U.S. law enforcement is under incredible pressure to thwart every terrorist plot, an impossible task as made clear by the July 16 attack on a military recruiting station and a Navy Reserve center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The attack underscores the reality of the current terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland.
It shows that the most likely type of attack to occur inside the United States is one launched by a lone assailant or a small cell working under the leaderless resistance operational model. This shift to leaderless resistance first began with the white supremacist movement in the late 1980s. Animal rights, environmental activist and anarchist groups soon followed suit. Although jihadist ideologues began discussing the concept as early as 2004, it wasn't until 2009 that jihadist groups such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula began to actively promote the concept to jihadists residing in the West. The Islamic State adopted the leaderless resistance strategy in September 2014.
Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, the shooter killed by police in the Chattanooga attack, is the prototypical leaderless resistance assailant. He had no known connection or even communications with a jihadist group. He plotted and launched his attack alone and, judging from interviews with his friends and family members, gave very little indication of his impending plans. He was apparently self-radicalized and reportedly influenced in some part by the preaching of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born ideologue of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2011.
With no communications to track, no obvious connections to identified terrorist entities or personalities and no overt expression of support for jihadist groups either in person or on social media, it is no wonder that Abdulazeez did not appear on any terrorist watch lists. That is exactly how leaderless resistance is intended to work: Attackers appear seemingly out of nowhere and strike, much to the surprise of the authorities.
But this model does have its downside. The lone assailants and small clandestine cells operating under the leaderless resistance profile do not have access to the resources and advanced terrorist tradecraft that a professional terrorist operative does. Because of this, they tend to hit soft, or unprotected targets, rather than more valuable or symbolic targets.
In recent years, grassroots jihadists have begun focusing on soft military targets, that is, places where there are unarmed U.S. military personnel such as training bases, National Guard and reserve armories, recruitment offices, and military entrance processing centers. Such locations serve as symbolic military targets that can be attacked even with the limited the tactical capabilities possessed by grassroots attackers. Grassroots attackers have also attacked or attempted to attack civilian soft targets such as the Boston Marathon, Times Square, mass transit systems and malls, among other targets. The reality is that the list of potential soft targets is limited only by the grassroots operative's inclinations and imagination.
U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies were designed to protect strategic targets against known threats. Indeed, they have done an admirable job of protecting the U.S. homeland from the long-threatened and feared 9/11 follow-on attack. There have been some close calls, such as the December 2001 shoe bombing attempt and the December 2009 underwear bombing attempt, in which catastrophe was averted more by luck and tactical ineptitude (or as I prefer to think, providence) rather than by good policing. But overall, American authorities have done a good job. Indeed, their efforts to block major terrorist attacks are what have caused the jihadists to adopt leaderless resistance in the first place — a move that is an admission of weakness, not a sign of strength.
Still, leaderless resistance poses problems for authorities because it generates so much ambiguity, and government agencies simply do not deal well with ambiguity. Things become downright murky when dealing with self-radicalized terrorist operatives who have no contact or communication with a known terrorist entity and who can target nearly anything. It is a simple reality that the government cannot protect everything, all the time. And if they try, as Sun Tzu said, they will end up merely protecting nothing.
What Is Vs. What We Want to Be
And this is the point where reality and unrealistic expectations begin to clash. For the past century, the American people have been incredibly sheltered from violence. Sure, Pancho Villa conducted a raid on Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916, and there was of course Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks, but, by and large, war and political violence is something that happens elsewhere. In fact when we do suffer an incident like Columbus, Pearl Harbor or 9/11, we have a tendency to invade other countries to ensure that there will be no repeat performance.
Domestic terrorism has always been a simmering problem in the United States, but most domestic terrorist attacks have been more like Ted Kaczynski's or Daniel Andreas' San Diego pipe bombs than Timothy McVeigh's truck bomb. The United States has basically not suffered the same level of war or terrorism as most countries in the world, and American citizens have come to believe that this peace is the rule rather than the exception. This leads many Americans to the unreasonable expectation that the government must prevent all terrorist attacks. This expectation is really quite interesting given the fact that the United States has long suffered from high levels of criminal violence and that non-political mass shooting incidents are fairly common. Indeed, there have been several criminal mass shooting incidents since the Chattanooga attacks.
Part of the problem driving these expectations is the press, which frequently serves to magnify terrorism. Five dead at multiple crime scenes involving street gangs is a bad night in Chicago or Detroit, but it hardly gets notice in the national and international media. But five dead at multiple crime scenes in which a Muslim gunman is involved becomes immediate fodder for round-the-clock cable news.
Make no mistake, five people murdered is a tragedy, no matter the motive. I do not mean to trivialize the loss of life nor the burden on families. However, in the big picture, the number of people killed by plain old gang warfare in the United States dwarfs the number killed by al Qaeda or the Islamic State — even accounting for the huge number of deaths on 9/11. Yet terrorist attacks continue to generate hysteria that far outweighs their real impact — which is exactly the effect terrorists want.
This hysteria when combined with the unrealistic expectation that the government should prevent all terrorist attacks creates a great deal of pressure on political figures, and, make no mistake, the directors of the FBI and the CIA are every bit as attuned to political pressure as elected officials.
The public and the media do not really care how many plots the government prevents; they only focus on the attackers the government missed. This reality has resulted in many FBI agents steering away from counterterrorism work. It is seen as entirely too risky and not as career enhancing as other types of investigation, such as white-collar crime or bank robberies. As a result, many counterterrorism squads are understaffed. But beyond that, this fear of missing something often leads to false warnings like the highly publicized July 4 warning this year. Even in the best of times, warnings are based on incomplete intelligence; if investigators had the whole picture they would merely roll up those posing the threat. However, it is seen as much safer to cry wolf and issue a warning for a threat that never materializes than to ignore it and then be held politically accountable for it by the press, the public and the opposing party in Congress. The politics clearly go beyond ensuring accountability: Some politicians also seize upon acts of terrorism as a political tool with which to attack their opponents. This political opportunism also serves as a terror magnifier and an additional source of pressure thanks to the publicity and public outcry it creates.
There is also a danger that the political fallout over grassroots attacks will serve to pressure federal agencies to turn their attention from more significant threats. Attacks by grassroots jihadists operating under the leaderless resistance model may be the most likely threat facing the U.S. homeland, but the threat posed from professional terrorist cadres including from al Qaeda and the Islamic State is still the most serious. This is not to say that efforts should not be made to counter grassroots plotters, only that such efforts should remain secondary to efforts to counter more professional terrorists.
Americans have been largely sheltered from violence but that has changed a bit over the past generation. Terrorism is a fact of life for Americans, and it will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. It is not an existential threat, but it will be a persistent and deadly one.
The way in which Americans respond to successful attacks — with a sober, measured response or with irrational hysteria — will define whether an attack succeeds as an act of terrorist theater. If Americans adjust their expectations and understand that it is unreasonable to expect the government to prevent every attack, it would go a long way to tempering the disproportionate media responses that actually contribute to terrorist objectives. As the Provisional Irish Republican Army said in a statement released in 1984 after a sophisticated plot to assassinate then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at a hotel in Brighton, England, "Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always."
It is simply not possible for the U.S. government to stop every terrorist attack, and therefore some attacks will inevitably succeed. In light of this reality, the American people need to take a cue from their British counterparts, and "keep calm and carry on."