That leaves nine cases. In two of them, the defendants had explosives but no known targets. How did we discover the explosives? Dumb luck. One guy alarmed his neighbors by shooting at bottles from his back door. When the cops showed up, they found chemicals and devices they recognized, according to an indictment, as bomb components. Another woman shot at two utility workers who ventured onto her property to turn off her water for nonpayment. A search of her home turned up 122 improvised explosive devices.
In a third case, a former chemical engineering student who was assembling explosives for a violent jihad campaign needed one final chemical, phenol, to complete his recipe. The supplier shipped it, but the freight company felt uneasy about delivering it to a home address, so they alerted police. In a fourth case—the one involving the backpack and the parade—a former Army artilleryman managed to place his bomb along the parade route. He was foiled, according to the FBI, only because “alert city workers discovered the suspicious backpack before the march started.”
In the remaining five cases, we were at the bombers’ mercy. Two of them, it turned out, were just using the bombs to extort or intimidate. They gave warnings, and their devices were intercepted or (according to an FBI statement of arrest) disarmed via controlled detonation. The other three bombs went off. One caused an unspecified “permanent bodily injury.” Another blew out the doors of a courthouse, but nobody was around to receive the shrapnel. Two other bombs, loaded with acid, blew up in the car of the intended victim, but through freakishly good timing, one went off before she arrived, and the other failed to explode until she had fled.
Together, the 20 cases tell us several sobering things. First, the Boston Marathon is just the beginning of an expanded target list. Bombers have already aimed at restaurants, bars, and malls. We can expect more plots against gathering places where security is difficult, if not impossible, to guarantee.
Second, some of the components implicated in Boston—the backpack disguise, the household shrapnel—are common practice. They make it difficult for law enforcement agencies to detect plots and recognize explosive devices before the bombs go off.
Third, bombers are constantly innovating. They want better disguises and bigger blasts. If the devices used in Boston were Iraq-style pedestrian IEDs, the next device could be an Iraq-style car bomb.
Fourth, when you look at the 20 cases, you realize that Boston is just the tip of the iceberg. What’s surprising isn’t that the marathon bombing succeeded, but that so many other plots failed. In most of these cases, the culprits didn’t tap the jihadist networks we’ve infiltrated. Some of them did stupid things that caught our attention. Others, apparently unserious, tipped us off. Others botched their work.
It’s been more than a decade since this country endured a major bombing. We’ve been lucky. In Boston, our luck ran out. Don’t be surprised if it happens again.
William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: