National Security & Defense

Just How Severe Is the Jihadist Threat?

Port Authority police patrol inside a subway station in Manhattan, December 12, 2017. (Reuters photo: Brendan McDermid)
Lessons from the New York City subway bombing

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published by Arc Digital. It is reprinted here with permission.

On Monday, a man tried to set off a suicide bomb in an underground passageway connecting New York’s Port Authority and Times Square subway stations. The homemade pipe bomb he strapped to his chest exploded, but not as much as he’d planned. No one but the bomber was seriously hurt.

The incident highlights two things: the seriousness of the jihadist threat and the popular tendency to exaggerate it.

I’ve been teaching classes on terrorism for over ten years, and have come across numerous cases of failed attacks  —  not attempts thwarted by security services, but opportunities to kill people that failed thanks to incompetence.

One of the best examples is another case from New York City. Faisal Shahzad, an American citizen, tried to attack Times Square on May 1, 2010. Shahzad attempted to set off a car bomb in his SUV, which he left parked with the engine on and hazard lights blinking. Nearby street vendors noticed smoke coming from the vehicle and heard firecrackers going off inside. They alerted the NYPD, which evacuated the area and dismantled the bomb. The SUV caught fire, but never detonated.

Here’s the best part: Even if Shahzad’s bomb had gone off, the explosion would have been limited. Along with alarm-clock triggers, M-88 firecrackers, and two five-gallon containers of gasoline, the disposal team found 250 pounds of fertilizer. Shahzad likely got the idea from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. But Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols employed volatile ammonium nitrate fertilizer, the sort farms disperse over large fields. Shahzad used urea fertilizer designed for home gardens.

He basically filled his car with dirt. It the bomb had gone off, the fertilizer would have absorbed some of the explosion, rather than magnifying it.

Here’s another example: In 2007, two would-be suicide bombers filled a jeep with propane and crashed into a terminal at the Glasgow airport. They damaged some doors, but they couldn’t get past a security barrier, and they hurt no one but themselves (one died from the burns).

So it’s important to keep in mind how rare a successful terrorist will be:

‐ Few people hold extremist beliefs.

‐ Of those, only some advocate violence.

‐ Of those, only some are willing to carry out an attack.

‐ Of those, only some can acquire the means to do so.

‐ Of those, only some are psychologically capable of going through with it.

‐ Of those, only some are crafty or lucky enough to avoid getting caught in advance.

‐ And of those, some screw it up.

Nonetheless, the Threat Is Serious

When it comes to terrorism, the United States is primarily concerned with jihadists  —  namely al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their affiliates and sympathizers. Considering the small subset of people who could make for successful terrorists, and the efforts of America’s police, military, and intelligence services, it’s not surprising few attacks have succeeded.

In the 16 years since September 11, there have been eight deadly jihadist attacks in the United States  —  including the Fort Hood shooting, the Boston Marathon bombing, the San Bernardino shooting, and the vehicle attack in New York City earlier this year  —  killing a total of 95.

To put that in perspective, in this year alone there have been 406 incidents in which four or more people were shot.  This includes injuries in addition to fatalities, but 586 people died in these attacks.

Looking at the paucity of deadly jihadist attacks in the United States, political scientist John Mueller argues that America is suffering under a “terrorism delusion.” More Americans die each year from accidentally drowning in bathtubs. According to Mueller, this shows we’re grossly overstating the risk of jihadist terrorism, and devoting far too many resources to preventing it.

The costs of a terrorist attack extend beyond the immediate victims.

There are two problems with this logic. First, Mueller fails to consider the possibility that the reason there aren’t many terrorist attacks is America’s efforts to prevent them. After all, more Americans die each year from bathtub accidents than from nuclear bombs, but that doesn’t mean we should be unconcerned about the latter.

Additionally, the costs of a terrorist attack extend beyond the immediate victims. If someone accidentally drowns in a bathtub, it hurts that individual, along with people close to them. But terrorist attacks cause greater psychological, political, and economic damage.

Consider the Boston Marathon bombing. The attack killed three people, which Mueller would label a relatively small cost. However, the bombs also injured over 200, all of whom required medical care. Some, such as those who lost legs, will endure reduced productivity and ongoing medical costs throughout their lives, while many more suffered psychological harm, adding additional ongoing costs to the total. To that number we have to add the money spent on police overtime and other expenses associated with the ensuing manhunt, as well as the lost productivity from shutting down the economic center of Boston. And those are just the measurable financial costs that Mueller ignores.

In addition to harming the victims and their friends and families, the Boston Marathon bombing hurt the city of Boston and the surrounding area, the long-distance-racing community, Americans in general, and many others worldwide. The United States may exaggerate the threat of terrorism, but it is not unreasonable to treat the cost of a terrorist attack as considerably higher than the cost of a similar number of deaths from bathtub drownings, lightning strikes, and other more frequent but less resonant causes of death.

To some extent, that’s true of mass shootings as well, even those that are not political in nature (and thus terrorist attacks in themselves). Though these two types of violence are not identical, they’re more similar to each other than to bathtub drownings.

Nevertheless, terrorism has the ability to upend the political landscape, potentially baiting countries into self-defeating actions abroad or excessive restrictions on liberty at home. Jihadism is threatening because it’s an international movement involving organizations capable of professional operations  —  9/11, the 2015 Paris attacks  —  and inspiring self-starters.

Akayed Ullah  —  the 27-year-old who failed to kill anyone in the NYC subway attack  —  is one of those self-starters. He told investigators he did it in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and elsewhere, but he was radicalized online and acted on his own, without training or instructions. ISIS found out about Ullah the same way the rest of us did.

Self-starters are very difficult to stop in advance, because they lack connections to known terrorists that intelligence agencies can trace. Even those on the FBI’s radar  —  such as Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, or Orlando night-club shooter Omar Mateen  —  usually do not commit jailable offenses before executing their attacks.

Unlike al-Qaeda, which prioritizes professional operations  —  and hasn’t managed to execute one in the West in years  —  ISIS strongly encourages self-starters. Though they’re not in direct contact, the group makes sympathizers such as Ullah feel they are part of a larger movement, thinking globally but acting locally. And ISIS’s Al Hayat Media Center draws attention to individual attacks, increasing their political impact and inspiring future self-starters.

That transnational component  —  and the possibility that trained operatives will execute a larger attack, perhaps with a weapon of mass destruction  —  elevates the threat to a genuine national security concern.

The Travel Ban Is Still a Bad Idea

President Trump responded to the failed NYC attack with calls for tighter immigration laws. Akayed Ullah was born in Bangladesh and has been living in Brooklyn for seven years. He’s a legal permanent resident with an F43 visa, which is available only to children or siblings of American citizens. After the bombing, Trump denounced this policy:

Today’s terror suspect entered our country through extended-family chain migration, which is incompatible with national security. . . . America must fix its lax immigration system, which allows far too many dangerous, inadequately vetted people to access our country.

Ullah is the only known jihadist who entered the United States through chain migration, and Bangladesh is not one of the six Muslim-majority countries included in the most recent iteration of Trump’s travel ban. And no one from those countries  —  Syria, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Chad  —  has ever executed a deadly terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

The point is not that Bangladesh should be added to the ban. Nor should Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the September 11 hijackers, or Pakistan, where Faisal Shahzad was born. The point is that banning entire countries is poor counterterrorism strategy.

Assuming that everyone of a particular national origin  —  or religion  —  is a security threat is like trying to kill a fly with a 20,000-pound bomb. At best it’s excessive. At worst, it’s actively detrimental.

For example, Chad  —  which Trump added to his third ban after courts blocked the first two  —  is one of the United States’ most important counterterrorism partners in Africa. The Chadians fight Boko Haram, which pledged loyalty to ISIS, as well as other local ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates. Trump jeopardized this cooperation despite no known cases of Chadians even attempting a terrorist attack against an American target.

It’s hard getting countries to share intelligence and conduct joint operations after effectively announcing, “None of you people can be trusted.”

The travel ban boosts jihadist propaganda, enhances recruitment, motivates self-starters, and discourages individual Muslims and various governments from cooperating with the United States while doing very little (if anything) to reduce the risk of terrorism. On balance, it probably makes the problem worse.

It’s hard getting countries to share intelligence and conduct joint operations after effectively announcing, ‘None of you people can be trusted.’

That’s why it’s important to keep the threat in perspective.

If foreign jihadists really were streaming into the United States, then there might be an argument for some sort of travel ban. But given the relative rarity of successful attacks, it’s clear America’s screening procedures, intelligence monitoring, military action abroad, and security efforts at home have a handle on the problem.

Jihadists are a serious threat, but far from an overwhelming one. The United States should respond with a robust counterterrorism strategy. The goal is zero successful attacks, though that may be impossible to achieve. Overreacting, however, damages American interests.

No reason to do the terrorists’ work for them.


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