I have been teaching terrorism since 2003, and again and again, I have asked where is the mini-terror campaign against American infrastructure and civilians?
Al Qaeda has a well-known penchant for mega-terror. 9/11 is an obvious example, as was the attempted sinking of the USS Cole in 2000. Other foiled plots included wild efforts to blow up multiple hijacked planes over the ocean, and this year’s more varied mega-efforts.
Yet this has always struck me as strategically foolish for al Qaeda after 9/11. Post-9/11, the US is pursuing al Qaeda all over the place. Institutional security, hardening of civilian infrastructure,and homeland defense are all vastly improved. It is much harder to hijack a plane or blow up a building now. Mega-plots are hard to organize. They are complex and expensive. They require more staff, more preparation, etc. With so many moving parts, it is easier to catch and unravel them, especially given the long build-up time necessary and the greater western vigilance post 9/11. The 9/11 plot was a one-off opportunity; its very completion eliminated such an opportunity for future plotters by insuring a major subsequent security beef-up. It benefitted from the low scrutiny and attention given to terrorism pre-9/11. Insofar as it permanently heightened western awareness of suspicious activity, it has become significantly harder to pull off mega-terror since then, at least in the west.
Given this western police awareness and sensitivity to big plots, why doesn’t AQAM (al Qaeda and associated movements) pursue mini-terror, like Fort Hood or the Virginia Tech shootings? Terrorism is well-known as an asymmetric tactic, so if western agencies are keyed into mega-plots, why not adjust and go the low route?
A mini-terror campaign would focus on the softest of western civilian infrastructure, as it does in Israel – malls, shops, buses, restaurants, etc. The sustained mini-terror campaigns of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad were brutally successful at destabilizing Israeli society in the 1990s, as the Bader-Meinhof gang was in the Germany in the 70s. If I were an enterprising young terrorist looking to make my mark (think Abu Musab al Zarqawi), I would take these urban war tactics right to the US. Consider:
1. how easy it is to enter the US illegally; something like a million people a year do it.
2. how easy it is to buy a gun, legally or not, in the US.
3. how many people Nidal Hasan (Ft. Hood) and Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech) killed and wounded simply with pistols.
4. how many old people, children, and pregnant women go to your nearest shopping mall, and how obese the guards look.
5. the crippling, popular paranoia 2 or 3 such mall massacres would create in the US (imagine the Fox News response!).
This scenario seems so blindingly obvious to me, it cries out for explanation why it is NOT happened: three or four OBL-wannabes slip across the Mexican-US border, paying the vast human smuggling networks operating in northern Mexico to get them over. They then hit a gun show in Texas, because gun show gun sales require no background check. They then head off the nearest shopping mall. Learning from Cho, they chain or block the ground-level exits. They then walk in and start shooting. In 20 minutes they could kill 100+ unsuspecting, unprepared, slow-moving people. A few of these massacres would then create a massive populist outcry to treat US Muslims as we did the Japanese during WWII. And this is exactly what AQAM wants – the clash of civilizations right in the heartland of the infidel.
Given that this has never happened, especially when it would be so easy, a serious research project is waiting to be written. The answer is not simply that US Muslims are well-integrated. That did not prevent the 9/11 hijackers from penetrating the US, nor did it stop Hasan this month. I think a better answer is that of John Mueller – that the Islamic terrorist threat may in fact be wildly overblown. If it is this easy to kill so many Americans and stir up mass islamophobia, then the only reason it hasn’t happened is because there a lot fewer radical Islamist suicide killers than we think. This a guess though; this question needs a real researched answer.
Very interesting. I hadn’t thought of this through all the way, but 9/11 always did strike me as more of a well-executed sucker punch than a work of evil genius. It’s not hard to sucker-punch people because normal living requires that you not expect such things to happen.
I suspect your diagnosis is correct, too. We have overreacted, as they wanted us to. The great risk is that when the time comes that the mall scenario does occur, our reaction will be so obscenely over-the-top that we will lose our character. It’s at that point that I’ll probably head for Denmark or Ireland, assuming we don’t cancel all international travel.
9/11 as a ‘sucker punch’ captures my sense exactly. Normality made it so much easier to do. And actually, the FBI was getting pretty close to catching a few of the plotters in the days before the attack, according to L Wright. Now it is virtually impossible to pull off mega-terror in the West. These guys get caught now, and usually long before the plot matures.
So where is the mini-terror? After 8+ years, I am honestly surprised nothing like McVeigh or Cho happened until Ft. Hood. Where are these guys?
It’s a great question. I have no answer for it. Hadn’t thought of it before in those terms, but you’re right – it’s very surprising because it would be so easy to pull off. Maybe our law enforcement is just that good.
Dr. Bob, your statement is kind of misleading because the FBI was onto some of the Islamists, but not because they knew of their plans. Wasn’t it more routine stuff, suspicions (crazy flying lessons), over-staying their US VISAs? Also, a sucker punch would me that we had NO idea that Al Q and Bin were after us, or that crashing airliners into buildings was a new form of terrorism. We know both to be not true.
I have also wondered why the home grown Jihadist have gone European/Israel on us. Could it be that it is hard to produce true believers in our society? Our law enforcement have been vigilant, but this won’t stop the true believers if Ft. Hood wakes them up. The real true believers are silent until they blow up.
Al Q, is different, they love glamour. They are Hollywood terrorists. They don’t think like Hamas or HZB. If they did, we would be in real trouble. Questions is, it takes one visionary (for lack of a better word) at the right place, at the right time to make all the difference. I believe that this person is out there. We will know who they are after they strike. I mean HZB, doesn’t go around blowing up Lebanese civilians, as Al Q did in Iraq. HZB, tries to win the hearts and minds. Al Q could care less. They are more concerned with implementing sadism in the name of religion. This is why the Sunni awakening was no surprise. How long were these people going to watch their families slaughtered for sport. They saw the US Marines in Anbar as the better alternative. Now, had Al Q fought a Che type guerrilla insurgency things might have turned out a lot differently. For HZB, would have commenced health care, dolling out cash, and probably building schools. As I have stated before, all that we had to do was to exploit this fatal flaw in Al Q’s strategy in Iraq.
>> For HZB, would have commenced health care, dolling out cash, and probably building schools.
Actually, they do quite a bit of that already.
Quote: “According to CNN: “Hezbollah did everything that a government should do, from collecting the garbage to running hospitals and repairing schools.” In July 2006, during the war with Israel, when there was no running water in Beirut, Hezbollah was arranging supplies around the city. “People here [in South Beirut] see Hezbollah as a political movement and a social service provider as much as it is a militia, in this traditionally poor and dispossessed Shiite community.” Also, after the war it competed with the Lebanese government to reconstruct destroyed areas. According to analysts like American University Professor Judith Swain Harik, Jihad al-Binaa has won the initial battle of hearts and minds, in large part because they are the most experienced in Lebanon in the field of reconstruction.”
This is why I am always surprised at experts in the US citing the Sunni awakening as some big thing. It was the natural thing for the Sunnis to do. Al Q, was running medieval style law on their societies, and subjecting the Sunnis to downright sadism. Al Q, could care less about the rules of guerrilla warfare. Al Q, wants to establish a kingdom on earth.
HZB on the other hand, understands the importance of winning the hearts and minds and it shows.
I am always surprised that Americans seem to think that they are the first people to have dealt with Islamic terror. America is “Johnny come last” and in arrogance insist on reinventing the wheel. But America can’t even do that because of the insular nature of Americans. They can’t, Americans by and large don’t live and travel abroad. When they do study abroad, they mostly go to England.
Here is a great article from Time Magazine on lessons from the French experience fighting Islamic terror:
Why doesn’t the US look to Europe on how to handle these things. The Europeans experienced far worse for decades. The IRA, Bader Meinhof, Abu Nidal Organization, Il Brigate Rosse, Action Direct, ETA, The Red Army Faction, etc. I lived through it from the 1970’s to 1980’s. The main difference is that the Europeans understood that they were facing a vigilant enemy, determined to wreck their way of life, and so they fought that enemy meticulously. Most important, the citizenery understood what was at stake. Now the Europeans authorities did use extra judicial measures, or other “tactics”, so they did fight dirty as well, but their democracies have survived.
I don’t think that it would be a matter of the US loosing its character. Its more that Americans have never seen war on their soil. Well, not in a very, very long time. Europeans on the other hand have lived through devastation, so their societies were mature to war as well as the sacrifices to civil liberties that it takes to defeat your enemy. I remember walking down Les Champs Elysees patrolled by anti-terrorist commandos with their German Shepard dogs in the 1980’s. Ever fly into Rome’s Fiumicino Airport? The Carabinieri greet you with assault rifles.
Americans would flip out if they had anti-terrorist commandos patrolling the streets. In Paris, it was normal.
Denmark gives foreigners who won’t assimilate cash to leave. In other words, Moslems who won’t assimilate.
What is “assimilate”?
HBO is running a documentary on Mumbai Taj Hotel attack in ’08. Schedule:
Stupid wordpress ate up the URL – let’s see if this goes through
The Mumbai attacks are exactly what I had in mind with mini-terror. Various Pakistani-funded/sponsored/inspired groups have hit India over the years. Although India has denied the real achievenment sought – a war with Pakistan or an internal crack-down on Indian Muslims – both of which Islamists would read as an ‘clash of civilizations’ assualt on Islam.