5 Reasons We're Safer From Terrorists


May 12, 2010

This commentary originally appeared on AOL News on May 12, 2010.

Why aren't there more Times Square bombers? It is not a complaint, but a question that intrigues terrorism analysts. Why haven't more jihadist terrorist attacks been attempted in the United States since 9/11?

Better security provides only part of the answer. Homeland security clearly has increased, some targets have been hardened, and surveillance has improved. Citizens are now more aware, more likely to report suspicious activity. But terrorists in other parts of the world have attacked restaurants, markets, nightclubs, subways, commuter trains, churches and synagogues, while the terrorist plots uncovered in the United States have been aimed at shopping malls, public transportation, like Times Square, public places that make easy targets.

Here are several reasons why the U.S. has been almost entirely free of terrorist attacks over the past eight-plus years:

Unrelenting pressure: Part of the answer is the unrelenting pressure that has degraded the terrorist capabilities of America's jihadist foes. A decade ago, al-Qaida benefited from a protected central command in Afghanistan and easily accessible training camps that attracted jihadist recruits from around the world. A network of operatives and a reservoir of readily available talent enabled its leaders to plan and direct ambitious, coordinated terrorist attacks.

Today, al-Qaida's top leaders are hunted. Its training camps have been dispersed, its key planners removed, its networks weakened, its ability to launch terrorist attacks abroad reduced. The conflict is now more decentralized.

And while jihadist leaders may boast about thousands of inquiries from eager jihadists on the Internet, connecting with them in the real world isn't easy. The Pakistani Taliban—who assisted the Times Square bomber—have to keep moving their training camps to avoid missile strikes. They must worry about walk-ins who might be spies. Cooperation among intelligence services and police departments worldwide have made the jihadists' operating environment much more hostile. Al-Qaida itself has not been able to carry out a successful attack in the West since 2005.

Lack of fervor: America's jihadists appear to be suffering from anemic fervor.

According to a recent RAND Corporation paper on the subject, between Sept.11, 2001, and the end of 2009, there were 46 reported cases of jihadist radicalization and recruitment to terrorism in the United States. In 24 of the cases, jihadist volunteers—U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents—plotted to carry out attacks in the United States.

Only two of the terrorists succeeded in killing anyone: One opened fire on an Army recruiting office in Arkansas, killing one soldier and wounding another; the other, an Army major, killed 13 of his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas. Significantly, both of the terrorists were lone gunmen who used readily available weapons and kept their homicidal plans to themselves.

Almost half the reported cases involved a single individual; small conspiracies made up the rest. In all, 125 persons were identified in indictments. Additional arrests in 2010 have brought that total to 130.

While their plots clearly demonstrate intent, their operational plans remain sketchy, comfortably floating in an indefinite future until a determined, competent leader comes along or they run into a government informant. Only two of the 130 homegrown terrorists were willing to carry out suicide attacks. The rest planned to escape.

Improved intelligence: Better domestic intelligence offers another explanation. The fact that authorities have uncovered and foiled numerous terrorist plots is an undeniable intelligence success. Federal authorities and local police now share more information and work together more effectively, as evidenced by the rapid apprehension of the Times Square bomber.

Public arrests: The publicized arrests of terrorist plotters also have a deterrent effect. No would-be terrorist can be certain that his eager comrade is not a confidential informant leading him along to eternal paradise in a police van.

Lack of support from American Muslims: Perhaps the biggest reason for the small number of terrorist attacks in the United States is the lack of receptivity among American Muslims to the jihadists' exhortations to violence. With an American Muslim population of approximately 3 million, 130 jihadists is hardly a huge turnout. In contrast, several thousand Muslim Americans serve in the U.S. armed forces.

Handfuls of radicals may admire the would-be terrorists, while others discreetly nod in approval, but there are no vast pools of alienation, no jihadist underground or widespread sympathy to support a terrorist campaign. A would-be jihadist in America is more likely to encounter discouragement and intervention.

All good news, but no cause for complacency.

Terrorist planners must be kept on the run. Intelligence must prepare for more-competent terrorists and threats from new directions. Security must improve, especially in surface transportation, where six terrorist plots have been uncovered.

Above all, the American public and political leaders must avoid transforming terrorist failures into victories by overreaction, pointless recriminations, unreasonable demands for security and partisan attacks that serve only to inspire the nation's terrorist foes.

Brian Michael Jenkins, author of Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (Prometheus, 2008), is senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis. His previous op-ed for AOL News was "How a Decade of Terror Changed America."

This op-ed originally appeared on www.aolnews.com.

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