War Stories

Why Suicide Bombers Haven’t Struck American Subways

Sheer luck is a big part of it.

This week’s Moscow subway bombings raise several questions, but one of the most mysterious must be: Why hasn’t something like this happened here?

There are several plausible explanations, most of them relating to security measures taken since Sept. 11, 2001: terrorist watch lists, detentions, tighter restrictions on visas and immigration, increased surveillance of certain radical groups, clamp-downs on the sale of potentially explosive materials.

But another, broader reason is that suicide bombers are a peculiar lot. They tend to be driven by very specific motives, and those motives don’t have much resonance on American soil.

Robert Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, argued in his 2005 book Dying to Win: The Logic of Suicide Terrorism that suicide bombers are motivated not so much by Islamist (or any other kind of religious) fervor but, rather, by anger at foreign troops occupying their land.

Since then, as founding director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, Pape has collected and analyzed a database of 2,668 suicide bombings carried out between 1980 and 2009—which has confirmed, even strengthened, his initial theory.

It turns out, Pape told me in a phone conversation today, that 96 percent of those suicide bombers were engaging in what they saw as acts of nationalist resistance to foreign military occupation; most of them were living within a few miles of where the bombing took place. (The Moscow subway bombers, it has been reported, were probably Muslims fighting for Chechen independence.)

Of the 2,668 suicide bombers in Pape’s database, just 255—not quite 10 percent—were “transnational” terrorists, that is, militants who traveled from other countries or who attacked targets in their own countries as violent gestures of sympathy. And 200 of those 255 blew up their bombs, and themselves, in Iraq. (Pape reports his full findings in a book, out this fall, called Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It.)

In other words, the United States isn’t the sort of place where suicide bombings are likely to take place. It isn’t occupied territory. And though terrorist acts have been committed here in protest of U.S. policies elsewhere (mainly in the Middle East, Iraq, or Afghanistan), few of these acts have been suicide bombings.

The 9/11 attacks were, of course, big exceptions. Yet as a result of those attacks, it is now much harder for groups of terrorists to board airplanes at all, much less to do so while carrying weapons of any sort. And in those instances when individual terrorists have tried to set off bombs (Richard Reid in his shoe, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in his underwear), airline attendants and passengers have been alert enough to snuff out their plans.

One can imagine radicals from the Middle East or South Asia coming to the United States, settling in, then one day blowing themselves up in a crowded place. But customs and immigration officials have made it much harder for anyone from those regions to gain entry into this country, precisely because of this worry.

And yet more difficult is not the same as impossible. It’s harder for terrorists to board airplanes, but—as Reid and Abdulmutallab have shown—not impossible. It’s harder to obtain bomb-making materials—but very far from impossible. And if terrorists can assemble a bomb, there’s almost nothing to stop them from taking one into a crowded subway car.

As Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism chief, told me in a phone interview today, “The ease with which someone could do this is startling.” (New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority won a court case, several years ago, affirming its right to conduct random searches of people entering subway stations. Clarke testified in that case. But searches are very rare.)

Clarke has a few theories on why there haven’t been any suicide bombings here lately. “After 9/11,” he said, “all the security sweeps and the detentions left al-Qaida with the perception that it was very difficult to operate in the U.S.—more difficult than it actually was. Meanwhile, they found it was a lot easier to go after Americans in Iraq. They stopped going after the foreign enemy in the ‘far abroad.’ We came to them, so they went after us over there.”

Clarke thinks there may be something to Pape’s analysis but, as far as subway security goes, it’s beside the point. The rail and subway attacks in Madrid and Tokyo weren’t suicide bombings. “Most of the subway assaults in the world have not been suicides,” Clarke said.

As a former New York City newspaper reporter, I well remember the attempted subway attack of July 1997, four years before 9/11. Two men holding Jordanian passports were found making pipe bombs in their Brooklyn apartment; under interrogation they said that they were planning to strap the bombs around their waists and detonate them on one of the subways at the nearby Atlantic Avenue station during rush hour. Their apparent motive was to kill a lot of Jews out of sympathy for the Palestinians’ resistance to Israel.

This plot was stopped almost entirely by accident. A friend of the bomb makers, who was visiting their apartment, saw what they were doing and rushed up to a policeman on the street, making wild arm gestures. The friend didn’t speak English, but the cop heard him say “bomba.” So he took him to the stationhouse and found an Arab-speaking interpreter. Within hours, the police mounted a pre-dawn raid on the apartment and arrested the Jordanians.

Would they actually have blown up the bombs and themselves? Would the bombs have gone off? Subsequent news stories reported that the Jordanians were known in the (predominantly Arab) neighborhood as goof-offs, freeloaders. Still, police testified at their trial that the pipe bombs were fully assembled and seemed ready to go. (They were found guilty in criminal court and are serving life sentences.) If the friend hadn’t told the police, and if the cop in the street hadn’t taken the friend in to see an interpreter, dozens of New Yorkers might have been killed, hundreds injured.

That’s what’s disturbing about the Moscow subway bombing, about the Atlantic Avenue plot, about walking through the minefield of modern life generally: It may be that disaster hasn’t struck, in part anyway, because of sheer, dumb luck.

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