That is how a colleague, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, characterizes the threat of terrorism. I interpret this to mean that when everyone is looking for the next strike to come from the center of the bell curve, the most devastating attack catches you by surprise at the edges.
The conventional wisdom is that we should expect, and our security services should be on guard for, an attack inspired by Al Qaeda ideology but likely originating within the U.S. utilizing explosives and/or small arms. Besides the homegrown part, how is this different from the conventional wisdom concerning terrorism in the 1990s?
The following occurred during the last twenty years: A car bomb targeted at the World Trade Center, with the intention of toppling one tower into the other (with cyanide gas as a “backup”); Sarin gas in a subway attack; simultaneous embassy bombings; an attempted sinking of a U.S. naval warship; planes flown into buildings; anthrax delivered via the mail system. All obviously recognized as major terrorist attacks, but events that did not fit easily within the bounds of the probable. I might add the Oklahoma City bombing to this list as it was perpetrated by those who did not fit neatly within the expected enemies list.
What does this have to do with today’s threat environment?
Shortly after 9/11, the conventional wisdom was that Al Qaeda would only allow an attack within the U.S. that topped their greatest success. Buttressing this argument, intelligence indicated that Al Qaeda members in Saudi Arabia had constructed a device that could be used to disperse chemicals in the New York City subway. However, the attack was reportedly canceled by Ayman al-Zawahiri because of plans for “something better.”
A threat from the edge.
Yet that was years ago. Intelligence, law enforcement, and military efforts around the world have degraded Al Qaeda’s capabilities until “the group’s capabilities to implement such a large-scale attack are currently far less formidable than they were nine years ago or indeed at any time since.” This is the judgment of Bruce Hoffman and Peter Bergen in their report “Assessing the Terrorist Threat.” Given the types of attacks attempted over the past year that seems like a perfectly reasonable conclusion, and one shared by top intelligence and law enforcement officials. It is also one that falls squarely in the center.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden seems to be pushing back (at least a little) toward the edge when he writes:
“The classic al Qaeda attack, inflicting mass casualties by hitting iconic targets, is now very difficult for them to mount.”
“But we are far short of arranging a victory celebration. Al Qaeda’s capacity to mount its traditional brand of spectacular attacks has been reduced, not eliminated.”
On one hand, Al Qaeda members are under intense pressure around the world, perhaps not able to mount spectacular attacks. On the other, how many people does it take? The group has demonstrated the ability to compartmentalize operations and work under tight budget constraints to achieve operational goals that shocked security officials. Is it safe to assume that the center is all we should be concerned about?
To mangle another analogy: I am not advocating taking our eyes off of the road, just suggesting that perhaps we should not forget to check our blind spots lest we be surprised again.