A funny thing happens when two huge terrorism stories break. Or, more accurately, when one splashes across the front of the Washington Post, while the the other one slips past your notice. You tend to start thinking that the most likely way a terrorist will kill you isn’t, in fact, by shooting you in the face.
First, Tuesday’s Washington Post story on Al-Qaeda’s desire to use WMDs against America:
“…a new report warns that al-Qaeda has not abandoned its goal of attacking the United States with a chemical, biological or even nuclear weapon.
The report, by a former senior CIA official who led the agency’s hunt for weapons of mass destruction, portrays al-Qaeda’s leaders as determined and patient, willing to wait for years to acquire the kind of weapons that could inflict widespread casualties.”
So a retired intelligence official is alleging that a WMD attack from al-Qaeda is a genuine threat, based purely on the strength of his musing. The report cites absolutely no evidence at all, and has no empirical support. It’s simply speculation.
Let’s take a moment to consider its assertion though, in light of what we’ve learned from al-Qaeda’s most recent round of recruits.
Successfully deploying nuclear, chemical, or biologically weaponry is insanely delicate and difficult, military units trained to use or defuse that kind of weaponry are some of the most intelligent and well-trained. WMDs are incredibly fragile, requiring careful handling and precise calibration to be deployed effectively. Only the most intelligent enlistees are chosen for WMD training, a task that takes several months to complete. Conversely, everyone in the military learns how to shoot a gun within the first few weeks.
So it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that, in the past decade, more Americans have died by pulling a vending machine onto themselves than through a terrorist WMD attack. Probably about twice as many.
Meanwhile, men allied with al-Qaeda (which, it’s important to remember, is much more an Ism than a discrete club) have often shown themselves incapable of so much as properly lighting a fuse. There’s Richard Reid the infamous shoebomber, and the more recent underwear bomber, Umar Mutallab. Plus the bomb outside a UK nightclub in 2007 which fizzled, and the bomb the same cell put into their jeep and drove into the awning of the Glasgow Airport, which also fizzled. And whose driver was thwarted by a local cabbie, who famously kicked the fleeing terrorist in the nuts so hard that the cabbie nearly broke his own foot.
Creating simple homemade explosives is clearly the absolute upperlimit of men who choose to become terrorists, something they often as not manage to flub. Deploying WMDs are an entire order of magnitude more difficult than that, which is why outside of military action they’ve almost never been used. Is their use feasible? Yes. Is it damn well bloody likely that men who can’t even properly manage the simplest of homemade explosives are ever going to successfully use them? Not so much.
However the Washington Post still decided that pure unadulterated fear-mongering speculation was worth putting in its front section:
“He cites patterns in al-Qaeda’s 15-year pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that reflect a deliberateness and sophistication in assembling the needed expertise and equipment.”
The only clear pattern in al-Qaeda’s past fifteen years is one of sophomoric amateurism. Men who’ve chosen to associate with al-Qaeda have shown time and time again that just assembling conventional homemade explosives is an iffy proposition. Even the 9/11 attacks relied on an incredible amount of luck, one group of hijackers that morning were so late getting started that they only made their gate with six-minutes to spare.
Terrorist attacks have not been getting more hierarchical-dependent and sophisticated, they’re becoming self-assembling and simple. Last June a radicalized American citizen killed an Army recruiter and wounded another by simply shooting them, and last November a radicalized American citizen 13 and wounded 43 more also by simply shooting them. And the DC Sniper, who brought the blue Chevy Caprice used in all the attacks on 9/11 as homage to bin Ladin, also just shot all of his victims – in the process creating the single most efficient terrorist campaign in America to date, drawing in law enforcement from across the eastern seaboard and nearly disrupting an election.
Which brings us to the story you probably missed, about the attack that didn’t happen.
At 4am on the same Tuesday morning as the Washington Post carried that story, New Jersey police arrested Lloyd Woodson after the clerk in a local Quick Chek store called 911 when Woodson entered his store and began behaving suspiciously. Police arrived, Woodson fled.
He was subdued with pepper spray a few minutes later in a trailer park behind the store, and was found in military fatigues with a bullet proof vest beneath, and toting a Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle that’d been altered so it could shoot .50 caliber rounds. He had four additional magazines of ammo on him, but that wasn’t the half of it.
Back in his room at the Red Mill Inn, police found a Cobray rocket-propelled grenade launcher, two rifles (one with a nightvision scope), hundreds of rounds of .38 and .50 ammo (some of them armor-penetrating), a police scanner, a map of Fort Drum, a map of a community subdivision, and a keffiyeh. Also among his personal effects according to New Jersey law enforcement, were other unnamed items which tied him to radical Islam in general and to a specific Islamic militant group.
And unlike your average weapon of mass destruction, his arsenal wasn’t exactly difficult to acquire. He’d simply purchased them on the streets of New York City, and defaced their serial numbers so they’d be difficult to later track.
It’s quite possibly he might ultimately have wussed out at the last moment, although it’s obvious he’d devoted an awful lot of time and preparation to at least plotting an attack on a military facility. And having spent time in the Navy, it’s likely he had the basic training necessarily to operate the rather impressive firepower he’d brought along.
We’re still waiting to learn more about Woodson’s background, and the FBI has stated that he wasn’t part of any larger terrorist plot – even though items were found that linked him to an established Islamic militant group. However it’s extremely unlikely his ideas came to him in a vacuum, and although he may never have made face-to-face contact with any proven terrorists, when the investigation is finished you’d be betting good money if you wagered that he made contact with extremists online at one point or another.
And although we’ve yet to learn whether Woodson spent any time in prison or if he began his association with Islam there, we do know he was previously convicted of a felony gun possession charge… so don’t be surprised if it turns out that like so many others, he was initially exposed to radical Islam while in prison.
The Arkansas shooter, Abdulhakim Muhammad, made his initial extremist contacts online before ultimately converting to radical Islam while in prison, and recently changed his plea:
“My lawyer has no defense,” Muhammad wrote in the two-page letter, dated Jan. 12. “I wasn’t insane or post-traumatic nor was I forced to do this act.”
In letter, Muhammad described himself as a soldier in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and called the shooting “a Jihadi Attack.”
“This was a jihad: attack on infidel forces. That didn’t go as plan. Flat out truth,” Muhammad wrote in the letter.
The men who ascribe to Radical Islam do not see themselves as terrorists, they see themselves as soldiers. And their training and conversation no longer happens in terrorist camps or in personal exchanges – as was the case with the 3/11 Madrid bombings, conversion and radicalization often occurs in the amorphous world of online media interactions.
This is not some ersatz training method, the same social forces that powered Twitter and Facebook’s ascension are now being used by terrorists to find recruits in society’s margins. Which do you really think is more of a threat: a terrorist with access to WMDs who’s actually savvy enough to use them when his average companion can’t even set off a simple bomb, or a pissed-off ex-con with access to firearms and a grudge against the government?
Our gravest threat doesn’t come from a sophisticated Bruckheimer-esque WMD attack, it comes from the margins of our society. Men who feel alone and isolated. There’s no better place to find and radicalize such men than in prison – where an overwhelming majority of America’s recent terrorists got their start.
And because of our drugs laws, an incredibly disproportionate number of those men are black. Yet the Washington Post feels it’s more productive to report sensationalist baseless speculation, than the fact that the African-American unemployment rate is double or triple the national average depending on where you are, that African-Americans are three-times as likely to have their homes foreclosed on than whites, that African-American families currently have just eight-cents of wealth for every dollar owned by whites, and that an African-American child is nine-times as likely as a white child to have a parent in prison.
That’s where terrorism comes from.
Not from some unspeakable evil cabal, but from the lives and families we’ve spent the past forty years gutting with one hand, and awkwardly trying to high-five with the other.