The U.S. has 9/11. Spain has 11-M (the March 11, 2004, bombings of the Madrid commuter trains which killed 191). Britain has 7/7 (a reference to the July 7, 2005 bombings which killed 52 people taking public transportation in London). And now, on a slightly smaller but still horrific scale, France has 1/7: the assault by three masked gunmen on the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, which left 12 people dead.
What all of these events have in common is, of course, the Islamist ideology which animated the killers–a ruthless willingness to kill the innocent in pursuit of far-fetched religious and political objectives. In all three cases jihadist fanatics saw Western nations, whether the U.S., Britain, or France, as obstacles to their designs–and understandably so, because all three back moderate regimes in the Middle East and have intervened with their own armed forces to fight the forces of terrorism, whether in Mali, Iraq, or Afghanistan.
Of these attacks, only one–9/11–so far has been proven to have been directed by a terrorist organization based abroad: al-Qaeda, which at the time enjoyed sanctuary in Afghanistan. There were rumored links between the 7/7 bombers–mostly children of Pakistani immigrants–and the al-Qaeda organization, by then based in Pakistan, but nothing was ever proven. Likewise rumors of links between the Spanish bombers and al-Qaeda or its North African affiliates were not proven. We will have to wait to find out if the 1/7 attackers had direct links to a terrorist organization such as al-Qaeda or ISIS (there are unverified reports that they were connected to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) or whether they were a self-radicalized cell acting on their own initiative.
Whether the 7/7 attackers were in touch with terrorist organizations abroad or not, their actions did not need much planning or coordination, unlike the intricately choreographed attack in 2001 on American passenger aircraft. Indeed it is a wonder that we have not seen more such assaults, especially in the U.S., given the prevalence of massacres by deranged gunmen from Aurora, Colorado, to Newtown, Connecticut. France, for its part, has seen a spate of low-level “lone wolf” attacks in recent weeks, with attackers driving their cars into crowds or attacking police officers with a knife.
Part of the explanation may lie in the greater success that the U.S. has had in assimilating immigrants–there is not a large underclass of resentful Muslim immigrants in this country as there is in Britain, France, and other European countries. But it doesn’t take many fanatics to carry out a terrorist attack and our air of complacency might well have been punctured if the 2010 car bombing of Times Square by a Pakistani immigrant had gone off as planned.
Beyond the need to assimilate immigrants such attacks point to the need to monitor extremist organizations. There has been much controversy in both the U.S. and Europe about the actions of the NSA, but its eavesdropping is the first line of defense–indeed in many ways the best line of defense–against such attacks. The same goes for the much-maligned New York Police Department whose now-disbanded Demographics Unit infiltrated the Muslim community with undercover officers to be alert to extremist activity.
Such intelligence-gathering, especially in the domestic sphere, raises civil-liberties hackles and there is no question that such activities can lead to abuses, as occurred decades ago with the FBI’s Cointelpro intelligence gathering against antiwar activists and civil-rights activists. But, if carefully regulated (as is the case with the NSA and NYPD, from all accounts) such programs are necessary not only to ward off the murder of innocents but the far greater violations of civil liberties that are likely to come after a successful major terrorist attack.