The official position of our government is that it is not a matter of if there will be another attack on the United States again, but when. On this, George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden seem to be in agreement. This is especially troubling to New Yorkers, who feel, with some degree of certainty, that our city remains the most inviting target for terrorists.
Everyone has methods for dealing with the anxiety. Mostly, we try to ignore it; sometimes, because of the news or a sudden loud noise outside the window, that becomes impossible. Wherever we go, we see how easy it would be for a terrorist to cause serious harm. A bomb left in a Times Square trash can; a man with a heavy backpack moving through a crowded subway car; a van stuffed with explosives entering the Midtown Tunnel—this is part of how we experience the city now. But if it seems so easy, why hasn’t it happened? That’s the question that obsesses us, around which we build theories and start arguments. An attack wouldn’t have to be on the scale of 9/11 to set off a major panic. A single explosion, just one of the many little bombs that rock Iraq every day, would make midtown feel little safer than the Green Zone. But nothing has happened.
In that first year after 9/11, mysterious attacks in other parts of the U.S. began sounding a warning “like an accelerating drumbeat,” as one security expert puts it: The anthrax, the stabbing of Greyhound bus drivers, Richard Reid being wrestled to the floor of a plane with ten ounces of triacetone triperoxide in his black suede sneakers. The bizarre variety demonstrated just how unpredictable the next plot could be. “We still have no idea who was responsible for anthrax after 9/11,” says Dr. Irwin Redlener, head of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “How that could elude very smart people to this day is a very troubling sign of what could happen in New York.”
So how come nothing has happened? “That’s what everyone in our field is wondering,” says Juliette Kayyem, a national-security expert from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The answers they give make up five principal theories that attempt to explain why we’ve stayed safe this long—and what sort of threat remains.
1. We’re On Al Qaeda Time.
“Al Qaeda has always shown a tremendous amount of patience in its planning,” Kayyem says. “That seems to be an Osama bin Laden trademark.” Eight years elapsed between the first attack on the World Trade Center and the second; nearly a year between an aborted bombing of one U.S. warship and the successful attack on another.
Another bin Laden trait is caution, says Peter Sederberg, a global-terrorism specialist at the University of South Carolina and author of Terrorist Myths: Illusion, Rhetoric, and Reality. “The September 11 attacks were supposed to have hit many other targets, but bin Laden ordered them scaled back, because he didn’t think a plan that ambitious could succeed. It could be he never had any intention of an immediate follow-up, and always intended a significant lag between his grand attack and whatever would follow.”
In fact, there are many terrorism analysts who are convinced that bin Laden fully anticipated that the U.S. response to 9/11 would force him and his militants into hiding and that he planned from the start to go dormant and reemerge years later, when he’d have a cleaner shot at a spectacular second attack on the U.S. In this scenario, his escape through the hills of Tora Bora isn’t as much of a fluke as we’ve been led to believe. “We’re coming to terms with the idea that bin Laden may have always planned to make Al Qaeda multiheaded, more like a franchise operation than a corporation,” says Sederberg. “He knew that once the United States military launched an offensive, it would have to split up and each faction operate independently. That could be what we’re seeing now—the segmented parts forming into attack units.”
Does this mean a bunch of smaller, weaker, less-lethal Al Qaedas? “One school says the next attack has to be bigger, badder, bolder,” says Kayyem. “But another school, one I’d say I’m a part of, believes Al Qaeda has been sufficiently dispersed, so what we’ll see next are smaller attacks like we’ve seen in Madrid and the Middle East.”
Sederberg tends to agree. “We don’t pay a lot of attention to incidents that aren’t on U.S. soil, but over the past few years there have been attacks in Tunisia, Turkey . . . and Spain is just across the Gibraltar straits from Morocco. You can say that’s still very far from America, but cells operating in Spain that can carry out coordinated attacks could indicate that part of their capabilities are reconstituted.”
Redlener, for his part, would not be surprised to see a variation of the Madrid bombings in New York. In his view, a fractured Al Qaeda must now be very interested in Penn Station. “Amtrak,” he says, “is a sitting duck.”