The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks created an atmosphere of anxiety and uncertainty. No one knew how many more large-scale attacks were in the pipeline. Might more Mohammad Attas already be in the country making the final preparations for new 9/11s? Were armies of terrorist “sleepers” awaiting their wakeup call?
Over the last dozen years, would-be terrorists plotted to strike the American homeland with bombs, bullets, poisons and fire, targeting transportation venues, sporting events, financial institutions, any place that offered the potential for a high body count. For all their plotting, though, only a few domestic terrorists have succeeded in striking on U.S. soil since 2001. America’s counterterrorism defense was crafted with attention to past terrorist behavior and critical thinking about what might be ahead.
America’s evolving counterterrorism regimen included a fundamental shift in law enforcement. Instead of investigating attacks after they took place – a dissatisfying response to terrorists trying to kill thousands – investigators were pushed to uncover and thwart terrorist attacks before they occurred.
Post-9/11, the focus of analysis shifted from threat-based to vulnerability-based assessments. Instead of starting with what we knew about terrorists’ intentions and capabilities, the traditional starting point for assessing risk, analysts started with hypothetical vulnerabilities. Attacks on the power grid, transportation, food processing, nuclear reactors, were among the worst-case hypotheticals considered.
There were alarming alerts, but no more 9/11s, no army of sleepers. Domestic intelligence efforts, while still not optimal, have thus far proved largely successful. Of 43 jihadist terrorist plots in the U.S. since 9/11, the FBI and local police have uncovered and thwarted all but four of them – two attacks by lone gunmen, a failed attempt to detonate a bomb in New York’s Times Square and the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon.
Al Qaeda’s intense online campaign to inspire homegrown terrorists to action mustered a tiny turnout. Its message of armed jihad against the West gained little traction among America’s Muslims. Since 9/11, fewer than 300 persons have been arrested for providing material support to jihadist groups, attempting to join jihadist fronts, or more seriously, plotting to carry out terrorist attacks in the United States. Few resembled the “lone wolves” portrayed in the news media. Most were barely competent although still dangerous.
Still a Threat
But terrorism will continue to be a threat. Unrelenting pursuit of al Qaeda’s leaders has degraded its operational capabilities but not dented its determination. The spread of its ideology and its establishment of new footholds in Africa and the Middle East demonstrate al Qaeda’s resiliency and guarantee new generations of terrorists to continue its global terrorist campaign. And al Qaeda is not the only terrorist threat.
Since 9/11, would-be terrorists contemplated crashing a hijacked airliner into an urban area at least seven times. New security measures make that more difficult, but terrorists continue to be obsessed with sabotaging commercial airliners. Authorities also worry about commercial airliners being shot down with missiles – there have been a few attempts. Meanwhile, terrorists have bombed or plotted to bomb airports. They have targeted subways, trains, and stations and have attempted to derail speeding passenger trains. For terrorists seeking high body counts, surface transportation targets are easily accessible and offer crowds of people in confined environments.
Most planned attacks involved bombings, though suicide bombings have rarely been contemplated. Most focused on “soft” targets that offered easy access. New security measures hopefully have made it more difficult for local terrorists to assemble the large vehicle bombs seen in conflict zones abroad, but terrorists can fabricate smaller devices.
Online extremist publications urge terrorists to exploit the more accessible weapon of fire. Terrorists also have thought about releasing poison gas or dispersing homemade ricin in crowded public places.
Conventional explosives may cause more casualties, but chemical, biological, or radiological attacks would cause more alarm and create costly cleanups.
Terrorists have plotted the assassination of government officials, but security officials worry most about terrorists killing and seizing hostages at shopping malls, hotels or other public places as we saw in Mumbai and recently in Nairobi.
But many of the terrorist plots that come to light today are nothing more than ambitious fantasies.
No one can predict with any certainty what terrorists might do next. However, looking back at their recent attacks, attempts, and interrupted plots gives us an idea of what they are thinking about.
This is useful, though it should not get in the way of creative thinking. If there is one lesson America learned about counterterrorism on 9/11, it’s that the coming attack may look nothing like those that preceded it.
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