Endless Targets for Terror

The Number of Potential Terrorist Targets Is Essentially Infinite

Terrorists seek to kill people and/or destroy property in pursuit of a political goal. They may exercise some discrimination in selecting targets, but because people and vulnerable property are everywhere in the United States, they have a wealth of potential targets—there are about 5 million commercial buildings alone. Nothing can be done to change this fundamental condition. Indeed, it is difficult to think of something that couldn’t be a target. Even a tree in the woods, after all, could be ignited to start a forest fire.

The Number of Terrorists Appears to Be Exceedingly Small
and Their Efforts and Competence Rather Limited

Since terrorism of a considerably destructive nature can be perpetrated by a small group, or even by a single individual, the fact that terrorists are few does not mean there is no problem. However, many homeland security policies were established when the threat seemed far larger, and those perceptions may still be fueling, and distorting, current policy.

In 2002, intelligence reports asserted that the number of trained al Qaeda operatives in the United States was between 2,000 and 5,000. And on February 11, 2003, Robert Mueller, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, assured a Senate committee that al Qaeda had “developed a support infrastructure” in the country and had achieved “the ability and the intent to inflict significant casualties in the US with little warning.” By 2005, however, after years of well funded sleuthing, the FBI and other investigative agencies concluded in a secret report that they had been unable to uncover a single true al Qaeda sleeper cell anywhere in the United States, a finding (or nonfinding) publicly acknowledged two years later.

[The FBI has subsequently seemed to resort to cultivating their own terrorists with questionable set ups and stings; — Ed.]

The lack of true al Qaeda attacks inside the United States combined with the inability of the FBI to find any potential attackers suggests that the terrorists either are not trying very hard or are far less clever and capable than usually depicted.

It follows that any terrorism problem within the United States principally derives from homegrown people, often isolated from one another, who fantasize about performing dire deeds.

Although they someday might conceivably rise to the cleverness of the 9/11 plot, far more likely to be representative is the experience of the would-be bomber of a shopping mall in Rockford, Illinois, who exchanged two used stereo speakers (he couldn’t afford the opening price of $100) for a bogus handgun and four equally bogus hand grenades supplied by an FBI informant. Had the weapons been real, he might actually have managed to do some harm.

Political scientist Michael Kenney has interviewed dozens of officials and intelligence agents and has analyzed court documents, and he finds homegrown Islamic militants to be operationally unsophisticated, short on know how, prone to making mistakes, poor at planning, and severely hampered by a limited capacity to learn. Another study documents the difficulties of network coordination that continually threaten operational unity, trust, cohesion, and the ability to act collectively.

By contrast, the image projected by the DHS is of an enemy that is “relentless, patient opportunistic, and flexible”; shows “an understanding of the potential consequences of carefully planned attacks on economic transportation, and symbolic targets”; is a serious threat to “national security”; and could inflict “mass casualties, weaken the economy, and damage public morale and confidence.” That description may fit some terrorists — the 9/11 hijackers among them — but not, it seems likely, the vast majority.

The Displacement Effect

There is something that might be called “the displacement effect.” Terrorists can choose, and change, their targets depending on local circumstances. This process, of course, does not hold in the case of natural disasters; a tornado bearing down on Kansas does not choose to divert to Oklahoma if it finds Kansans to well protected. In stark contrast, if the protection of one target merely causes the terrorist to seek out another from among the near infinite set at hand, it is not clear how society has gained by expending effort and treasure to protect the first. The people who were saved in the first locale gain, of course, but their grief is simply displaced onto others.

There have been instances in Israel in which suicide bombers, seeing their primary targets, shopping malls, rather well protected, blew themselves up instead on the street. The Israelis count this as something of a gain since they claim that fewer people died as a consequence, a fact likely to be of little comfort to the victims’ families. Actually, however, if the goal of terrorists is to kill, a shopping mall is generally not that lucrative a target because people inside tend to be fairly widely dispersed, something that is often less true on the sidewalks outside.

By John Mueller
For Whiskey & Gunpowder

December 10, 2010