TERRORISTS: WHAT'S THE...

TERRORISTS: WHAT'S THE DEAL? I agree with Mike -- if I were a terrorism consultant or what have you, I'd tell my loyal jihadis to forget all about New York. To forget about monuments, for that matter. Probably even to forget about bombs. I would just try and organize as many attacks as possible, no matter how unspectacular, and put them in random shopping malls and movie theaters and so forth in ordinary suburbs around the country. That would be a lot more terrifying than the occasional strike in a big city.

Nevertheless, whether or not we're right in thinking this would be a better method, it's worth being clear that would-be Islamist terrorists don't seem to think along these lines. Plots against targets in the West, whether successful or foiled, have all been directed at either symbolic targets -- the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the United Nations -- or against big city transportation infrastructure -- trains in London and Madrid, LAX airport, various bridges and tunnels. With years of post-9/11 perspective, I think the main thing you can conclude is that the actual number of people prepared to carry out these attacks is very, very, very small, wildly inadequate to mount the sort of constant stream of random violence that was inflicted on Israel at the height of Palestinian terrorism. Under those circumstances, the preference for the dramatic over assaulting the banal aspects of American life is understandable.

It's worth recalling the point Michael Scheuer makes in his book that al-Qaeda just doesn't conduct that much anti-western terrorism. The overwhelming majority of the people who've had some connection with the jihad movement got small arms training and involved themselves in low-intensity warfare in Kashmir, Chechnya, Afghanistan, the Balkans, and now Iraq. Attacks on the "far enemy" are meant to be relatively rare, high-impact, and spectacular. Under the circumstances, a heavy emphasis on America's big cities and public transportation seems warranted. It's worth recalling that absent a nuclear bomb it's hard to see how any terrorist attack, no matter deadly, could really seriously threaten the United States per se. An awful lot of people died on 9/11 and some extremely large buildings were destroyed, but obviously not only is the USA still chugging along more-or-less adequately, so is New York City itself. But at least one thing achievable with conventional weapons that we know has been contemplated is trying to simultaneously destroy the three bridges and tunnels across the Hudson River. One could really imagine that crippling the entire metropolitan area, and only a handful of places -- the Bay Area, maybe someplace else -- are vulnerable in that kind of way.

--Matthew Yglesias

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