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April 22 2013 6:39 PM

Hapless, Disorganized, and Irrational

What the Boston bombers had in common with most would-be terrorists.

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And while the scope of the tragedy in Boston should not be minimized, it should also be noted that, if the terrorists’ aim was to kill a large number of people, their bombs failed miserably. As recent cases in Colorado and Connecticut sadly demonstrate, far more fatalities have been inflicted by gunmen.

Boston appears to be a lone-wolf attack—albeit one with two wolves—in the sense that no one besides the bombers seems to have been aware of it. Attacks in which only the perpetrator knows about the plans are obviously more difficult to avert than ones involving a great number of talkative people. (In some cases, would-be terrorists have advertised for support or collaborators on Facebook and in Internet chat rooms.) Before Boston, some 16 people had been killed by Islamist terrorists in the United States in the years since 2001 (13 of them at Ft. Hood), and all of these were murdered by people who were essentially acting alone.          

Concern about “lone wolf” attacks has grown in recent years, and a 2011 DHS assessment concluded that “lone offenders currently present the greatest threat.” This is a reasonable observation, but those concerned should keep in mind that, as Max Abrahms has noted, while lone wolves may be difficult to police, they have carried out only two of the 1,900 most deadly terrorist attacks over the last four decades. They may be harder to stop, but they are also less lethal. (It should also be kept in mind that an American’s chance of being killed by any kind of terrorist, even with 9/11 included in the count, remains about one in 3 million or 4 million per year.)

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It is still unclear what motivated the Boston bombers. We are hearing a lot about “radicalization,” a concept that is not only vague but also questionably suggests, as Arun Kundnani has pointed out, that violence is inherent or implied in Muslims who become deeply religious.

Evidence from the 52 cases strongly indicates that assuming an ideological motivation for terrorism is not useful. In almost all the cases, the overwhelming driving force was not something that could be called ideology, but rather a simmering, and more commonly boiling, outrage at U.S. foreign policy—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular, and the country’s support for Israel in the Palestinian conflict. Religion was a part of the consideration for most, but not because they wished to spread Sharia law or to establish caliphates (few of the culprits would be able to spell either word). Rather they wanted to protect their co-religionists against what was commonly seen to be a concentrated war upon them in the Middle East by the U.S. government.

Rather remarkably, none of the 52 cases after 9/11 has inspired much in the way of continued interest from the public and the media. After some days of coverage—or weeks in a very few instances—they largely faded from attention. This is impressive because some were actually rather threatening, and many were populated by colorful characters and involve interesting law-and-order issues. Books have been written about only two of the cases, and neither appears to have sold very well. Whether the Boston Marathon case will prove to be an exception—perhaps because of its venue and the manhunt—is yet to be seen, of course.

Boston might trigger some panicky and costly security measures, just as past terrorist efforts have inspired wars on shoes, liquids, and underwear at airports. In this case, the surveillance camera market is likely to experience a windfall, and we can expect a fair amount of heightened security at sporting events and a whole lot of hand-wringing about the immigration system. But, given budget difficulties, there is a distinct prospect that the new measures will be limited.

John Mueller is a political scientist at Ohio State and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security

Mark G. Stewart is a civil engineer at the University of Newcastle in Australia and a visiting fellow at Cato. He is co-author of Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security.

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