Why Haven't We Had More Low-Level Terror Attempts?

Unsettling questions emerge after the Times Square plot

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Though disaster was averted in the Times Square bomb attempt, and details about the suspect Faisal Shahzad are beginning to emerge, unsettling questions continue to circulate. What if the bomb had gone off? What does this attack say about the broader state of Islamic terrorism? Connected to these questions is a retrospective one: why haven't we seen more terrorist attacks involving Islamic radicalism since 9/11?

  • 'We Were Lucky In Our Enemy' At National Review, Kevin Williamson argues--as many are--that "the main reason that we do not have an intifada of steady, low-level, low-tech attacks--real car bombs on Times Square, shootings in the shopping malls--is that al-Qaeda does not do things that way, preferring terrorist spectaculars and coordinated bombings." The experience of Iraq clearly shows they could pull off car bombings if they wanted. But the people building those IEDs for al-Qaeda aren't in the States right now. He sees this as an argument to get control of U.S. borders.
  • 'Terrorism Is Essentially a PR Stunt,' argues security expert Bruce Schneier at AOL News.
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.
  • 'Thank God for Small Favors,' is The Atlantic's Megan McArdle's reaction. She espouses the argument that al-Qaeda doesn't attack small "malls and sporting events" because "it doesn't actually serve their ends." Terrorist recruits and fundraising targets "don't want to hear that you really scared the hell out of Plano, Texas. They want to hear that you bombed Times Square."
  • Don't Be So SureĀ  Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson in The Washington Post acknowledge the argument that we've seen little terrorism because terrorists are aiming big, and counterterrorism efforts are fairly effective at that "apocalyptic" level. But they aren't so sure about it: "The attempt to bring a less destructive terrorist technique to bear in New York may put the lie to that explanation." IEDs have been effective abroad, and "we do know that al-Qaeda is pragmatic and adaptive." The conclusion:
However precious al-Qaeda may deem the "stun value" of the next big attack on America, the effectiveness of U.S. actions to thwart such an incident was eventually likely to compel it to downgrade expectations ... A sustained urban terrorism campaign could disrupt American society as profoundly as the Sept. 11 attacks--if not more so.
  • Agreed: The Terrorist Threat Is Real, says former CIA officer Peter Brookes on CNN. He says there have been"about thirty foiled attacks in the United States since 9/11, so ten within just the last year," and that "we cannot be complacent about this threat because obviously we're still in the crosshairs of a number of terrorist groups."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.