Why No Recent Al Qaeda Attacks in the U.S.?

Daniel Byman, Director of Georgetown's Security Studies Program and the Center for Peace and Security Studies, blogs on the subject at the">Middle East Strategy at Harvard blog. Some possible explanations (read the whole post for more):

  • Bin Laden has other fish to fry. Although Americans understandably focus on the threat Al Qaeda poses to the United States, from Bin Laden’s point of view we are only one concern of many—even if we still are a favorite target of his rhetoric. Al Qaeda’s primary day-to-day focus now is on events in Pakistan, where the organization is based, and Afghanistan, where it is helping support the massive insurgency that is battling the U.S.-backed Karzai government. As if this were not enough, Al Qaeda has ambitions in Iraq, the Maghreb, and Central Asia as well as against Israel. These theaters are important to Al Qaeda leaders, and many in the organization would prioritize them over attacks in the United States. Even if the United States remains the primary focus of the leaders of the Al Qaeda core, expanding operations in several of these theaters gives Al Qaeda opportunities to strike at America outside the U.S. homeland. Iraq and Afghanistan allows it to showcase one of its preferred methods: support for insurgents.
  • Al Qaeda’s operational capacity is limited. Al Qaeda has reestablished a base in tribal parts of Pakistan, and its operational capacity is growing when compared to the organization’s dark days in 2002. Yet while Pakistan is an excellent haven, in many respects it is a tougher one than the Taliban’s Afghanistan. From Pakistan Al Qaeda can still plot attacks, and its propaganda is prodigious. However, its leaders must also spend much of their time battling or bribing government forces, hiding from U.S. Predator strikes, or otherwise focusing on their daily survival.
  • U.S. government efforts at home are paying off. The Department of Homeland Security is much-maligned, but at least it is trying to stop jihadists from entering the country. And trying counts. The FBI has made numerous arrests on terrorism charges (often, we find out later, on quite thin grounds), suggesting that it is aggressive in going after any potential jihadist threat at home.
  • Aggressive intelligence efforts abroad keep us safer at home. More important than strictly domestic efforts, U.S. intelligence is working with its counterparts around the world to disrupt the organization, making it harder for Al Qaeda to do sustained operations. Remember, the 9/11 attack involved not only the United States and Afghanistan, but also Germany, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and other countries. Such a global plot would be far more difficult to orchestrate today. Senior leaders would be more likely to be killed, and junior operatives would be more likely to be arrested.
  • Al Qaeda wants to outdo 9/11. Bin Laden does not think small, and he consistently seeks terrorism “spectaculars” against the United States (for example, the plot to bomb transatlantic flights from the United Kingdom, which was foiled in the summer of 2006). A spectacular attack might inflict mass casualties like 9/11, or it might involve a lower casualty but novel method, such as chemical weapons. This ambition may dissuade Bin Laden from a low-level strike before the election, as he wants to save his powder for a time when he can inflict the maximum damage.
  • There is no “Al Qaeda of the United States.” Even if the United States were not more aggressive at home and abroad, Al Qaeda’s ability to operate in the United States is limited. In contrast to Britain, Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia, Spain and many other countries, the United States does not have a significant domestic jihadist network within its borders. Government prosecution efforts reveal that many arrested plotters were incompetent dreamers who had little or no ties to the Al Qaeda core, in contrast to their counterparts in Europe and the Arab world. Infiltrators Bin Laden sends to the United States would find it hard to gain local assistance as they prepare for an attack. The few radicalized American Muslims might still attack in Al Qaeda’s name, but the likelihood is far lower than in many other countries, and the skill level of the attackers would probably be limited, making a 9/11-scale operation particularly unlikely, which (as noted above) is probably one of Bin Laden’s goals for operations in the United States.

So, what's the difference between "Bin Laden has other fish to fry" and "the flypaper strategy is working"?
11.4.2008 2:19pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Not to be pessimistic, but the phrase "preparing the battlefield" comes to mind.
11.4.2008 2:21pm
I'd go with Aggressive intelligence efforts abroad keep us safer at home.

The reason why I fully support the war in Afghanistan is because it is difficult to orchestrate complex terrorist attacks when you are running from people who want to shoot you. That, combined with a bunch of covert operations we have not heard about, has undoubtedly hurt al-Qaeda significantly. We may laugh about crowing news releases claiming to have knocked off the al-Qaeda #2 du jour, but anyone who's been in any organization knows that that kind of turnover is bad for business.

I hope that the lack of an al-Qaeda October Surprise puts to rest the liberal moonbat conspiracy theory that the Republicans are just waiting until the politically opportune moment to make progress in The War Against Terror.
11.4.2008 2:21pm
David Warner:
I blame Bush.
11.4.2008 2:26pm
Syd Henderson (mail):
Just released memo:

What! There was an election in the United States? Why didn't someone TELL me about this.
11.4.2008 2:34pm
ras (mail):
Two additional possibilities:

1. IMHO the bigger reason is that Al Qaeda largely heeds its state sponsors who see US troops on their borders and have called off their dogs for now lest those same sponsors be toppled next, a not unreasonable assumption. This also adds context to the Iraq invasion: in conjunction with Afghanistan, it put US troops on pretty much every regional border that mattered.

2. A possible secondary reason is that AL Qaeda is so heavily centralized. We are often told the opposite, how decentralized they are, but this confuses geographic dispersement with true decentralization. True decentralization means fanning out the decision-making power to the lowest level, which is the opposite of AQ's approach where cell members might not even know the names of their fellow cell members, much less be authorized to take independent action.

Once AQ's base in Afghanistan was taken out (AQ even means "the base," IIRC), what could the cells do but sit and wait quietly for further orders? And if the current AQ leadership were to give those orders, how would they fake Bin Laden's blessing for the next action, presuming he's as dead as seems likely? Acknowledging his death would open up a power struggle w/in their organization, as happens with most cults of personality when their leader dies.
11.4.2008 2:39pm
Obama said that if he is elected he will "extinguish" al Qaeda.

That can mean only one thing: al Qaeda is already finished, thanx to George W. Bush and the great U.S. military.

11.4.2008 2:43pm
Sarcastro (www):
Because AlQueda was so active in the US between the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 and the second attack in 2001! An 8 year gap is unheard of!
11.4.2008 2:48pm
Abomi Nation:
Other (probably correct) option: Al Queda is, justifiably, afraid of what the Bush administration would do in response to further big attacks.

Likewise they are afraid of what a McCain administration would do.

Therefore, they have held off pending the final results of the election. When Barack Hussein Obama wins, they will feel safe in running wild because he will want to do nothing more than "talk without preconditions."

You can expect a series of moderate to major terrorist attacks against American interests both at home and abroad in the coming months and years. And the Chosen One will do nada about it.
11.4.2008 2:49pm
js5 (mail):
why no recent attacks? What's the point, they won: they've dragged us into an endless armed conflict in the middle east, forcing us to wither economically. They've said this and there is no reason to believe they think they can engage in symmetrical warfare. I'd be more worried about Al Qaeda if we weren't already headed into a recession.
11.4.2008 2:49pm
ras (mail):

If AQ is more a product of state sponsors than of true ideological freelancing, then as soon as Obama brings home the troops, the sponsors can resurrect AQ, albeit perhaps under a different name.

The war-by-proxy approach works just fine for the sponsors. Had the House of Saud or the mullahs, for example, waged war directly on the US, they would have been toppled immediately. But instead they are richer and as secure as ever and quite able to continue their battle for dominance. Why change?
11.4.2008 2:52pm
SPQR (mail) (www):
You forgot a key, if not the key, success in the war on terrorism. The US obtained worldwide cooperation in shutting down financial networks and money laundering operations in European, Middle Eastern and Asian banking systems.

This never gets the attention, nor the Bush admin the credit, it deserves.
11.4.2008 2:54pm
Lighten up Kansas:
Richard, you are being pessimistic. AQ wants a hardliner in the Oval Office. They want America to ship over soldiers for them to attack and bomb; saves on travel expenses even though they are a non-profit organization. They love the idea of creating poverty and unrest in third-world countries, and nothing creates destruction like an invasion and occupation.
11.4.2008 2:58pm
Pete Guither (mail) (www):
Why would they need to attack us? So far, America's been great for AQ. Restricting liberties at home (they hate us for our freedoms so we give them away). Creating fertile recruitment grounds throughout the middle east (bomb a child, create an entire family of terrorists). Causing worldwide instability financially and diplomatically.

They've got no reason to waste their resources right now. If we stop doing their bidding, then we might hear from them again in an effort to re-establish respect notoriety fear.
11.4.2008 3:16pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
yeah. They want to mess with predators every time they go out for coffee. The bosses of the countries in which they operate are thinking of the vid of SH being dragged out of his hole. In fact, they even have to worry about their erstwhile friends. The Syrian intel guys put us on to the al Q base INSIDE Syria. Saves us the trouble of finding them and the Syrians the expense of taking them out along with pissing off their co-religionists.
The op got an al Q guy alive, which would really worry the Syrians if they were concerned about their connections. But, apparently, they're less worried about that than having an independent operator running around attracting attention.

And, I mean, doing it the old way, sneaking around and arresting them one on one after the '93WTC bombing worked so well....
I guess there was one benefit. To avoid outraging any sovereignty, one of the bad guys was put on a Navy attack bomber (S3?) which, to avoid giving any Euro nation the right to take him off and let him go (see Achille Lauro) pulled off its longest non-stop flight from a boat in the Med to CONUS. Lots of tankers. The old Viking deserves some kind of record, I guess. And after all that....
11.4.2008 3:19pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Creating recruits through bombing works. Considering the terrs killed huge numbers of Iraqis, they created a huge anti-insurgency movement.
They're also starting to annoy the tribes in Af/Pak
So I guess you're right. Not that you wanted to be. Right like that, I mean.
11.4.2008 3:22pm
Sarcastro (www):
Abomi Nation makes a powerful point. AlQueda is totally afraid of death. Death that McCain will rain down upon them, Rambo-style like the total badass he is!

Conversely, Obama has secretly promised them kick-ass party favors if they attack here.

So a vote for Obama is like bombing yourself!
11.4.2008 3:22pm
The departed Rumsfeld would say 'this is one of the known unknowns'.

Al Queda leaders no doubt want to effectively attack us. But our remote mind reading technology hasn't told us why overt attacks haven't occurred.

Forced to choose: Al Queda wants to outdo 9/11.

Their leaders think a small attack would be interpreted as weakness. And they haven't been able to mount anything impressive, such as another 9/11.

Personally I believe Bin Laden has been dead for years and evidence to the contrary is disinformation from Al Queda.

Al Queda has problems. Who doesn't? The Taliban, the tribes, and those loyal to the Pakistani government may not back the US but that doesn't mean they want Al Queda bossing them either.

The security services around the world play rough. And none gains much by letting Al Queda increase its strength inside their own country.
11.4.2008 4:18pm
Okay, if U.S. bombs make people into anti-American terrorists, why was the founder of Al Qaida a Saudi, not an Iraqi?

By the way, why didn't German terrorists blow up the Empire State Building in 1951?
11.4.2008 4:33pm
* Iraq operations cost AQ a lot of cadre, who otherwise might have been sent to other countries, including perhaps the US.

* Bush administration along with the Western countries tracked/shut down some of their financing operations.
11.4.2008 4:44pm
* After what happened to Taliban govt in Afghanistan (and Saddam in Iraq) no country (govt) wants to "sponsor" the AQ operations.
11.4.2008 4:45pm
Sarcastro (www):
[It took AlQ 8 years from their last operation inside the US to plan 9-11. That's all this is.]
11.4.2008 4:48pm
Lighten up Kansas:
You still missed the point Richard. Bin Laden himself has made it clear how he wanted Bush and wants McCain to win, as they are happy to continue the Middle Eastern adventure. You guys are embarassing. And there is a lot of our democracy/bribe money going to those anti-insurgent Sunnis, make no mistake. Petraeus knows what makes a man tick; he knew that the flowers and candy would only come back to us if we gave it to the local Iraqiis ourselves instead of giving to their federal govt...
11.4.2008 4:58pm
LM (mail):

Al Queda has problems. Who doesn't?

The next target will be Paulsen for what's happened to bin Laden's 401(k).
11.4.2008 5:01pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
"By the way, why didn't German terrorists blow up the Empire State Building in 1951?"

1. For one thing the Empire State Building is very solidly built. It would be virtually impossible to "blow up" in the sense of doing anything more than localized damage.

2. The Germany community in the US was under constant scrutiny. The HUAC was originally established to investigate Nazis and their spread of propaganda. Liberals only became upset with HUAC when it began to investigate Communists.

3. US citizens were alert to Nazi sympathizers within the population and would report anything suspicious to the FBI, which would investigate. Compare and contrast to the kid gloves treatment the Muslims and other foreign elements get today. My own parents told me stories of Nazi sympathizers they would come across from time to time in New York City.

4. FDR did not hesitate to execute German infiltrators. Compare and contrast to how we deal with terrorists today. Has a single domestic terrorist been executed other than McVeigh? Perhaps he was just the wrong race and didn't get a pass.

The short answer is the US was at war for real and was extremely vigilant. Luck also played a part too.
11.4.2008 5:05pm
ed (mail) (www):

Other points:

1. What about the DC Snipers? They had admiration for Bin Laden and styled themselves as jihadists.

2. What about the failed Oklahoma Univeristy student bomber? He had ties to the local muslim community.


Is it true that AQ is having trouble? Or rather is it true that actual jihadist attacks have simply been redefined as regular criminal acts in order to persuade the public that there haven't been any terrorist attacks?
11.4.2008 5:22pm
Well, I notice he left out the eminently reasonable thesis ras and to some extent the fellow from Roma Aeterna advance, namely that the success of a loony-tunes venture like that in which AQ specializes actually depends on the backing of sensible (for some definitions of "sensible") and successful people with money, and the connivance, if not cooperation, of a nation state.

And the nation states may well be scared shitless of what, until January 20, that cowboy in the White House might do to them, and the cash mongers' networks may have been forked up by that same apparently not as ignorant as some thought about money chimp.

O' course, to mention either thesis would run the existential risk to the academic soul of saying something positive about George Bush, and then you'd need to wash your mouth out with soap and go to sensitivity training sessions or something. Flying Spaghetti Monster forbid!

Much better to advance various permutations on the thesis that No, no, none of your obvious crude explanations are possible, because, well, they're too obvious. And too crude. You obviously don't have a PhD in this stuff. It must be some fiendishly subtle plot by those fiendishly subtle psychotics in the Waziristan hill caves.
11.4.2008 6:34pm
Ben Franklin (mail):
Why do I not find it surprising that a Harvard professor would miss the most obvious reason for the lack of AQ success in mounting an attack on our homeland? We attacked them and we broke their backs when they tried to meet our challenge in Iraq. We hunted them like dogs and kept them on the run in Pakistan and Afghanistan. We showed them to be the weak horse and the Iraqi's got to see them as the butchers that they are in the process.

To put it another way, they destroyed a couple of buildings and we liberated 2 countries and 50 million people. How many times could they afford to make that trade?

This is obvious to anyone who is not burdened with an Ivy League professorship and the narrowness of thought that is its hallmark.
11.4.2008 6:52pm
D.R.M. wrote at 11.4.2008 4:33pm:
By the way, why didn't German terrorists blow up the Empire State Building in 1951?
Because they had already been upstaged by Puerto Rican nationalists' attempt to assassinate Truman in 1950?

That attack was followed up by an attack on the House of Representatives in 1954 which wounded five congressmen.
11.4.2008 7:03pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Is a good point about redefining terrorism down. Or whatever that is.
Sudden Jihadi Syndrome, such as the Trolley Square shooting, or the Jeepster Jihadi at UNC are not "terrorist" in nature and so we haven't had any terror attacks.
One FBI boss said it was the idea of the lone wolf who kept him awake nights.
But, hell, if it isn't terrorism, we don't have a problem.
11.4.2008 7:09pm
Well for one, Bin Laden is probably dead. So he's not exactly gonna be planning any attacks.
11.4.2008 7:41pm
Dr. T (mail) (www):
The most likely reason for the lack of Bin Laden activity is that we killed him in a cave/bunker in Afghanistan in 2003 or 2004. It also is likely that no one has access to Osama Bin Laden's money. No leader and no money = no activity.
11.4.2008 9:23pm
New Pseudonym:

By the way, why didn't German terrorists blow up the Empire State Building in 1951?

I guess you're buying into the story that the B-25 on November 10, 1945 was really being flown by an Army Air Forces pilot, eh?
11.4.2008 9:59pm
One more likely reason for no attacks: AQ has belatedly realized that 9/11 was counterproductive in the grand scheme of things. Compare them to, say, Islamic supremacists in Europe, whose favored strategy of staying under the radar and slowly subverting their host societies by taking advantage of demographic shifts in their favor seems to be much more effective than large-scale, high-profile attacks (which in fact defeat the purpose of staying under the radar).

If AQ and their fellow Islamic supremacists have indeed concluded that the U.S. is more vulnerable to this line of attack than to out-and-out terrorism, the lack of attacks is not necessarily a cause for relief, much less celebration.
11.4.2008 10:54pm
A. Zarkov -- By 1951, FDR had been dead for half a decade, nobody was on the lookout for Nazi saboteurs, and HUAC was worried about Communists.

If this theory that bombing people's families causes them to become terrorists is true, then there should have been a huge wave of German terrorists targeting America after the war. After all, we deliberately bombed German civilians, killing and maiming vast numbers, leaving millions of angry survivors. Cycle of violence, right?
11.4.2008 11:20pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Ref zark and the cycle. Nope. Only works against us.
11.4.2008 11:25pm
Fred (mail):
Pretty much the whole list is of activities that are being done by the Bush Administration so the man is backing into giving the credit to George W. Bush.

I predict that in 10 years time there will be a serious re-evaluation of the activities of George Bush's presidency and somewhat grudgingly the professors will begin to acknowledge his accomplishments, much like what we have seen and are beginning to see happening with the Ronald Reagan.
11.5.2008 11:26pm