The next bomb in the United States

2010-05-07 00:00

FAISAL Shahzad was no Timothy McVeigh, let alone a Mohamed Atta. McVeigh, who killed 168 people in Oklahoma City in 1995 with a massive truck bomb, took the trouble to learn how to make a bomb that actually works. Atta, who piloted one of the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers on 9/11, even learnt how to fly. Shahzad, who left a vehicle rigged to explode near New York’s Times Square on Saturday night, was a bumbling amateur.

He might still have killed some people of course. “[The bomb] certainly could have exploded and had a pretty big fire and a decent amount of explosive impact,” said New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. But the casualties would have been in the dozens, at worst, and more likely only a few. Not enough, in other words, to drive Americans crazy again.

I’m choosing my words carefully here. Ever since the 9/11 attacks nine years ago, the United States media (with the eager assistance of the George W. Bush administration until the end of 2008) have worked to persuade Americans that terrorism is the country’s greatest threat. The enterprise has succeeded, and most Americans believe that terrorism poses a serious danger to their personal safety.

Nobody has been killed by terrorists in the U.S. since 9/11, but the fear is so great that just one big attack with lots of casualties would have disastrous consequences. There would be huge public pressure for the government to do something large and violent, in the delusionary belief that that is the way to defeat terrorism. That is what I mean by “driving Americans crazy”.

The main goal of terrorist attacks anywhere is to drive the victims crazy: to goad them into doing stupid, violent things that ultimately play into the hands of those who planned the attacks. Terrorism is a kind of political jiu-jitsu in which a relatively weak group attempts to trick a far stronger enemy into a self-defeating response.

The U.S. response to 9/11 was certainly self-defeating. A more intelligent strategy would have been to try to split the Taliban regime of Afghanistan, many of whose leading members were outraged by the threat of a U.S. invasion that the action of their Arab guests had brought down on their heads. A combination of threats and bribes might have persuaded the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden and his whole Al-Qaeda crew.

It was certainly worth trying first, but the political pressure on the White House to invade Afghanistan was extreme, even though those who knew anything about terrorist strategies understood that that was exactly what Bin Laden wanted the U.S. to do.

Bin Laden’s goal was to build support among Muslims for his militant ideology by convincing them that they were under attack by the infidels. The best way to do that was to sucker the infidels (i.e. the U.S.) into invading Muslim countries.

The 9/11 attacks succeeded in triggering a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan (and Bush then gave Bin Laden even more help by invading Iraq as well). As a result, Al-Qaeda has made some progress towards its ultimate goal of sparking Islamist revolutions in the Arab world and even the broader Muslim world.

Since Washington was already doing what Bin Laden wanted, he had no reason to carry out further major terrorist operations in the U.S. after 9/11, and there is no evidence that Al-Qaeda has attempted any. Faisal Shahzad’s amateurish bomb certainly did not meet that organisation’s professional standards.

But would Al-Qaeda now be interested in carrying out a big attack in the U.S., if it could manage it? Probably yes, for by the middle of next year U.S. troops will have left Iraq. There is reason to suspect that Barack Obama’s ultimate goal is to get them out of Afghanistan too.

As long as U.S. troops are occupying Muslim countries, Bin Laden’s cause prospers. If they leave, the air goes out of his balloon. He therefore now has motive for mounting a major terrorist operation on U.S. soil.

The goal would be to drive Americans crazy enough that they keep fighting the “war on terror” on Arab and Afghan soil. The last thing Al-Qaeda wants is for the infidels to go home.


• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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