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.