;
You mention the so called “unsuccessful Christmas Day underwear bomber”
….FIRST, it was successful, in that you seem, as do most americans [tv viewers, aka mind control] STILL “THINK” it was real. SECOND, that event , WAS A STATE SPONSORED [ us state dept.]event, documented. KURT HASKELL and his courageous wife REVEALED THE TRUTH , of that paricular FALSE FLAG.

GET CLEAR , ALL THESE “TERRORIST ” EVENTS , are created , and implemented , by the scum who own the nonfederal noreserve, the same scum who own the government.

ANYONE THINKING anything else , is UNDER COMPLETE MIND CONTROL.[ that would be nearly all americans, [aka fools].

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