In Miami, OK, a young man rented a motel room. He kept to himself and refused cleaning services for days. When motel staff found bottles and other suspicious items in a garbage bin, they alerted police. Officers searched the room and found a duffel bag with more than 50 incendiary devices and a list of 40 local churches. Arthur Wheeler II was arrested and is in custody. No churches are burning.
In New York City, the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force and the New York City Police Department arrested a Bangladeshi man for plotting to bomb the Federal Reserve in Manhattan. His search for like-minded potential terrorists led him to an FBI informant. The people of New York have been spared the horrors of another Oklahoma City bombing.
These thwarted plots occurred in two of the handful of places in the United States that have felt the impact of terror. The “See Something Say Something” campaign that began in New York thwarted a plot in a small town in Oklahoma. Herein are lessons we should consider.
First, the threat from terrorism is persistent and will be so for the foreseeable future. Terrorist campaigns begin with violence but they end with moral fatigue; either the terrorists give up or the society they are attacking capitulates. The goals of a terrorist movement are, by definition, beyond what the victim society can or is willing to do. So the motive for terrorism is persistent as well.
Prevention of terrorism requires a multifaceted system. The alert motel worker is as vital to our security and safety as is the satellite sweeping up conversations over the badlands of Afghanistan. The threat is domestic and international, and so we must watch for both.
After the first World Trade Center attack, we focused on international terrorism and took our eyes off the domestic threat. The Oklahoma City bombing followed. In response, we turned our attention to domestic threats while al-Qaida was growing in sophistication and operation audacity.
As we continue to deny al-Qaida the opportunity to mount large-scale operations against U.S. interests, it will rely increasingly upon volunteers who must execute an attack alone or with a small group of co-conspirators. To detect these plots and others requires all of us to be alert and have a bias toward reporting unusual events to the police. Most terrorist plots that fail do so from poor operational security; preparatory actions are clumsy and police are alerted.
Where will they attack us next? They will attack wherever we're vulnerable and inattentive. As an open society that values liberty over security, we are vulnerable in many places. Being attentive, then, is a shared responsibility. We are stewards of one another's well-being.
Cid is executive director of the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism in Oklahoma City.