Foreign and Defense Policy, Terrorism

Why Haven’t There Been more Car Bombings?

It is still unclear who is responsible for the attempted car bombing in Times Square, but the attack raises an interesting question: Why has al Qaeda failed to carry out scores of car bombings, assassinations, and other smaller-scale attacks in the United States in the years since 9/11?

Such attacks are highly effective in terrorizing large populations. We saw a few years ago how a man and a teenage boy terrorized the entire Washington area with a series of sniper attacks. It would be easy for al Qaeda to carry out similar attacks in Washington, New York, and other cities in the United States—assassinating political leaders, or setting off IEDs and car bombs in major metropolitan areas. Yet thus far al Qaeda not taken this route. Why?

One possible explanation is that the severity of the 9/11 attacks has worked in our favor. In striking the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, al Qaeda set an extremely high bar for itself. If it were now to begin launching small-scale attacks, it would be seen in the jihadist world as a sign of weakness—a concession that they could not pull off spectacular attacks on the scale of 9/11. In this sense, resorting to car bombs could do more damage to al Qaeda’s reputation than the attacks themselves would do to America.

This is likely why most of the foiled attacks in recent years—from the 2006 plot to blow up seven passenger planes over the Atlantic to the 2009 Christmas Day attack (which could have killed thousands if the plane crashed into downtown Detroit, as planned)—that are believed to have been ordered by al Qaeda leadership have been spectacular in nature.

At the same time, al Qaeda’s failure to strike America after almost nine years creates pressure on the terrorists to act. The lack of another catastrophic attack on the United States sends a message to the Muslim world that al Qaeda is losing its war with America. The terrorists need to pull off something spectacular to prove that they are still a force and a threat. If al Qaeda is not behind the Times Square attempt, this should not lull us into complacency. Just four months ago they attempted an attack that could have killed thousands. And al Qaeda’s growing desperation to strike America means that, whatever the terrorists are now planning, it could very well be on a scale to equal, or even dwarf, the attacks of 9/11.

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