4. Suicide Bombings Don’t Work Here.
Even a fractured Al Qaeda could still carry out suicide bombings, right? In a not-so-bad month in Baghdad, there’s a suicide bomb attack every day. It’s the ultimate low-tech attack, dependent on nothing more than one dedicated person and a backpack full of explosives.
The fact that not a single suicide bomber has turned up in New York can’t be due to immigration screening; not when visa extensions were issued for Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi six months after they’d flown planes into the World Trade Center. And bombers could have been planted here before September 11.
“We’ve often considered the prospect of sleeper cells,” says Johnson. “Some people like to believe that once an extremist arrives here, he’ll be so impressed by American freedoms and opportunity that he won’t want to kill himself, but quite likely, the opposite is true. Islamic fundamentalists can be appalled and disgusted by what they see as the hedonism of American life.”
But if exposure to American life won’t prevent suicide bombings, exposure to Americans might. “The more a person develops normal relations, the more comfortable he is in an environment, the less likely he is to commit an act of violence,” Johnson says. “The social literature on this goes back more than a hundred years, whether it be crime, gang violence, or political violence.” The September 11 hijackers, in a way, were the exceptions that prove the rule: Because they were able to move freely about the country without attracting suspicion, they could isolate themselves.
So if a sleeper cell had been planted here for years, it would have had to integrate into American life and would probably be less inclined to extreme acts of violence. For terrorists who’ve managed to slip in since 9/11, it will be hard for them to remain a self-insulating unit without attracting suspicion. And if a potential bomber arrives on his own, he’ll have daily social contacts that will lower the chance of his carrying out a suicide mission.
Complete isolation and a radically short time lapse between the moment a bomber is tapped and when he carries out the attack are essential to successful suicide attacks. “Studies of Hamas suicide bombers indicate there’s only a 24-hour window between finding the candidate and carrying out the mission,” says Swetnam. “It sounds incredible, but Hamas does the entire process within one day.” Hamas recruiters don’t select suicide bombers from within their own cadres; instead, they pull in a dogmatic and disillusioned young male outside their operation. It takes a deep pool of disaffected males to find the one willing to carry out a suicide mission.
Throughout the night, they’ll keep the candidate in a closed room and bombard him with dogma about his mission as a soldier of Allah and “rev him up about being a hero,” as Swetnam puts it. “They tell him, ‘Allah only asks once, and he’s asking you now.’ ” Only in extremely rare cases has a suicide bomber been known to back out of a mission, Swetnam says; one of the few that is known about occurred when his isolation buffer broke down. “He is said to have run into his brother on the way to his assignment, and that was enough to cause second thoughts.”
That’s why Peter Sederberg argues that one of the greatest tasks of homeland security is making sure that Muslims consider themselves full partners in the United States. “Our most important ally in the war on terror is the Islamic community,” he says. “Even if an extremist comes here who’s angry and isolated, we have to make sure the Islamic community is too well integrated to provide any kind of reinforcement or protective cover.”
5. Bin Laden Isn’t A Terrorist, He’s A Killer.
The principal reason we’ve been expecting attacks that haven’t come may be that we’ve had bin Laden wrong all along. “Al Qaeda isn’t interested in scaring people—it’s interested in killing people,” explains Sederberg. It was the United States that declared September 11 an act of terror; bin Laden has always called it an act of war, and as in any war, he’s out to inflict maximum casualties and disable his enemy’s war machine.
“You could argue that Al Qaeda has always gone after military targets,” Sederberg says. “When it attacked the USS Cole, it was hitting a warship on what it considered a wartime mission—on its way to blockade Iraq in the Persian Gulf.” By targeting the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and, apparently, the White House, bin Laden wasn’t trying to terrorize the United States into granting concessions; he was striking at our ability to lead and finance an army. The jihadists see themselves as holy warriors confronting us at the heart of the fight. And right now, the fight is in Iraq.
“Nothing would better prove Islamic-extremist might than driving off the Great Satan’s mightiest assembly of armed forces,” says Swetnam. “It worked in Afghanistan—defeating the Russians brought the Taliban government to power—and it’s easy to imagine that Al Qaeda has a similar intent. The jihadists probably see this as a golden opportunity.”
The mujaheddin didn’t just defeat the Soviet Army—they helped bring down the entire Soviet Union. The war in Afghanistan sapped the Soviet economy and radicalized anti-Kremlin dissenters in the Red Army, who were no longer willing to risk being burned to death in a tank by an Afghan firebomb. With the Afghanistan example to follow, bin Laden may realize he doesn’t need to stage yearlong covert operations in the United States—apparently, he’s concluded that the best way to wound the United States is to lock its military in an unpopular foreign war. He essentially confirmed this in his preelection videotape message.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that all available foot soldiers are being deployed on the main battlefield and not being squandered in a low-percentage attempt to board heavily screened planes or otherwise penetrate heightened U.S. homeland security. This theory might just lend credence to President Bush’s claim that “the best way to defeat the terrorists is to stay on the offense.” By taking the fight to Iraq, we’ve concentrated terrorism far from home; anti-American forces don’t need to travel 6,000 miles to attack New York when there are Americans right there in Baghdad.
This isn’t necessarily a reason for Americans to feel safe, though. “Each successful strike is empowering extremist elements and training them,” says Sederberg. “It’s showing them what works, and diverting billions of dollars that could be spent on homeland defense. It’s also winning over new converts to the cause.” Instead of engaging Iraqi militants on their turf, he suggests, we could be investing those billions of dollars to make sure terrorists never enters ours.
According to terrorism experts, New York remains a magnet for terrorists. “One thing I take seriously is the manifesto found on a very senior Al Qaeda lieutenant which says retribution means killing 4 million Americans, including 2 million children,” says Redlener. “That’s the ultimate horror, and it doesn’t require logistics of any great moment—all they need is a nuclear suitcase bomb.”
The logical place to detonate a biological or radiological weapon, of course, would be the point where population density meets ease of access, a place not far from a coast or a shaky border—a place like New York. “Eighty percent of all heroin and cocaine arrives right through our borders, so if you can get a bundle of cocaine here, you can get a nuclear weapon,” says Loch Johnson, who points out that from either the Canadian or Mexican frontier, Manhattan is only an overnight drive away.
Or a nuclear device could arrive by sea. “Our ports are woefully unprotected, which is doubly dangerous since they tend to be near metropolitan areas,” says Swetnam. Ports and borders—in military terms, those are our flanks and harbors, and no wartime commander would ever dream of leaving them exposed for very long.