We can now add Jose Pimentel to the list of homegrown U.S. terrorist wannabes. But just how real is the threat?
- By Louis Klarevas<p> Louis Klarevas is a senior Fulbright scholar in Greece. You can follow him on Twitter: @Klarevas. </p>
New York’s finest have once again disrupted a terrorist plot that, in the words of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, "would have killed a lot of people." According to authorities, al Qaeda sympathizer Jose Pimentel — a so-called "textbook terror suspect" — was about an hour away from testing his homemade pipe bombs when the NYPD swooped in last week and collared him.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-NY) seized on the arrest to highlight the importance of the upcoming congressional hearings on homegrown terrorism and to warn, "This threat is morphing and expanding." Fox News contributor Judith Miller seconded King’s concerns, noting that, even though the law won this time, the threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism is "still very real."
But just how real is the threat? In Pimentel’s case, it turns out, not threatening enough to warrant the involvement of federal officials.
Even though terrorist plots are normally the purview of the FBI, the Feds declined to take part in the arrest of Pimentel. It was in fact the second time this year that the FBI distanced itself from the NYPD’s own terrorist busts on the grounds that the alleged plots really didn’t amount to serious threats. In May, when the NYPD arrested Ahmed Ferhani and Mohamed Mamdouh for plotting to blow up a synagogue, the FBI conveyed another "thanks, but no thanks" to the NYPD. In just a few months, that case has already begun to crumble as a grand jury declined to indict the men on hate-crime and terrorism conspiracy charges that carried potential life sentences without parole, indicting them on lesser state terrorism and weapons possession charges instead.
As with the May 2011 plot, the NYPD’s characterization of the Pimentel plot also reeks of exaggeration and alarmism. A close examination of the details so far indicates that Jose Pimentel is yet another example of a growing group of idiot homegrown jihadists. Just to name a few:
- In 2002, Iyman Faris contemplated bringing down the Brooklyn Bridge by cutting its cables;
- In 2007, the Fort Dix Six took their jihad video message to Circuit City so it could be converted into a DVD;
- In 2010, Faisal Shahzad tried to bomb Times Square by using M88 fireworks to blow up propane tanks — and in the process locked the keys to his residence and getaway car inside his makeshift car bomb; and
- In 2011, Khalid Aldawsari tried to order an explosive ingredient and have it shipped to a freight company for pickup using his real name.
Now we can add Jose Pimentel to this list of boneheaded jihadist wannabes. Just how stupid was Pimentel?
Most successful terrorists operate with some degree of stealth. Pimentel was just the opposite, telegraphing his views for all to see on his now-defunct website. Pimentel’s website advocated violence against American citizens, and even provided instructions for how to build an improvised explosive device. As a result, Pimentel easily popped up on authorities’ radar screens.
Pimentel also slipped up when he chose to follow in the footsteps of Najibullah Zazi, Michael Finton, Hosam Smadi, Faisal Shahzad, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, Antonio Martinez and other like-minded homegrown wannabes who sought to bomb American targets. Of course, sophisticated explosives are nearly impossible to manufacture in the United States as the necessary precursor chemicals are not available to the general public. Indeed, outside of incidents involving pipe bombs, there has not been one successful terrorist bombing inside the United States since 9/11.
Pipe bombs, however, are the exception, as they are cheap and easy to make. Fortunately, they are also the explosive devices least likely to inflict mass casualties.
A quick perusal of YouTube will uncover dozens of clips of people detonating homemade pipe bombs. Pimentel was reportedly in the process of assembling three such devices — although we are now learning that he struggled to make his pipe bombs, ultimately relying on the help of an NYPD confidential informant to construct the devices.
The mayor’s office has released a video made by the NYPD of an automobile exploding after a device supposedly identical to Pimentel’s detonated inside the vehicle. To the lay person watching that clip, it might seem terrifying. But a more careful examination reveals that unless you are inside the car or standing right next to it, the odds of you being killed by such an explosion are pretty slim.
According to NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly, Pimentel had managed to scrape down "over 700" match heads — which usually utilize phosphorus as the active agent — to manufacture his explosive material. Leaving aside the stupidity of scratching match heads when gunpowder works just as easily, fans of the Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters might recall that the show’s hosts failed to produce an explosion when they ignited one million match heads. The idea that the scrapings from 700 match heads dispersed across three pipe bombs would kill "a lot of people" is suspect at best.
The point isn’t to give Pimentel or any other terrorist plotter a free pass because they’re incompetent. Any terrorist who seeks to attack the United States ought to be behind bars. But let’s be honest, if Pimentel really wanted to kill innocent Americans, he would have been able to murder far more with a single handgun than with several pipe bombs. Since 9/11, jihadist terrorists have managed to kill 15 Americans inside the homeland — all in shooting incidents.
That statistic warrants repeating: Despite dozens of plots, homegrown jihadists have only managed to kill 15 people in the United States since 9/11 — and 13 of those deaths were the result of one unstable soldier’s shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas. Just to put this in perspective, more Americans have been killed here at home by contaminated cantaloupe in the past few months than have been killed by violent Islamic extremists in the past decade!
If the best the al Qaeda movement can do is to inspire terrorists that are the caliber of Jose Pimentel, the threat homegrown jihadists are likely to pose will be a lot like Faisal Shahzad’s attempt to blow up Times Square: all boo, no boom.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a senior editor at The National Interest. Prior to Fletcher, he taught at the University of Chicago and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Drezner has received fellowships from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Harvard University. He has previously held positions with Civic Education Project, the RAND Corporation, and the Treasury Department.| Daniel W. Drezner |