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.

By , Staff writer

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    Failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad enters guilty pleas in a court appearance in New York in 2010. Mr. Shahzad pleaded guilty to 10 charges, including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and attempted terrorism transcending national borders.
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The terrorism threat facing the United States may be vastly understated, as well as inaccurately characterized, because so many “failed” terror plots are excluded from the nation’s terror attack databases, new terrorism research suggests.

Despite a sharp decline in terrorist attacks since the 1970s, there still were 207 terrorist attacks recorded inside the US in the decade after 9/11 – about 20 per year on average, according to the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) maintained at the University of Maryland, widely regarded as the nation’s most complete tally.

But what if those totals were, say, 50 percent higher? A researcher at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, Calif., recently tallied 109 failed terrorist plots between 2001 and 2012, only a few of which were included in the GTD’s national terror “attack” totals.

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Yet those failed plots are perhaps just as important in their own way as plots that became actual attacks, some terrorism researchers say. Placing failed plots alongside successful attacks would make the US terror-threat picture more complete, highlight trends in terrorist targeting and methods, and possibly reveal a different – or even bigger – threat, they say.

“One finding from my research is that the terror threat within the US is higher than most Americans realize,” says Erik Dahl, an assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, whose research has identified 227 failed domestic and international terror plots of all kinds (Islamic jihadist, right-wing extremist and others) against the US dating back to 1987 – the vast majority excluded from national “attack” tallies.

In his post-9/11 analysis, Dr. Dahl found that of the 109 failed attacks, 76 were inspired by radical Islamist beliefs. But the fact that the rest of the terror plot flops – 30 percent – were not inspired by radical Islam “might surprise some people and shows the importance of the domestic extremist threat, including right-wing militias, antigovernment groups,” Dahl says.

Understanding exactly why terror plots fizzled before they could be carried out – and how far they proceeded before being stopped – is vital if lawmakers and investigators are to accurately calibrate the scope of the threat, the law enforcement techniques that work best, and terrorist groups’ adaptation and targeting patterns, he says.

Yet at present, only successful “attacks” or attack attempts that at least make it “out the door” are included in the GTD, according to criteria on its website. Cases in which terrorists dropped their plot, or where law enforcement made arrests long before any action could be taken, are usually not included.

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.

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.”

Still, other researchers are finding surprising patterns in data that includes failed plots. Until the Boston Marathon bombing, there had been a definite downward trend in Muslim-American terrorism, according to a February study by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. But that was only visible by looking at failed plots.

Fourteen Muslim-Americans were indicted for violent terrorist plots in 2012, down from 21 the year before, the study found. That brought the total since 9/11 to 209, or just below 20 per year. The number of terror plots involving Muslim-Americans also fell from 18 in 2011 to 9 in 2012.

“The number of failed plots is always going to be higher than the number of attacks,” says Charles Kurzman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of the recent Triangle Center study. “In a huge portion of these plots, law enforcement is involved almost from the start. If we take these failed plots as a suggestion of the level of foment and desire to engage in terrorism – we still see that the number of people being arrested and number of plots foiled have decreased in the last several years.”

The overall number of Muslim-Americans involved in those failures is tiny, leading Dr. Kurzman to believe that Islamic terror organizations overseas trying to recruit and radicalize American Muslims are broadly failing – despite what happened in Boston.

Crenshaw, too, thinks there’s a gold mine of valuable data in the pile of failed plots.

“You can’t even answer the question of the extent of the threat without looking at the number of failures,” she says. “Some have made the argument that all the failures are trivial or overhyped. But you have to sit down and sort them and say – okay, these are trivial, but here are some with much more serious dimension. You can’t just dismiss all failures as unimportant.”

What they reveal, she says, are the terrorists’ targets, their depth of motivation, and their level of persistence in going after a target even if they fail once or twice. She rattles off three failed attacks by Al Qaeda-inspired operatives on airliners since 9/11.

“It’s all under the water right now – and unless we do this analysis, we won’t have an accurate picture of the threat,” she says. “You won’t have an answer to the question: How likely are these outside groups to recruit people in the US?”

For his part, Dahl agrees that the line between failed plot – and Boston Marathon bombing – can be an exceedingly fine one. If the FBI had, perhaps because of tracking past failed plot patterns – decided to investigated the elder Tsarnaev brother further, that, too, might have ended as another failed plot instead of a bombing that killed three and wounded hundreds.

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