To some extent, one’s answer to that question (like much else) is shaped by where one sits – politically, geographically, and occupationally. This analysis attempts to look across the globe soberly and assess where things stand for Islamist terrorists and their targets.
Modes of Counter-Terror Success
It is impossible to ignore the relative dearth of successful Islamist terror attacks on Western targets. The last major attacks in the West were the London subway bombings in July 2005. This has not been for lack of trying. Western intelligence agencies deserve full credit for building the capabilities to monitor, infiltrate, and disrupt major plots.
A fascinating article from National Journal’s James Kitfield about a disrupted plot in Spain in 2008 gives tremendous insight into the difficulties faced by Islamist terrorists seeking to attack the West. The attack was modeled on the Madrid 2004 bombings. There were many operational differences, but the strategy was the same. Just as the March 11 bombings contributed to Spain’s leaving Iraq, this plot hoped to pressure Spain out of Afghanistan. However, European and US intelligence services were on top of the plot and successfully infiltrated the cell.
Counter-terrorism is the practical application of Murphy’s Law. Murphy states that if something can go wrong it will go wrong. Counter-terrorism is making sure things go wrong. Successful terror attacks require real skills at surveillance, security, and usually explosives manufacture. None of these skills are easy to acquire. Most successful attacks have involved someone with real training, usually acquired in Pakistan. By monitoring movements to and from Pakistan (and other areas that could be training centers) and extensive sharing between national intelligence agencies suspect activity can be identified and monitored. A replay of 9/11 in which nearly 19 people were moved around the world is almost inconceivable without attracting enormous attention from the intelligence community.
It is easier to move a specialist or so to a situation and then recruit muscle locally: easier, but not easy. At the same time, local recruits can be problematic. They are often less diligent about operational security and have connections in local communities that can be exploited by security services.
The other option is the local self-starter cell. These cells have had a notoriously bad record of achievement. In the United States self-starter cells have been rolled up by informants in New York, LA, Miami, and New Jersey. In Europe, at least a few have attempted to launch operations but (like the German suitcase bombs of 2006) were stymied by technical difficulties.
Finally there are the “lone wolves,” self-starters operating on their own or in very small groups – perhaps spontaneously so that security agencies have no opportunity to get a read on them. First, there have been relatively few of these plots. The most deadly was the DC sniper. The fascinating question on this operation is that if it was successful at spreading terror and easy to carryout: why hasn’t it been imitated?
The short hypothesis is that without either indoctrination or mental illness it may not be so easy for individuals to kill people. The more spontaneous “lone wolves” on the other hand, while difficult to detect and prevent, are also very limited as national security threats. When visiting the National Counterterrorism Center, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote "My doomsday scenario, aside from weapons of mass destruction, is personalized jihad," explained one analyst. "Everyone gets to do it on their own. Anyone can take a knife and stab someone in the back."
This concern must be kept in perspective. The United States suffers approximately 14,000 homicides per year. Each one is a tragedy, but that does not mean that each rises to the level of national security concern. Insurgency experts note that when local police can address the problem, an insurgency is at least contained and usually defeated.
The Easy Part & Some Caveats
Preventing deadly terror attacks in the West is, in effect, the easy part of the equation. Two important caveats to this statement are necessary. First, comparatively easy is the operative term. Our safety relies on the tremendous efforts of intelligence and security professionals. We should be profoundly grateful for their efforts. They are fighting an adaptive, cynical adversary where even small mistakes in judgment can lead to tragedy. MI-5 had the 7/7 bombers under surveillance but elected not to monitor them. Resources are not infinite. This leads to the second caveat. Murphy’s Law applies both ways. At some point, terrorists will evade detection or develop an easier means of mass murder. This may be due to their adaptability – it could also be an accident. For whatever reason, a plot in formation fails to trip the appropriate alarms or a minor attack (such as a relatively small bomb) inadvertently triggers cascading reactions that lead to a major tragedy. A final caveat is that the focus is on Islamist terror. Other major terrorist groups, such as radical leftists in Europe and eco-terrorists and domestic rightwing terrorists in the US are also under surveillance. But there is always the possibility of “X-factor” terrorism motivated by rationales so arcane that they are simply not on the radar screen beforehand. Aum Shinrikyo in Japan and the anthrax attacks in the US were in that mold.
The Hard Part
Having written that preventing terror attacks on Western soil is the easy part of the equation, and then qualified this by expressing how difficult that task is raises the question: what then is the “hard part.”
Geopolitics. Islamist terrorists may not be able to pull off another 9/11 or 7/7 – but they can really mess up Pakistan – which could have international cascading effects that could effect – at a minimum - tens of millions. Pakistan may be at the top of the list but there are many lawless regions in which Islamist can fill the void and use their haven to destabilize neighboring areas or attempt to launch further attacks on the West. Somalia and substantial parts of Yemen are obvious examples. There are also many teetering states where Islamists could tip the balance – Egypt, Nigeria, and Bangladesh come to mind.
Sending troops to all of these hotspots is both unfeasible and would probably only make things worse. Developing the levers to maintain stability and ameliorate some of the underlying conditions that create the instability is a tall order. That is the hard part.