USA Today August 8, 2005

Why Suicide Attackers Haven't Hit U.S. Again May be luck, experts say — or al-Qaeda biding its time

By Rick Hampson, USA Today

NEW YORK — After the bombings in London and Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, the question that rivets America is one that has no sure answer: Why haven't Muslim militants executed another suicide terror attack on the U.S. home front?

If suicide bombers can strike daily in the Middle East and hit the capitals of Europe, why does 9/11 remain a spectacular exception?

There are theories about why the United States still hasn't had a homegrown attack like the ones last month in London. Suicide bombing isn't that easy. The USA isn't that vulnerable. American Muslims aren't that militant. Foreign terrorists aren't focused, not yet, on a domestic strike.

Over the past four years, Jeremiahs as varied as Dick Cheney and Osama bin Laden have said another attack is inevitable. It could come at any time, and it could come from within; homegrown suicide terrorists are notoriously difficult to identify before they strike.

Robert Pape, a University of Chicago political scientist who has studied suicide terrorists, says most are “walk-in volunteers who decide to do it only months beforehand. They're not long-term criminals you can track..” He cites the July 7 London bombers: wage earners, family men, cricket fans and, apparently, suicides.

Contrary to popular stereotype, most are not poor, ill-educated, disturbed or disconnected. Suicide terrorists are men and women, young and old, rich and poor, educated and ignorant. If anything, they tend to be relatively well off and, to outward appearances, well adjusted. Mohamed Atta, ringleader in the Sept. 11 attacks, was a college graduate and the son of a lawyer..

“There is no accurate criminal profile for them. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to get on TV,” says Mia Bloom, author of Dying to Kill, a study of suicide terror. “And if we had a profile, the terrorists would learn about it and use it against us.”

The other explanations — not all reassuring and not all compatible — for why there's been no repeat of Sept. 11 include the following:

*Suicide terror takes a team. Such attacks in the Middle East usually are executed by a group that recruits the bomber, gets the explosives, builds the bomb, surveys the target and gets the bomber there undetected. Sometimes there's even a video crew.

But the USA lacks such a “suicide terrorist infrastructure,'' says Bloom, a University of Cincinnati political scientist. There's no cottage industry in “suicide belts,” as in the West Bank, where such a package of wearable explosives goes for less than $200.

To the contrary, police in the New York City area visit chemical and demolition suppliers to ask about large purchases of explosives by new customers. Home Depot stores automatically tell authorities about any sale of more than 500 pounds of fertilizer, which can be used to make bombs.

*U.S. Muslims want the American dream, not jihad. The United States has assimilated immigrant Muslims more successfully than Western Europe, where there is a higher proportion of poor, alienated Muslims, according to Ahmed Bedier of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. American Muslims seem to have more of a stake in keeping peace.

“No one wants to attack their own people,” Bedier says. “Muslims here see themselves as Americans more than Muslims in France see themselves as French.”

Last week a council of leading American Muslim scholars issued an edict condemning those who commit terrorism in the name of Islam as “criminals, not ‘martyrs.' ”

Bloom, who has worked with the New Jersey Office of Counter-Terrorism, says the state's Arab and Muslim communities are “hotbeds of dissent. But they're not taking it to the next level. When a rabble-rouser comes to a mosque, he's met with a great deal of resistance. People in that community say (to the authorities), ‘Please come get this person.' ”

Example: Last August, police charged two Muslims — one the American son of an Egyptian man, the other an illegal immigrant from Pakistan — with conspiring to bomb the Herald Square subway station. The suspects came to the attention of the New York police intelligence unit through tips from Brooklyn's Islamic community.

Bedier says an experience last month left him modestly optimistic about relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.

He stopped his car outside a house in Pinellas Park, Fla., that had a toilet in the front yard and a sign: “Koran flushing, 1 p.m.”

Bedier, 31, a native of Egypt, asked the homeowner, Mike Allen, what he was trying to say. Allen invited him inside, where he complained that Muslim Americans were not condemning terrorism. Bedier went to his car, got his laptop, and showed Allen what his own group had done. After a long talk, they parted amicably. “He realized we have the same issue,” Bedier says. “We're both against terrorism.” Allen told the St. Petersburg Times that he had taken down the display because Bedier was “so nice.”

Tom Ridge, the former Homeland Security secretary, points out, however, that it might not take a team: “You don't need too many committed to martyrdom to wreak havoc.”

*The U.S. homeland is better protected. America has become a land scoured, probed, patrolled and fenced by a web of informers, computers, guards, spies, tape recorders, detectors, sensors, Jersey barriers, concrete planters and bomb-sniffing dogs. It may have nipped some plots in the bud and deterred others. “We look differently as a country now to the terrorists,” Ridge says. “We have created security measures unlike the terrorists have seen before, and we continue to upgrade them.”

In New York City, for instance, the police department has increased its counterterrorism squad from a few dozen officers to about a thousand. People who run parking garages, marinas and hunting stores routinely report anything unusual. Arabic, Pashto and Urdu-speakers, working with law enforcement authorities, monitor online chat and chatter on the airwaves.

“I don't want to give a sense of false security,” says Pape, author of a new book on suicide terrorism, Dying to Win, “but right now we're doing pretty well.”

*Al-Qaeda Central is dead. Since 9/11, the world's most notorious terrorist organization has lost its headquarters and training centers in Afghanistan. Most of its leaders are dead, in prison or on the run. Time and energy once devoted to elaborate terror attacks are spent staying alive and at large.

Al-Qaeda has become less of an organization and more of a movement, Pape says. Sometimes there's coordination among leaders, or among leaders and followers. Sometimes things percolate from the bottom up.

“The old centralized al-Qaeda is gone,” agrees Bloom. “It's become more like a franchise operation.”

But terrorists don't always need directions from the home office. Last week a screen at a news media briefing at New York City police headquarters bore a list of lessons learned from the London bombings. No. 1: “This Can Happen Here.” As Commissioner Ray Kelly put it, “The recipe to make a bomb, unfortunately, is as available on the Internet as a recipe for meat loaf.”

*Bin Laden is patiently planning another blockbuster. The man who brought down the World Trade Center likes to bide his time. If this is a struggle of centuries, as bin Laden has argued, what are four years? Eight years elapsed between attacks on the Trade Center. Ridge says that could explain why al-Qaeda hasn't struck again — “they're just not ready.”

“That they would attack again soon after 9/11 was our expectation, not their expectation,” Bloom adds. “If they wanted to send a guy into Wal-Mart with an AK-47, they could have a long time ago. But usually they wait until they can do something shocking, maybe three or four simultaneous attacks. You need time to do that.”

Intelligence gathered after the invasion of Afghanistan stoked the U.S. government's fear of smaller suicide attacks on “soft” domestic targets such as shopping malls. By late 2003, however, information indicated a new focus on one spectacular plot.

The detonation of a radioactive or “dirty” bomb in a suitcase in Times Square would panic the entire metro area. In minutes, the years of seeming immunity would be forgotten.

*Muslim terrorists are focused on U.S. allies in Europe and U.S. troops in Iraq. In 2002-03, Australians and Europeans whose nations had troops in Afghanistan or Iraq became al-Qaeda's most frequent suicide attack targets. This was before the Madrid train bombings last year, and the attacks on the London transit system and the Egyptian resort last month.

Pape, who has charted the hundreds of suicide bombings worldwide since 1980, says al-Qaeda even put its current strategy in writing. In 2003, a Norwegian intelligence agency discovered what appeared to be an al-Qaeda planning document on a radical Islamic website. It said direct attacks on America would be insufficient to compel U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and recommended attacks on its European allies to get them to withdraw their forces — thereby increasing the burden on the United States. Specifically mentioned: Britain and Spain.

The other focus of suicide terrorism is Iraq. From a would-be martyr's perspective, what's better than killing a “crusader”?

The Iraq war, Pape argues, inflames al-Qaeda's real dispute with the West — the presence of “infidel” troops in Arabia. It's also an effective way to tie down the United States in an unpopular war — a view bin Laden himself expressed in a videotape released before the 2004 election.

Bin Laden's strategy effectively dovetails with the Bush administration's, which is to take the war on terrorism to the enemy by fighting over there instead of back here. Most suicide bombers in Iraq are not Iraqis, Pape says, suggesting that the war may be sucking up the supply of international suicide bombers.

But Pape and Bloom say that by inflaming Muslim sensibilities, the war will only create more suicide bombers. The war, Bloom says, is “less a flame drawing the moths than a chrysalis in which many more are being created.”

*We've been lucky. Ridge speculated last year that the homeland's post-9/11 immunity from terror attack may simply have been luck.

Bloom says there has been luck — certain clues and leads. But she doesn't believe in luck “if it means that if there's another attack, we were just unlucky. If there's another attack, it means we messed up.”

Contributing: Mimi Hall and Kevin Johnson in Washington