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Terrorism in America: Is US missing a chance to learn from failed plots?

Including failed terror plots in US terrorism databases would make the US terror-threat picture more complete and provide important information for law enforcement, researchers suggest.

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Some do overlap, however. The May 2010 attempted car bombing in Times Square is one such example. The GTD includes it because the attacker made it “out the door,” even though the bomb didn’t go off and was therefore a failure.

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But the GTD skips the 2002 case of Jose Padilla for which he was convicted of terrorism-related charges, the 2006 plot by five men to bomb the Sears Tower, or the “Lackawanna Six” case of six Yemeni-American men arrested in 2002, who ultimately each pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges.

Failures on Dahl’s list also include a 2010 plan to bomb the New York City subway, the plot to bomb Wrigley Field in Chicago, and a plan to attack the Long Island Rail Road.

“If we know more about what caused these plots to fail, we might be able to be far more effective in stopping future terror plots,” Dahl says.

A few other researchers are pursuing a similar path. Preliminary data show that from 1993 to 2012 there were 16 failed terror plots by jihadists in the US – instances in which the plotters dropped their plot on their own, or failed on their own – and 69 others in which the plots were foiled by law enforcement, says Martha Crenshaw, senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. She agrees with Dahl that there is a "tip of the iceberg" aspect to the uncounted failed plots.

Among the plots that were foiled from the outside, 32 percent had government agents in on the plot from the beginning; 16 percent had government agents involved after a tip; and another 25 percent involved surveillance early on, but not active intervention, she says. Of those that failed from the inside, 10 reached the implementation stage and failed to complete, six were called off by the terrorists themselves.

“We’re trying to figure out what the big picture is, because without that we don’t get a good understanding of their target, or motive,” Dr. Crenshaw says. “For instance, it might appear as though some group doesn’t attack crowds, but data from our research might find that they, in fact, do attack crowds, but just failed because they lacked funding or the bomb fizzled. Then in the database, it just looks like they never had an intention of doing that. So then we’re not expecting that kind of attack.”

Crenshaw’s fledgling work, along with Dahl’s, are both receiving support from the GTD operators, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland.

“Data on these failed plots would fill significant gaps in our understanding of the terror threat,” says Gary LaFree, director of START. “The reason we don’t get all these failures in our database is that back to 1970s we adopted the US military’s definition of an attack – which includes a kinetic element. What we miss, then, is the failed plots where there’s no kinetic reaction. But we see how important these are – and we want to get them into the database.”


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