Like any act of violence, terrorist strikes involve the convergence of intentions and capabilities.
The unsuccessful attack on Times Square by Faisal Shahzad serves as a reminder that there are still people at large, both at home and abroad, that will not hesitate to take the lives of innocent Americans in hopes of making a political statement. The intention to strike against the homeland -- particularly New York City -- remains strong.
The failure of Shahzad's plot serves as another reminder though: the capabilities available to terrorists seeking to harm us are drastically limited. Terrorists just can't pull off complex operations within the U.S. the way they were able to prior to 9/11.
This lesson, unfortunately, seems to have been completely lost on the plethora of terrorism "experts" that took to the airwaves this past week to discuss the Times Square incident.
Indeed, if there is one "lesson" that seems to be emerging from this event, it's that terrorists are dead set on bombing us and, therefore, our focus should be on countering the use of an explosive device here at home.
Take this forecast from David Wood, for example: "The increasing use by terrorists of homemade explosives and yes, 'improvised' bombs, like the Times Square device, makes it more likely that what we have gotten used to seeing on our TV screens may soon be happening on our streets."
Speaking on Larry King, Bob Baer echoed Wood with regard to improvised explosive devices (IEDs), "They're the poor man's air force. And they're very effective."
Writing in the Washington Post, Steven Simon and Jonathon Stevenson expressed a similar concern that bombs are becoming the terrorists' weapon of choice:
The incident marks the domestic introduction of familiar terrorist techniques....
Al-Qaeda and its followers have killed far more people - Americans and other nationalities - using various forms of improvised explosive devices in war zones and ostensibly peaceful locales.... Several of al-Qaeda's most devastating attacks since 2001 - such as bombings that killed 202 people, mainly tourists, in Bali in 2002 - involved such devices....
These days, vehicle-borne IEDs are suited to urban spaces, in which cars are commonplace and inconspicuous and dense populations mean relatively high numbers of casualties. These points would not be lost on jihadist leaders and aspiring acolytes, who tend to be students of their craft....
New Yorkers were lucky the bomb malfunctioned.
News flash to the "experts": when it comes to bombs in the U.S., your analyses bomb.
All of these "expert" opinions gloss over three vital points:
- All of the examples of successful post-9/11 terrorist explosions that these commentators cite have occurred abroad.
- While a few terrorists have attempted to construct IEDs here in the U.S., there has not been one lethal incident involving a bomb inside our borders since 9/11.
- The difficulty in building a bomb here in the U.S. is not related to luck. It is the direct by-product of the government's successful efforts since 9/11 to crack-down on the availability of the precursor materials that are required to make an IED.
In other words: it's extremely difficult to make a lethal bomb in the U.S. If you don't believe me, just ask Najibullah Zazi and Faisal Shahzad. You'll find them in jail because they were never successfully able to make and detonate IEDs.
It's not all good news, however. Since 9/11, there has been one capability that, when matched with the intention to kill innocents, has produced a deadly mix: guns. With the exception of Joseph Stack killing an IRS official when he flew his plane into the IRS offices in Austin, TX, every single lethal terrorist incident in the U.S. since 9/11 has involved a firearm.
Testifying before Congress today about pending legislation that would close the "terror gap" in federal gun laws -- a loophole that permits people on the terrorism watch-list to purchase weapons -- New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg raised awareness to this disturbing fact.
If there's an important lesson to take away from the failed Times Square bombing, it's that the system worked. The measures in effect to prevent terrorists from successfully constructing and exploding bombs are passing muster.
But, as Mayor Bloomberg hints, maybe the Times Square bombing attempt isn't the case on which we should be focused. Maybe we should be more concerned with the case that marks the most significant terrorist attack inside our borders since 9/11: the Fort Hood shooting spree.
Armed with a FN Herstal 5.7 tactical handgun, in a 10 minute rampage Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 people - that's 13 more people than shoe bomber Richard Reid, underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, New York City subway bomber Najibullah Zazi, and Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad were able to kill combined.
If we are serious about preventing that perfect match between terrorist intentions and terrorist capabilities, we must focus on the realistic (and probabilistic) instruments of violence and implement smart measures that will further limit potential terrorists' access to such means of murder.
Anything less reflects us bombing on counter-terrorism.
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