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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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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.

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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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