Today's global terrorism has no front lines, no home fronts. A Nigerian living in London is recruited by terrorists in Yemen to board a plane in Amsterdam to detonate a bomb over Detroit. Terrorists in Chicago plot attacks on targets in Denmark. Jihadist Web sites inspire terrorist plots in Dallas and Springfield. Young men in Minnesota are recruited to carry out bombings in Somalia.
High-ranking officials in Washington tell Americans that the threat from terrorists—principally self-radicalized homegrown terrorists—is high. Do terrorists pose a threat to Los Angeles? Potentially, terrorists can attack anywhere at any time. And homegrown terrorists can be found, well, just about everywhere. Fortunately, there don't seem to be too many of them right now.
Between September 11, 2001, and the end of 2009, 44 publicly reported cases of domestic radicalization occurred in the United States. In all, 115 would-be terrorists were arrested or went abroad to join jihad fronts in the Middle East or South Asia. The small number does not suggest a vast terrorist underground in the United States.
In fact, terrorist violence was much greater in the 1970s when the U.S. recorded nearly 600 terrorist incidents. The distribution of this violence reflected political and social geography. A majority of the incidents occurred in six metropolitan areas. With its diverse population, concentration of corporate headquarters despised by the left-wing extremists of the era, and a plethora of foreign legations assigned to the United Nations, offering further targets, New York led the list. Washington, D.C., as the nation's capital and host to numerous embassies, ranked high as an arena of violent protest. Anti-Castro fanatics made Miami another front, while Puerto Rican and Croatian separatists operated in both New York and Chicago.
On the West Coast, the San Francisco Bay Area was a theater of terrorist operations carried out primarily by radicals on the far left like the New World Liberation Front, the Red Guerrilla Family, and the Symbionese Liberation Army, whose members kidnapped Patty Hearst in Berkeley but died in a shootout with police in Los Angeles. A combination of Cuban, Armenian, Jewish, Taiwanese, and left-wing and right-wing fanatics made Southern California a sixth front.
The most lethal local terrorist campaign, however, was launched by the Alphabet Bomber on behalf of a terrorist group that existed only in his disturbed mind. He intended his bombings as protest against sexual taboos—funny, but lethal as he killed four and injured eight people with his first bomb at LAX. Following a trial in which he proclaimed himself the Messiah, he was sent to a facility for the criminally insane.
Since 9/11, jihadist terrorists, with equally violent fantasies, generally have proved less competent. Of all the terrorist plots they hatched, only two—both involving lone gunmen—succeeded in killing anybody. In these two sad episodes, Major Nidal Hasan, a self-radicalized warrior of jihad, killed 13 and wounded 31 of his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas. Carlos Bledsoe killed one soldier and wounded another at an Army recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Terrorists often attack close to where they reside. Motivated by Internet inspiration and instruction, that could be anywhere. The 19 post-9/11 cases in which the terrorists had advanced their plans far enough to know their targets are spread across the country. New York leads with four, with three more plots mentioning New York uncovered abroad; Illinois has three, including one in Chicago and one in Springfield. Ohio, New Jersey, Florida, and Washington, D.C., offer one target each. Two cases involved California, one in Lodi and one in Torrance. It can happen here.
What should ordinary citizens do? First, keep things in perspective. Everyday risks are much greater. The average American has about a 1 in 8,000 chance of dying in a traffic accident, and less than 1 in a million chance of being killed by terrorists.
Second, don't overreact to the latest Hollywood portrayal or breathless warning of imminent doom. Americans need not terrorize themselves. At the same time, preparing for the normal disasters Southern Californians face, from wildfires to earthquakes, will help in the highly unlikely event of a terrorist disaster.
Third, be vigilant. This can sound silly. One is not talking about street corner vigilantes looking for shifty-eyed others. But the fact is, alert citizens have on a number of occasions tipped off authorities to suspicious activity, which led to terrorist arrests.
Finally, and most important, remember that the country's best defense against terrorism will always be Americans' traditional courage, self-reliance, tolerance, and humanity.
This op-ed was one of a panel of experts' responses that originally appeared on www.lamag.com.
Brian Michael Jenkins, Author, Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (Prometheus, 2008), and senior advisor to the president of RAND Corporation
This commentary appeared on LAmag.com on March 5, 2010