On Dec. 15, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sent a joint bulletin to state and local law enforcement agencies expressing their concern that terrorists may attack a large public gathering in a major U.S. metropolitan area during the 2010 holiday season. That concern was echoed by contacts at the FBI and elsewhere who told STRATFOR they were almost certain there was going to be a terrorist attack launched against the United States over Christmas.
Certainly, attacks during the December holiday season are not unusual. There is a history of such attacks, from the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 on Dec. 21, 1988, and the thwarted millennium attacks in December 1999 and January 2000 to the post-9/11 airliner attacks by shoe bomber Richard Reid on Dec. 22, 2001, and by underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Dec. 25, 2009. Some of these plots have even stemmed from the grassroots. In December 2006, Derrick Shareef was arrested while planning an attack he hoped to launch against an Illinois shopping mall on Dec. 22.
Mass gatherings in large metropolitan areas have also been repeatedly targeted by jihadist groups and lone wolves. In addition to past attacks and plots directed against the subway systems in major cities such as Madrid, London, New York and Washington, 2010 saw failed attacks against the crowds in New York’s Times Square on May 1 and in Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland, Ore., on Nov. 26.
With this history, it is understandable that the FBI and the DHS would be concerned about such an attack this year and issue a warning to local and state law enforcement agencies in the United States. This American warning also comes on the heels of similar alerts in Europe, warnings punctuated by the Dec. 11 suicide attack in Stockholm.
So far, the 2010 holiday season has been free from terrorist attacks, but as evidenced by all the warnings and concern, this season has not been free from the fear of such attacks, the psychological impact known as “terror.” In light of these recent developments, it seems appropriate to discuss the closely related phenomena of terrorism and terror.
Propaganda of the Deed
Nineteenth-century anarchists promoted what they called the “propaganda of the deed,” that is, the use of violence as a symbolic action to make a larger point, such as inspiring the masses to undertake revolutionary action. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, modern terrorist organizations began to conduct operations designed to serve as terrorist theater, an undertaking greatly aided by the advent and spread of broadcast media. Examples of attacks designed to grab international media attention are the September 1972 kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics and the December 1975 raid on OPEC headquarters in Vienna. Aircraft hijackings followed suit, changing from relatively brief endeavors to long, drawn-out and dramatic media events often spanning multiple continents.
Today, the proliferation of 24-hour television news networks and the Internet have allowed the media to broadcast such attacks live and in their entirety. This development allowed vast numbers of people to watch live as the World Trade Center towers collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, and as teams of gunmen ran amok in Mumbai in November 2008.
This exposure not only allows people to be informed about unfolding events, it also permits them to become secondary victims of the violence they have watched unfold before them. As the word indicates, the intent of “terrorism” is to create terror in a targeted audience, and the media allow that audience to become far larger than just those in the immediate vicinity of a terrorist attack. I am not a psychologist, but even I can understand that on 9/11, watching the second aircraft strike the South Tower, seeing people leap to their deaths from the windows of the World Trade Center Towers in order to escape the ensuing fire and then watching the towers collapse live on television had a profound impact on many people. A large portion of the United State was, in effect, victimized, as were a large number of people living abroad, judging from the statements of foreign citizens and leaders in the wake of 9/11 that “We are all Americans.”
During that time, people across the globe became fearful, and almost everyone was certain that spectacular attacks beyond those involving the four aircraft hijacked that morning were inevitable — clearly, many people were shaken to their core by the attacks. A similar, though smaller, impact was seen in the wake of the Mumbai attacks. People across India were fearful of being attacked by teams of Lashkar-e-Taiba gunmen, and concern spread around the world about Mumbai-style terrorism. Indeed, this concern was so great that we felt compelled to write an analysis emphasizing that the tactics employed in Mumbai were not new and that, while such operations could kill people, the approach would be less successful in the United States and Europe than it was in Mumbai.
These theatrical attacks have a strange hold over the human imagination and can create a unique sense of terror that dwarfs the normal reaction to natural disasters that are many times greater in magnitude. For example, in the 2004 Asian tsunami, more than 227,000 people died, while fewer than 3,000 people died on 9/11. Yet the 9/11 attacks produced not only a sense of terror but also a geopolitical reaction that has exerted a profound and unparalleled impact upon world events over the past decade. Terrorism clearly can have a powerful impact on the human psyche — so much so that even the threat of a potential attack can cause fear and apprehension, as seen by the reaction to the recent spate of warnings about attacks occurring over the holidays.
As noted above, the media serve as a magnifier of this anxiety and terror. Television news, whether broadcast on the airwaves or over the Internet, allows people to remotely and vicariously experience a terrorist event, and this is reinforced by the print media. While part of this magnification is due merely to the nature of television as a medium and the 24-hour news cycle, bad reporting and misunderstanding can also help build hype and terror. For example, when Mexican drug cartels began placing small explosive devices in vehicles in Ciudad Juarez and Ciudad Victoria this past year, the media hysterically reported that the cartels were using car bombs. Clearly, the journalists failed to appreciate the significant tactical and operational differences between a small bomb placed in a car and the far larger and more deadly vehicle-borne explosive device.
The traditional news media are not alone in the role of terror magnifier. The Internet has also become an increasingly effective conduit for panic and alarm. From breathless (and false) claims in 2005 that al Qaeda had pre-positioned nuclear weapons in the United States and was preparing to attack nine U.S. cities and kill 4 million Americans in an operation called “American Hiroshima” to claims in 2010 that Mexican drug cartels were still smuggling nuclear weapons for Osama bin Laden, a great deal of fearmongering can spread over the Internet. Website operators who earn advertising revenue based on the number of unique visitors who read the stories featured on their sites have an obvious financial incentive for publishing outlandish and startling terrorism claims. The Internet also has produced a wide array of other startling revelations, including the oft-recycled e-mail chain stating that an Israeli counterterrorism expert has predicted al Qaeda will attack six, seven or eight U.S. cities simultaneously “within the next 90 days.” This e-mail was first circulated in 2005 and has been periodically re-circulated over the past five years. Although it is an old, false prediction, it still creates fear every time it is circulated.
Sometimes a government can act as a terror magnifier. Whether it is the American DHS raising the threat level to red or the head of the French internal intelligence service stating that the threat of terrorism in that country has never been higher, such warnings can produce widespread public concern. As we’ve noted elsewhere, there are a number of reasons for such warnings, from trying to pre-empt a terrorist attack when there is incomplete intelligence to a genuine concern for the safety of citizens in the face of a known threat to less altruistic motives such as political gain or bureaucratic maneuvering (when an agency wants to protect itself from blame in case there is an attack). As seen by the public reaction to the many warnings in the wake of 9/11, including recommendations that citizens purchase plastic sheeting and duct tape to protect themselves from chemical and biological attack, such warnings can produce immediate panic, although, over time, as threats and warnings prove to be unfounded, this panic can turn into threat fatigue.
Those seeking to terrorize can and do use these magnifiers to produce terror without having to go to the trouble of conducting attacks. The empty threats made by bin Laden and his inner circle that they were preparing an attack larger than 9/11 — threats propagated by the Internet, picked up by the media and then reacted to by governments — are prime historical examples of this.
In recent weeks, we saw a case where panic was caused by a similar confluence of events. In October, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) issued the second edition of Inspire, its English-language magazine. As we discussed in our analysis of the magazine, its Open Source Jihad section pointed out a number of ways that attacks could be conducted by grassroots jihadists living in the West. In addition to the suggestion that an attacker could weld butcher knives onto the bumper of a pickup truck and drive it through a crowd, or use a gun as attackers did in Little Rock and at Fort Hood, another method briefly mentioned was that grassroots operatives could use ricin or cyanide in attacks. In response, the DHS decided to investigate further and even went to the trouble of briefing corporate security officers from the hotel and restaurant industries on the potential threat. CBS news picked up the story and ran an exclusive report compete with a scary poison logo superimposed over photos of a hotel, a dinner buffet and an American flag. The report made no mention of the fact that the AQAP article paid far less attention to the ricin and cyanide suggestion than it did to what it called the “ultimate mowing machine,” the pickup with butcher knives, or even the more practical — and far more likely — armed assault.
This was a prime example of terror magnifiers working with AQAP to produce fear.
Groups such as al Qaeda clearly recognize the difference between terrorist attacks and terror. This is seen not only in the use of empty threats to sow terror but also in the way terrorist groups claim success for failed attacks. For example, AQAP declared the failed Christmas Day 2009 “underwear” bombing to be a success due to the effect it had on the air-transportation system. In a special edition of Inspire magazine published in November following the failed attack against cargo aircraft, AQAP trumpeted the operation as a success, citing the fear, disruption and expense that resulted. AQAP claimed the cargo bomb plot and the Christmas Day plot were part of what it called “Operation Hemorrhage,” an effort to cause economic damage and fear and not necessarily kill large numbers of people.
As we’ve noted before, practitioners of terrorism lose a great deal of their ability to create terror if the people they are trying to terrorize adopt the proper mindset. A critical part of this mindset is placing terrorism in perspective. Terrorist attacks are going to continue to happen because there are a wide variety of militant groups and individuals who seek to use violence as a means of influencing a government — either their own or someone else’s.
There have been several waves of terrorism over the past century, but it has been a fairly constant phenomenon, especially over the past few decades. While the flavors of terror may vary from Marxist and nationalist strains to Shiite Islamist to jihadist, it is certain that even if al Qaeda and its jihadist spawn were somehow magically eradicated tomorrow, the problem of terrorism would persist.
Terrorist attacks are also relatively easy to conduct, especially if the assailant is not concerned about escaping after the attack. As AQAP has noted in its Inspire magazine, a determined person can conduct attacks using a variety of simple weapons, from a pickup to a knife, axe or gun. And while the authorities in the United States and elsewhere have been quite successful in foiling attacks over the past couple of years, there are a large number of vulnerable targets in the open societies of the West, and Western governments simply do not have the resources to protect everything — not even authoritarian police states can protect everything. This all means that some terrorist attacks will invariably succeed.
How the media, governments and populations respond to those successful strikes will shape the way that the attackers gauge their success. Obviously, the 9/11 attacks, which caused the United States to invade Afghanistan (and arguably Iraq) were far more successful than bin Laden and company could ever have hoped. The London bombings on July 7, 2005, where the British went back to work as usual the next day, were seen as less successful.
In the final analysis, the world is a dangerous place. Everyone is going to die, and some people are certain to die in a manner that is brutal or painful. In 2001, more than 42,000 people died from car crashes in the United States and hundreds of thousands of Americans died from heart disease and cancer. The 9/11 attacks were the bloodiest terrorist attacks in world history, and yet even those historic attacks resulted in the deaths of fewer than 3,000 people, a number that pales in comparison to deaths by other causes. This is in no way meant to trivialize those who died on 9/11, or the loss their families suffered, but merely to point out that lots of people die every day and that their families are affected, too.
If the public will take a cue from groups like AQAP, it too can separate terrorism from terror. Recognizing that terrorist attacks, like car crashes and cancer and natural disasters, are a part of the human condition permits individuals and families to practice situational awareness and take prudent measures to prepare for such contingencies without becoming vicarious victims. This separation will help deny the practitioners of terrorism and terror the ability to magnify their reach and power.