Norway’s Oklahoma City?

The real question is: Why are big terrorist attacks so rare?


As the horrors of the bombing and shooting spree in Norway become clearer, Americans are both expressing their sympathy and asking whether it could happen here. As of writing, it’s still unclear whether these gruesome attacks are the act of a lone domestic gunman, an international terrorist network, or some odd, imagined combination of both. This may yet turn out to be Norway’s 9/11 or its Oklahoma City. But the scene of destruction in downtown Oslo does beg the question: why haven’t there been more large-scale terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland?

Yes, the United States remains vulnerable to violence, whether terrorist or not. School shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech and the deaths that surrounded the attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords are painful reminders of how easy it is for angry or deluded individuals to pick up a gun and kill large numbers of people. Indeed, with this reminder, the relative safety of the U.S. homeland from terrorists since 9/11 becomes all the more remarkable.

Let’s remember, of course, that there have been some "successful" attacks and a few near-misses. Army Major Nidal Malik Hassan, who allegedly shot 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009, appears to have been inspired by a jihadist agenda. Richard Reid and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the shoebomber and underwear bomber respectively, both came terrifyingly close to downing airplanes and killing hundreds of Americans. Also in 2009, Najibullah Zazi was arrested for planning suicide bombings of the New York subway system after being trained by al Qaeda in Pakistan. So without a little bad luck by terrorists, the courage of passengers on two airplanes, and the vigilance of U.S. security officials, the body count in the United States could be far worse.

Yet it is more than this mix of serendipity and skill that has, so far, spared us from the horrors that engulfed Oslo.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the FBI, and local police are far more vigilant in going after terrorism than was the U.S. government in the pre-9/11 era. Of course, there was no DHS before 9/11 — its very creation underlines how terrorism became an important policy priority. These agencies, especially DHS, have a long ways to go, but simply by paying attention to suspect individuals coming into the country and trying to operate on U.S. soil they have been able to pick up many would-be terrorists who might have otherwise gone undetected. FBI surveillance and sting operations against suspects have also prevented plots from coming close to fruition. In fact, terrorists often now think the FBI and DHS are more capable than they are, making them more cautious about targeting America. Hence all the talk today of Norway being a "soft target" by comparison.

Immigration and assimilation is also a factor. In contrast to many European countries, the United States does not have large numbers of angry and alienated Muslim citizens. American Muslims, on average, are well-educated and comfortably middle class. Many of the tips the FBI and police have received on suspected terrorists have come from within this community.

Perhaps most important, the al Qaeda core has been hit, and hit hard. The death of Osama bin Laden is the most dramatic blow, but the unceasing drone campaign in tribal parts of Pakistan and a global campaign of arrests has made it far harder for the central organization to coordinate operations, conduct wide-scale training, and otherwise orchestrate sophisticated attacks. So doing a 9/11-like operation, which took years to plan and required infiltrating America with 19 operatives, is far harder. Inserting sleeper agents is even harder, as al Qaeda must worry that a key planner or recruiter would be captured, jeopardizing the entire operation.

The scary news is that there are bad trends as well as good ones. Before Zazi, there were few indications that terrorists in the United States had been trained and directed by the al Qaeda core: they were mostly seen as unskilled losers with dreams of martyrdom. Now there is a well-founded fear that al Qaeda has planted operatives elsewhere in the United States.

In addition, parts of the Somali-American community have radicalized, with some members going to Somalia to join al Shabaab, which has growing links to the al Qaeda core. Somali-Americans are often poor and alienated, more akin to a frustrated European Muslims than their fellow, more prosperous, coreligionists from other backgrounds. Some of these members who have traveled to Somalia have fought there and even become suicide bombers. They have not, however, come back to strike the United States. But as citizens who know this country well, they could be lethal if they chose such a path. So the United States cannot claim that it has completely escaped the problems Europe has with its disaffected Muslim communities, though the problem is still far from that of countries like France and the United Kingdom.

As Norway digs out from the wreckage, Americans should offer what assistance we can, be thankful for our own good luck, and appreciative of the hard work of government officials in keeping them safe. At the same time, however, we must recognize that another terrorist attack on the United States could occur at any time. And in so doing, we must recognize a vital national strength: resilience. The United States survived the 9/11 attacks, and Americans even came together after the violence. We can survive other terrorist strikes too, and U.S. leaders must recognize this strength even as they try to learn lessons from the Oslo attacks to better guard our country.

Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of the new book Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad. Twitter: @dbyman

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