Within the past week law enforcement has revealed the disruption of three separate terrorist plots against the United States. These actions highlight the continuing threat to the continental United States, but also the barriers discussed here before to conducting successful terrorist attacks within the United States.
Two of the plots were self-starters; individuals who became motivated to commit acts of violence and in their efforts to find allies inadvertently attracted the attention of law enforcement agencies. One had traveled to Pakistan where he may have received some training. All of them highlight the difficulties of carrying out a terrorist attack.
The two self-starters, in Texas and Illinois were both lured into law enforcement‘s clutches by promises of access to explosives. Weapons are frequently the lure that government informants use against suspected terrorists. This has also worked on the Fort Dix Six and against cells of right-wing domestic radicals in the past.
The case of Najibullah Zazi is a bit different. He had the wit to attempt to produce his own explosives, but that raises problems of a different sort. It appears that the process of acquiring the supplies and preparing the explosives left an extensive trail for law enforcement to follow. It is also appears that some intelligence agencies were interested in his activities beforehand, probably due to his travels to Pakistan, as his cel-phone was tapped.
These plots reinforce the reality that terrorist desire to strike the United States remains strong, but that their capabilities have been reduced. The abilities to move, communicate, and to acquire the skills and equipment needed to carryout terror attacks are limited and efforts to do so frequently tip-off law enforcement.
Tools to address the desire end of the equation still need to be developed. Nor can the current apparent limits on terrorist capabilities be taken for granted. These threats have been neutralized due to diligent efforts by American intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Terrorists can continue to turn to other countries with less capable security forces. There may be flaws in the U.S. security net that can exploited. Terrorists may “shorten their punch” by developing a lower-cost weapon of mass murder then previously deployed. None of these possibilities can be ignored.
In addition, it is possible (even probable) that baring successful attacks security agency emphasis on the problem will decline. In the classic case study, Essence of Decision, Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow explain how before the Challenger accident NASA officials had, based on previous shuttle launches modified the bases on which they made their decisions – ultimately following routine procedures in an unprecedented situation. But it should be emphasized that the routine procedures had served NASA well prior to the Challenger tragedy.
The same could happen on the counter-terror front. One hint of this potential is that the NYPD and the FBI seemed to have had crossed wires in the investigation (NYPD counter-terror officials have been reassigned.) The United States has innumerable law enforcement and intelligence agencies at the federal, state, and local level. The boundaries between their activities are not always clear. As memories of 9/11 fade the possibility of an incident slipping between these seams could increase – it is in the nature of large organizations with competing priorities.
Terrorists have been known to read indictments in terrorism cases for intelligence about what their enemies know about them. They can also consider how to take advantage of agency routines. The terrorist enemy is currently weak, but constantly adapting.