Where Are All the Terrorist Attacks?

By Bruce Schneier
AOL News
May 4, 2010

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.

earlier essay: Focus on the Threat
later essay: Worst-Case Thinking Makes Us Nuts, Not Safe
categories: Terrorism
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Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

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