This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Terrorism and competence don’t always coincide, thank goodness.
Whoever was behind it, the attempted car bombing in New York’s Times Square last weekend was clearly an act of terror. A deadly explosion in the middle of Manhattan would have created considerable anxiety in the nation’s leading city. The FBI is now investigating the possible involvement of international terrorism.
Fortunately, it was the work of a first-class bungler. The black SUV parked amid the crowds of Times Square held three patio grill-sized tanks of propane, two jugs of gasoline, firecrackers and 100 pounds of fertilizer.
This was more Three Stooges than Hollywood thriller. The fertilizer was not the kind that blows up. The propane might have been serious business, but the perpetrator bungled the detonation.
It’s somewhat reminiscent of the attempted Christmas bombing of a Detroit-bound jet, in which the would-be terrorist tried to set off an explosive hidden in his pants and wound up only setting his legs on fire.
And that was reminiscent of “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid’s failed attempt in 2001 to trigger explosives in his boots after he’d apparently deactivated them with his sweaty feet. Any explosion on an aircraft could easily kill everyone on board, but you’ve first got to get the bomb to go off.
It increasingly looks as if meticulously planned and flawlessly executed monstrosities like the 9/11 and London subway bombings will be rare in the war against terror. The United States is more likely to see lots of small-time attacks carried out by “lone wolves” and tiny groups with minimal connections to international organizations.
“Lots” is no overstatement. Last year, federal prosecutors charged 54 defendants with terror-related charges, the largest number of cases since 2001. Most didn’t create a stir because the would-be perpetrators got nabbed well before they could mount an attack.
This seems to be the face of terror a decade after 2001. Violent enemies of the United States and other Western democracies would probably commit a mass slaughter every week if they could manage it, but U.S. and allied counter-terror organizations appear to be interrupting the really big plots (knock on wood).
Al-Qaida’s own spokesman, Adam Gadahn, seemed to acknowledge as much last month when he praised “apparently unsuccessful attacks.”
But even lone-wolf terrorists can be devastating when they succeed. A chilling example is Nidal Malik Hasan, whose rampage at Fort Hood last November left 13 dead and 30 wounded.
The fact that terrorists haven’t been able to pull off an encore to the 9/11 attack doesn’t justify a false sense of security. They’re still out there, and they’re still deadly dangerous.