Thursday, February 7, 2008

My final exam question on terrorism

For three years I have taught a seminar on terrorism derived from a course of instruction I helped write for the Office for Domestic Preparedness.

There are always readings, discussions, papers, etc., and there's always the usual essay question final exam.

But there's also a way to get out of the final exam.

You just have to answer one question correctly, and you receive an automatic A for the final.

Why does Israel suffer from constant suicide bomb attacks against its population, but not serious infrastructure attacks, while the US has suffered infrastructure attacks but no suicide bombers wandering into weddings or shopping malls?

The answer to this question reveals why our current strategy in the so-called War on Terror is fatally flawed.

Can you come up with it?


Brian Shields said...

Do I have to repeat the question in the answer?

Different strategies, different goals. Terrorists in Israel want to terrorize the public so their politicians will change their tactics on a local level. Israel is small, so small single terrorism actions like suicide bombers are effective.

The US is larger, so one single event will not change Washington, unless that event is huge on the tragic scale. Planning has to be done, targets assessed, recruitment, training, secrecy. Then the big day comes and they have to pull it off.

Sept. 11th took years to plan and execute. Suicide bombers get strapped up, spun around like a game of pin the tail on the donkey, and sent on a bus in a shopping plaza. Simple, easy, praise Allah.

Scale also has to be thought about when it comes to distance. If you give suicide bombers long enough to think about it, they might come to their senses on the long trip over here. There's no real local recruitment of people willing to blow themselves up here. Israel is close to the base, no real time to second guess.

Anonymous said...

Grade C-

your response does not reveal why our current strategy in the so-called War on Terror is fatally flawed.

Shirley Vandever said...

"Why does Israel suffer from constant suicide bomb attacks against its population, but not serious infrastructure attacks, while the US has suffered infrastructure attacks but no suicide bombers wandering into weddings or shopping malls?"

Ummmm....because the terrorists cater the weddings and own the shopping malls?


I look forward to someone having the correct answer.

Anonymous said...


You are going to have to explain it. Thanks.

Duffy said...

The Israelis focus on people, not things. They are big fans of profiling and anyone approaching any important infrastructure is subject to intense scrutiny. Not so on a bus in Haifa for example.

Dana Garrett & Stephen Crockett said...

I'm surprised that is a correct answer to the question, although I can imagine incorrect ones.

Here's my guess:

The suicide bombers live next door to Israel. It's a short walk or bus ride.

But I must say that I would hardly count the loss of 3,000 people on 9/11 as merely a "infra-structure" attack.

Dana Garrett & Stephen Crockett said...


I'm surprised THERE is a correct....

Steve Newton said...

The answer has to do with scale and logistics.

There are relatively few infrastructure attacks in Israel because the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars hardening every piece of infrastructure they can find, from sewer gratings to shopping malls. And in a state as small as Israel it is actually feasible to harden well over 95% of the infrastructure if you are willing to spend the bucks.

This leaves the individual suicide tactics (or the occasional rocket launch) as the only viable option for Hezbollah or Hamas, because--given the population demographics of Israeli-vs Arab numbers--the IDF simply cannot stop all such attacks, and they are cheap to launch.

But such attacks are not cheap to launch in the US, because not only does the suicide bomber have to get here, he (or she) has to then acquire the necessary munitions, which is difficult for somebody without the right cultural understandings. Moreover, in terms of "bang for your buck" it is a losing proposition due to the heavy investment of time and resources for the terrorists just to kill a few people.

On the other hand, the critical infrastructure in the US is so vast that it is not ever going to be physically possible to harden or protect it in such fashion as the Israelis do. Even if we brought everybody home from Iraq and cancelled all social programs there would not be enough money to do so.

Given that, if you are a terrorist organization that has to spend two years planning to place people in the US, which kind of target are you going to aim for? A wedding reception or a major piece of infrastructure?

But the problem with our own homeland security strategy (such as it is) is that we have decided to prioritize the defense of critical infrastructure in terms not of what are the terrorists most likely to attack, but in terms of what would hurt us most to lose. And the thinking there is utilitarian to a fault, focusing in bridges and buildings and power plants and such.

Here's the scary part. The terrorists proved in Russia that one of the strategies they envision is taking over a school and executing the children. But between 2001-2007 protecting schools and religious facilities wasn't even on the DHS list of infrastructure to protect.

There are occasional funny flashes in all this. I got into trouble at a homeland security conference three years ago discussing what Al Qaeda could do with 15-20 trained snipers let lose to operate independently in a major US city to take out citizens and first responders. I told them (and I was serious) that being from the Philadelphia area I had a different perspective on the idea.

I said first that if Al Qaeda had 15-20 snipers operating in Philly that, given the city's current murder rate, that it could easily be 2-3 weeks before we realized they were there. And by that time the drug gangs would have killed them for trespassing on their turf.

Nobody has a goddamn sense of humor any more.

Dana Garrett & Stephen Crockett said...

That was a funny story. Perhaps we should send the Philly drug gangs into Pakistan to take out Osama.

Anonymous said...


That is a very good idea.