The Boston Marathon bombing has produced a great deal of ill-informed speculation (Was it the Saudi? Tax protesters?) and unseemly political opportunism (David Sirota’s depraved please-let-it-be-a-white-guy ravings), but very little discussion of two pertinent questions: Why is this sort of thing so uncommon? And what do we do if it becomes more common?
In the wake of 9/11, some counterterrorism experts argued that we had been, if the phrase may be forgiven in this context, lucky in our enemies, at least to some extent. At the time, al-Qaeda under the tutelage of Osama bin Laden held a very strong organizational preference for following up spectacular attacks only with even more-spectacular attacks. In that sense, al-Qaeda’s having set the bar so high for itself on September 11 gave our counterterrorism forces some much-needed operating space: It would take time and resources to plan something even bigger and more ghastly than those attacks, and it would not be easy for al-Qaeda to do so with the full force of U.S. military, intelligence, and law-enforcement resources bearing down upon the organization.
For the sake of comparison, consider the Israeli experience: a very similar cast of bloodthirsty Islamist killers, but very different tactics. Osama bin Laden’s dreams were the stuff of James Bond movies, spectacular, history-changing attacks against high-profile targets. Endeavors of that sort are by their nature unwieldy and prone to being foiled. But an intifada is a very different thing, and one that is in many ways much more difficult to counteract. The architects of an intifada do not need a disciplined command structure, sophisticated finance, high-tech weapons, or safe havens abroad. All they require are a sufficient number of true believers and a trip to the hardware store.
The theatrics of the Transportation Security Agency are absurd in and of themselves, but they are even more risible in light of the fact that such ripe targets as New York–Washington Amtrak trains (and Amtrak more generally) remain wide open, as do urban mass-transit systems, shopping malls, and schools. A dedicated terrorist cell could bring the country to a halt simply by attacking school buses or other soft targets twice a month.
Al-Qaeda today is a different organization from what it was in 2001. Its experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have left it more open to things like IED attacks in lieu of terrorist spectaculars. Incidents such as the Birmingham case suggest that the Islamist movement as a whole has moved away from the highly hierarchical operational model and toward a structure consisting of overlapping networks of autonomous and semiautonomous cells, a model developed over the years by such disparate groups as animal-rights extremists and the Brüder Schweigen.
As of this writing, it is not publicly known who is responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing. We do know that there are any number of groups that are interested in executing such attacks, from al-Qaeda sympathizers to homegrown radicals of various persuasions. We also know that the successful execution of such attacks is relatively rare – surprisingly so, when one compares the paucity of successful terrorist attacks on domestic targets with the highly successful operations of our sophisticated contemporary transnational crime syndicates. The process by which (to take one example) cocaine is manufactured, imported, and distributed in the United States is by most measures a more daunting organizational challenge than, say, staging the coordinated bombing of a dozen shopping malls. Why isn’t there more low-level terrorism than there is?
One possibility is that our counterterrorism forces have done a better job than we typically give them credit for. It may simply be the case that the operational capacities of al-Qaeda and its allies are so diminished that they are practically limited to operating in resource-rich environments overseas. Say what you like about George W. Bush, the aggressive measures implemented by his administration sent al-Qaeda scampering and put a boot heel on the neck of enablers such as the Taliban. I have been and remain highly critical of the Obama-administration doctrine holding that the president has the unilateral authority to assassinate U.S. citizens — a position that seems to me illegal and contemptible on the face of it. Still, the broader drone program, for all its problems, has made al-Qaeda leadership a low-yield investment.
Likewise, law-enforcement efforts against domestic terrorists, ranging from environmentalist extremists to white-supremacist revolutionaries, have intensified since 9/11, though it is worth noting that attacks from such groups were relatively rare before 9/11, too, with the Oklahoma City bombing being far and away the deadliest such atrocity. Before that, we had the Unabomber (three dead during a 17-year bombing campaign) and such long-forgotten incidents as the 1920 Wall Street bombing (38 dead), the 1927 school bombings in Bath, Mich. (45 dead), and the union-goon bombing of the Los Angeles Times in 1910 (21 dead). The evil of the September 11 attacks and the Oklahoma City bombing is not to be minimized, but it is worth noting that those are the only terror attacks in the United States that have come close to claiming as many lives as do such regularly occurring events as summer in Chicago.
Another factor to consider is that making good bombs is harder than you might expect. Al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups reliably attract their share of doctors, engineers, and intellectuals, but would-be lone-wolf bombers often have unsteady hands to match their unsteady minds. Robert Keith Hill, for example, is not a household name. He had intended to bomb a Texas abortion clinic in order to prevent what news reports referred to as “an acquaintance” from having an abortion performed there, but the plan went spectacularly wrong: The bomb exploded in his lap, killing him and ripping open the gas lines in the home he shared with his parents, burning it down. Other would-be bombers have met similar fates: Bill Ayers’s Weather Underground buddies were prone to blowing themselves up, as they did in the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion of 1970, which sent two of his friends and his girlfriend to their eternal reward. Kathy Boudin, recently named to a professorship at Columbia, survived that explosion, and went on to help murder two police officers and a security guard in the 1980s. Go Lions!