Planes, Trains, and Car Bombs: The Method Behind the Madness of Terrorism

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January 13, 2012 | Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus, Nick Adams,

As we marked the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, we also marked the expiration date of countless predictions that other devastating al Qaeda (inspired, financed, or directed) attacks would occur on US soil within a decade of that fateful day. Little more than a week after the atrocities, Attorney General John Ashcroft worried aloud "that terrorist activity against the United States may increase once this country responds to [the] attacks." Ten days later, Democratic Senator Carl Levin told Fox News that "biological and chemical threats ... are real. We ought to put resources there." Republican Representative Chris Shays of Connecticut was more trenchant: "I am absolutely certain that terrorists, if they don't have access to biological weapons now, will; and I am absolutely certain that they will use them. The expertise exists. The potential that it has been shared with a terrorist is almost a no brainer." President Bush pushed the possibility of catastrophe to its logical extreme: "these terrorists ... are seeking chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Given the means, our enemies would be a threat to every nation and, eventually, to civilization itself."

Such dire predictions were not confined to the political class. Terrorism experts and academics like Walter Laqueur, Jessica Stern, Bruce Hoffman, Mark Juergensmeyer, and many others had seized upon the notion that a "new terrorism" was emerging. Even before 9/11, Laqueur wrote that "yesterday's nuisance has become one of the gravest dangers facing mankind." Many proponents of the "new terrorism" meme became even more emphatic after the attacks, arguing that religiously-inspired terrorism had become divorced from rationality. Laqueur lamented that "until recently, terrorism was, by and large, discriminate, selecting its victims carefully... It was, more often than not, 'propaganda by deed.' Contemporary terrorism has increasingly become indiscriminate in the choice of its victims. Its aim is no longer to conduct propaganda but to effect maximum destruction." Laqueur described the new terrorists as "paranoiac" and driven by "all-consuming," "nonexistent hidden motives" leading to "a loss of the sense of reality." "The outlook," he concluded, "is poor; there are no known cures for fanaticism and paranoia."

With the political and expert classes significantly aligned in their description of insane, religiously fanatical terrorists determined to kill millions with weapons of mass destruction, journalists and the public could do little but wait for the next heavy shoe to drop. As they looked around them, they saw vulnerabilities everywhere. After rumors of the potential for biological or chemical attacks on America's water supply raced through the internet, The New York Times reported on local governments' efforts to secure reservoirs and other sources of drinking water: "Helicopters, patrol boats and armed guards sweep across the watershed feeding New York City, enforcing a temporary ban on fishing, hunting, and hiking. Massachusetts has sealed commuter roads that run atop dams or wind down to the water's edge. And Utah has enlisted the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to peer down at reservoirs from planes and satellites, hoping to spot any weak points." By November 1st, USA Today was reporting that "scientists and politicians are growing increasingly worried about another possible target for terrorists: the food supply." Several authors over the years have also flagged America's vulnerability to internet attacks that could significantly disrupt the critical infrastructure upon which our economy depends. In a recent report, Washington's Bipartisan Policy Center recommended that "defending the U.S. against such attacks must be an urgent priority." "This is not science fiction," they wrote, "It is possible to take down cyber systems and trigger cascading disruptions and damage."

Even as our greatest fears have not come to pass, the drive to promote measures eliminating even the impression of risk or threat has hardly lost momentum. Despite the fact that the United States has developed enough vaccine to inoculate its entire population against the two most deadly biological agents that terrorists might conceivably learn to produce someday, The New York Times Magazine recently published a long article suggesting that more should be done -- that billions should be spent developing and stockpiling vaccine for every disease that terrorists could possibly use to harm Americans. Never mind that terrorists have shown no capacity to successfully develop and weaponize any of them.

Despite the perennial warnings about exotic weapons and targets (warnings that, ironically, offer terrorists tantalizing clues about how and where the United States is vulnerable), members and allies of al Qaeda's hirabi (AKA 'jihadi') movement continue to carry out the same sorts of attacks they executed in the decades before 9/11. In 1993, hirabis used a truck bomb in an attempt to topple the World Trade Center, the same tactic they used in 1996 to bomb the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia, and in 1998 to bomb US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In 2000, they used a different vehicle - a small boat - to approach their target when they bombed the USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen. A year later, they used different vehicles again, airplanes, to bomb the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon. Months later a hirabi named Richard Reid attempted to bomb a plane itself with a chemical explosive hidden in his shoe. In May 2002, a car bomb killed 14 people at a Karachi hotel frequented by Westerners. In October of that year, another bomb, placed in a Bali nightclub, killed 202 mostly Australian citizens.

In 2004, hirabis detonated ten bombs on four trains in Madrid, killing nearly 200 people. A year later, hirabis attacked three trains and a bus in London. Later in 2005, bombs placed at American hotels in Amman, Jordan killed 57 people. In 2007, British police uncovered a car-bomb plot targeting Glasgow airport. In 2008, a car bomb killed six people and injured dozens more outside Pakistan's Danish Embassy. Al Qaeda claimed the attack was retaliation for an offensive political cartoon. In September 2009, Najibullah Zazi was arrested in the final stages of a plan to replicate the Madrid attacks of 2004 in New York City's subway system. On Christmas Day of the same year, Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted and failed to down a passenger plane over Detroit by detonating a chemical bomb concealed under his clothes. The next spring, Faisal Shahzad tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square, but failed. Months later, in October 2010, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula placed explosive devices in cargo planes, but cooperating international intelligence agencies foiled their plans before they could detonate the bombs. Most recently, Rezwan Ferdaus has been charged with a plot to use remote controlled planes to deliver bombs to the Pentagon. All of these and other al Qaeda directed, financed, or inspired attacks have targeted planes, trains, buses, government and symbolic buildings, and western hotels with bombs (and sometimes assault weapons).

The stark contrast between the hirabi repertoire of targets and tactics and the expansive and expanding concerns of journalists, politicians, experts, and academics begs explanation. We find that the pattern of hirabi attacks is not accidental. It is well-suited to their primary strategy -- one attempting to iteratively grow support for their cause so they can one day gain political power and govern territory. That their goals are likely delusional does not diminish the rationality of their strategy, the tactics they use, or the targets they select, all of which are chosen to manipulate the governments they seek to change and the publics they seek to recruit. Various internal and external constraints on hirabi organizations also limit their capability, and thereby, the range of tactics and strategies they can pursue. This paper explores in depth all of these factors shaping hirabi activity.

Download a copy of the report here.

Read the debate surrounding our report here.


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PLANES, TRAINS, AND CAR BOMBS