There really should be a lot more terrorist attacks in the US, but there aren’t

If you had to come up with a recipe for a terrorist attack or an extremist movement what would you include? To my mind there are a number of ingredients that must be there in order for the finished product to succeed.  These are, among other things, a sense of grievance/anger, an identified target (meaning a person or a country, not a place), a multiplicity of places that are easy to gain access to, and a relatively simple weapon to use.  If all these are present it is more or less straightforward to go ahead and target something or other.

In this light, and if my calculations are correct, then the US should be beset by terrorist attacks all the time, whether the motivation is Islamist or far right or whatever (although I will focus solely on the former here).  The fact that attacks of this nature are seldom planned, and even less frequently successful, does say a lot about terrorism in North America (Canada is a much rarer locus for terrorism for reasons that I hope will become clear in a bit).

Let us return first to that recipe I provided.  All the necessary elements are there when it comes to the US, namely:

a) almost everyone in the Muslim world hates the US for a whole bunch of reasons: its support for Israel, its support for autocratic regimes like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, its meddling in the region (invading Iraq and Afghanistan, drone strikes, etc.) and the Trump Administration’s anti-Islamic immigration policy.  Lots of grounds for grievances there.

b) the US is often referred to as the ‘head of the snake’ by Islamist extremist groups, is always at the top of the list for them, and has in fact been successfully targeted on several occasions (Boston, San Bernardino, Orlando, Fort Hood, 9/11…).  Islamist extremist groups want nothing more than to hit the US again.

c) the US is a target rich environment.  Whether we are talking about high profile sites such as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or popular entertainment venues like Disneyland there is no shortage of places to attack.  It is impossible after all to protect everything.

d) Even if the most recent trend in terrorism is the use of cars and trucks to mow down pedestrians  the US is also the land where you can get a gun, or an assault weapon, more easily than you can buy a beer.  The country is awash in firearms, laws are a joke, and a smart terrorist would choose to act in the US since anyone can do a lot of damage in a very short time with a gun (cf. what happened in Las Vegas last October and that was NOT a terrorist act).

With all these ingredients available, why then do we not see more terrorist attacks in the US?  I would  like to offer three possible partial explanations:

  1. President Trump’s views notwithstanding (NB I will address this in another blog), US security and law enforcement agencies are really good at what they do.  The FBI regularly foils plots and Customs and Border Patrol does a good job of weeding out terrorist wannabe immigrants.  The system works and works well.
  2. There appears to be a tremendous lack of imagination on the part of most would be terrorists.  If they only knew what was possible they would be more successful.  The bottom line is that most terrorists are stupid: we should hope they remain that way.
  3. The US is lucky.  All of our intelligence and best practices aside, we are just fortunate to date.  There is no guarantee that this streak will continue.  Americans will have to remain vigilant for a very long time since the terrorist recipe ingredients show no signs of changing.

One conclusion that stands out from this analysis is that terrorism in the US (and Canada) is a rare beast.  Despite all the reasons why there should be more attacks and more carnage there is not.  From that I infer that terrorism is, and most likely will stay, an infrequent act of violence.  Ordinary violence will supercede terrorist violence forever, unless something unexpected happens.  So, terrorism does not pose the existential threat some claim it does.  It is a threat, very real and very serious, but far from catastrophic.  We might want to remember that when we create our counter terrorism policies and practices.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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