The Market for Terrorist Attacks

After the weekend's failed bombing attack on my hometown, I've been thinking about the question that always sorts of haunts us: why haven't we had a successful terrorist attack in so long--only the moody-loner-with-handgun-or-plane type attacks that usually fizzle?  Tim Noah explored that question a while back and came to some conclusions which seem pretty standard among security experts:

  • We don't have a large community to produce or shelter Islamic terrorists like Al-Qaeda.  Most of the Arabs in America are Christian.  Somewhere between a quarter and half of American muslims are African American, not a traditional recruiting ground for Al Qaeda.  Mounting a big attack like 9/11 requires help.  Explosives-based attacks require even more help.  And American muslims, unlike their European counterparts, tend to be wealthier than the average American, not poorer and more disaffected.
  • Our domestic terrorists (left and right) don't have a big support community either.  Thriving terrorist networks are built in communities of people who are desperate, not overtaxed and sick of having to wait five days for their fishing license; and/or enraged by the income distribution and wars fought by an all-volunteer army.  Timothy McVeigh could do what he did alone, because he could amass the large amounts of fertilizer needed to build a bomb.  There are better checks on such agricultural supplies now, so a would be bomber needs the kind of help that the IRA used to get from sympathetic farmers, construction firms, or smugglers.  Even the kookier militias are mostly not interested in helping their members kill hundreds of federal employees.
  • It's hard to get terrorists and supplies into the country for the small number of groups that want to.  If Mexico or Guatamala, or even Colombia, were producing large numbers of America-focused terrorists, we'd have a problem; they could use the large and robust smuggling networks that already exist for drugs and people.  Unfortunately for Al Qaeda, these countries only want to smuggle in some blow and a little cheap lawn care. Even the vile cocaine cartels probably don't want to aid in terrorist attacks on civilians by people that they do not know, or identify with.  So Al Qaeda has to bypass US customs by finding someone with an innocuous passport.  This is difficult, and where do you hide the explosives?

But while this sort of answers the question, it doesn't tell us why Al-Qaeda, or domestic kooks, don't mount the sort of attack that doesn't need an elaborate support network.  The DC sniper attack, for example, which was basically impossible to defend against.  There are probably some creative ways to derail trains in the countryside, or sabotage traffic lights to cause multi-car crashes.  You could do some pretty serious damage at high school football games in the South, which regularly attract thousands of people.  So why doesn't Al Qaeda hit those targets?

In part, I expect, because they don't really know that much about America.  (I assume the domestic brand of kooks are interested mostly in more specific terror:  government buildings, animal testing facilities, weapons manufacture, the media).  As we noted above, they don't have a rich, deep, angry community into which they can embed and gather intelligence on soft targets.

But still, Al Qaeda knows about our malls and sporting events.  Why not hit there?

The best answer I've heard is that they don't because it doesn't actually serve their ends.  Their purpose is only partly to instill public terror in Americans.  They also need to raise money, and recruit more terrorists.  Those people don't want to hear that you really scared the hell out of Plano, Texas.  They want to hear that you bombed Times Square.  Their target market, in other words, is not just Americans; it's the folks at home.

And this is also true of domestic terrorism.  You could sow a lot of fear in federal employees by randomly kidnapping them and killing them, one at a time, then leaving a note explaining what you'd done.  It's not like the federal government could afford 24-hour surveillance on every postal worker and passport clerk in the land.

But that's not part of the self-image that these sorts of psychopaths cultivate.  They're trying to touch off a revolution, not scare the bejeesus out of the portfolio managers at the FHA.  And to start a revolution, you need a bona fide act of war.

Thank God for small favors.  If all they really cared about was terrorising us, we'd be terrified, because they'd be mounting the kind of undetectable, untraceable attacks that can kill hundreds, a few at a time.  Instead, they're still trying to top 9/11 and Oklahoma City.

(Nav Image Credit: weglet/flickr)

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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