Why Terrorist Attacks Are So Rare

Peter Bergen says government crackdowns since the Oklahoma City and 9/11 attacks have made getting bomb making materials harder.

In my morning posting “Keep Calm and Carry On,” I observed regarding the apparent terrorist bombing of the Boston Marathon, “while these attacks are thankfully rare, I can’t for the life of me figure out why” because “It’s simply impossible to protect all of our schools, shopping malls, movie theaters, airports, and other places where hundreds and even thousands of people gather on a daily basis.”

CNN’s Peter Bergen offers an explanation:

Almost overnight, the Oklahoma City attacks destroyed the scant credibility of the type of right-wing militia groups that McVeigh had associated with.

The feds also began to pay considerable attention to anyone purchasing large amounts of fertilizer of the kind that was used to construct the Oklahoma City truck bomb.

After 9/11 there was a rapid increase in the number of Joint Terrorism Task Forces around the country, which are made up of multiple law enforcement agencies working together to ferret out suspected terrorist activity.

And following the 9/11 attacks, far more businesses started reporting to law enforcement suspicious purchases of any kind of material that could be used for bomb-making.

As a result, since 9/11 bomb plots that have simply fizzled out have overwhelmingly been the rule.

This credits government action in preventing crazies from getting the necessary materials rather than a lack of crazies. And that’s a completely plausible explanation for a relative decline in these attempts since 9/11 and OKC. But it’s noteworthy that, even before those attacks, they were pretty rare. Which leads me to think that there just aren’t that many people who simultaneously harbor a strong desire to kill large numbers of their fellow man and possess the skills to actually carry out the act.

UPDATE: Sean Paul Kelley points out via Twitter that my last sentence isn’t quite right: Some non-terrorists who want to effect mass killing “buy guns and go on a shooting rampage instead.” Indeed, unless you’re awfully good at it–in which case your results can be spectacular–you’re less likely to kill a lot of people with explosives than with a surprise gun attack.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. gVOR08 says:

    You’re likely correct. Common sense on a subject in which common sense is rare. Thank you.

  2. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I think there is a corrolary here to one of the main rules of modern dating (“Hot; Single; Sane. You can only pick two.”) or service providers (“Cheap; Fast; High Quality. You can only pick two.”), which is “Means; Motive; Opportunity. You can only pick two.”

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I also think the post-9/11 following the money trail has something to do with it also, at least WRT international terrorism. After 9/11 people became much more cautious about donating to terrorist organizations or organization with possible terrorist connections. That was my interpretation for why the Provisional IRA backed off its armed stance after 9/11—their funding had dried up.

  4. wr says:

    Terrorist attacks aren’t actually are that rare. It’s just that if a terrorist attack is committed in this country with guns instead of bombs, our politicians’ paymasters insist we not call it terrorism but Freedom.

    Three people dead and dozens injured in Boston — terrorism. 20 dead children in Connecticut — Freedom.

    See how easy that is?

  5. JKB says:

    @wr: insist we not call it terrorism but Freedom.

    No, the President and the Army Chief of Staff call it “workplace violence”

    n 1: the calculated use of violence (or the threat of violence)
    against civilians in order to attain goals that are
    political or religious or ideological in nature;

    What political, religious or ideological goals motivated the Sandy Hook killer? Or the Aurora, CO shooter, etc. ?

    Yet, the Fort Hood shooter had purposely aligned himself with enemies of his country, in which his service, was in active combat against their efforts to pursue their political, religious and ideological goals. He reportedly shouted the common religious exclamation of that enemy while committing his crime.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @wr: Nonsense. The gun folks are all in a tizzy over the government’s refusal to label the Fort Hood massacre—committed with guns—as terrorism even though it obviously fits the definition. But Newtown, horrific as it was, had no obvious political motivation and is a simple mass murder, not terrorism.

  7. wr says:

    @James Joyner: Yes, as long as the shooter is white, it’s not terrorism. That’s why a man flying a plane into the IRS isn’t terrorism — it’s a noble protest. That’s why the murder of abortion doctors — a specifically political act — isn’t terrorism — it’s a possibly misguided passionate response to a greater crime. It’s why if this guy turns out to be a white American pissed off at taxes or anything else, it will no longer be terrorism. He’ll be a nut, a creep, a crazy… and as soon as anyone suggests his political background should be investigated, the right will start screaming about Fascists trying to confiscate their pressure cookers.

    I remember what happened when Janet Napolitano tried to release the Bush administration’s report on right wing terror groups — the Republicans started screaming about how they were oppressed, and the report went away.

    Because if a white American does it, it’s not terrorism… no matter how many children die.

    To the right, the word terrorism has only one meaning: “Hey, let’s go blow up some brown guys!”

  8. bandit says:

    @wr: Racist idiot

  9. wr says:

    @bandit: And I’m racist because… Nope, not seeing it. Please do explain.

  10. David D. from Philly says:


    I think most people agree Timothy McVeigh is a terrorist, so maybe the exception to the “white American dudes can’t be called terrorists” rule is a high enough body count or level of destruction of property.

  11. wr says:

    @David D. from Philly: Yeah, true about McVeigh…

  12. matt says:

    Ted Kaczynski?

  13. matt bernius says:

    For those interested, NPR’s morning edition ran a story this morning on “Soft Targets” and theories for why — while vulnerable — they are less likely to be hit.


    One of the theories, which makes a lot of sense, is that while soft targets might be very damaging for our local psyche, the fact is that they are not “spectacular” enough in the eyes of terrorist networks and cells looking for funding (or to make a name).