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!
There is no accounting for the thinking of an Osama bin Laden or a Bill Ayers. But Mr. Hill’s case points to a particularly salient point about criminal violence in the United States: The greater part of it is utterly predictable. Events such as 9/11 or the Boston bombing may catch us by surprise, but the day-in, day-out murder and mayhem associated with many American cities should not. Mr. Hill had a long criminal record and had been arrested on charges of attempted murder (the charges were reduced, and he received a suspended sentence). Some 90 percent of the murderers in New York City between 2003 and 2005 had criminal records, as did about half of the victims. Similar numbers have been found in studies of other cities. In Chicago, that pattern has become something of an inevitability: In the high-profile case of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who was gunned down in a park shortly after attending Barack Obama’s second inauguration, police have arrested a young man already on probation for firearms charges. These killers do not fall out of the sky: We know who they are. That we choose to do so little about it is an indictment of our criminal-justice system.
A third factor in explaining why we don’t have more low-level terrorism is that U.S.-based terrorist groups may not be much interested in attacking civilians. Al-Qaeda slaughters civilians indiscriminately, but potential domestic terrorists such as revolutionary militias and environmental extremists in general do not. (Buzzfeed recently carried a very interesting report in which militia leaders denounced the Boston attack.) Violent antigovernment groups are interested in attacking government targets, violent environmental groups tend to target corporate facilities, and animal-rights groups like to hit research laboratories. Many potential government targets, such as police stations, are hard by nature, while others have been hardened over the years, as have security-conscious corporate and research facilities. In that sense, the arithmetic may be on the side of law and order: The people most inclined and able to commit acts of terrorism are attracted to the targets best prepared against them, whereas the people inclined to attack schools or movie theaters are few and disorganized.
The worst-case scenario, which is by no means unlikely, is that the disciplined and organized turn their attention to the softest targets. Boston reminds us that responding to such a development would be a difficult thing indeed.
Much of the new security regimen that has been implemented post-9/11 is focused on spectaculars and attacks on high-profile targets. Keeping in mind that hindsight is famously acute, remember that both 9/11 and the heinous murders at Newtown might have been prevented by the most old-fashioned of security measures: having a sturdy door and locking it. (Sandy Hook Elementary School had locked doors, but the doors were glass, and Adam Lanza simply shot through them.) But there is very little in place to prevent a loosely coordinated series of low-level attacks, Boston-level bombings in a dozen cities at once.
There is not a great deal that a free society can do to combat that: A committed group of terrorists willing to give up their own lives in exchange for ideological or religious satisfaction can bring any open society to its knees — that is the unpleasant fact. But that does not mean that there is nothing at all we can do. The best-organized terrorist threat remains Islamist, and Islamist terror is at least in some part international by nature. Proper vetting of visa applicants, rigorous policing of those who overstay their visas, and, if necessary, severe restrictions on travel to the United States from Islamist hotbeds such as Pakistan and Egypt would go a long way toward ensuring that Islamist violence remains a largely overseas phenomenon. Unlike Israel, the United States is not vulnerable to rocket attacks from an adjacent Sinai; Islamist terrorists need to be here to do much damage, and keeping them out should be the first priority of all of our border and immigration authorities. If that means inconveniencing a great number of well-intentioned travelers from Cairo or students from Islamabad, so be it. That is the more humane option: A six-month wait for a visa surely is preferable to a drone circling overhead.
Domestically, the problem appears at the moment to be manageable, and the best response is the same as the response to common crime: continued rigorous enforcement of offenders and making maximum use of sophisticated data-analysis techniques in prevention. Many of our domestic terrorists and would-be terrorists have seen their political organizations superseded by frankly criminal outfits — e.g., the displacement of the Aryan Nations terrorist group by the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang in the white-supremacist ecosystem. This makes extremist tendencies both easier to police and their adherents less likely to engage in violence for reasons other than profit. Given a choice between a mafia and a terror cell, we should prefer the mafia.
Whether the relative scarcity of domestic terrorism in the United States is evidence that we are good at counterterrorism or just lucky is not entirely clear. What we do know is that it is the nature of unexpected events to be unexpected. Our part is to prepare for what can be prepared for and to anticipate what can be anticipated, all the while bearing in mind how much that leaves unaccounted for.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review. His newest book, The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome, will be published in May.