On Wednesday we saw the latest in the long line of Foiled Terrorist stories that pop up intermittently. A lone 21 year old man hatched a plot to blow up the New York Fed with what he thought was a half-ton bomb. The bomb supplier, of course, was an undercover FBI agent. We have seen this script play out many times, and it always ends with law enforcement and Dick Cheney and your right-wing uncle reminding us that, you see, They are still trying to kill us.
It is indisputable that the suspect in this case is, by intent alone, a criminal and I'm glad law enforcement was able to intercede. It is fair to ask, however, how real the danger is in these situations. There are tens of thousands of lone wolf nutbars out there, from Islamic terrorists to bunker-dwelling survivalists and white supremacists. Many of them have the intent to commit this kind of act and their heads are likely full of various "plots" and schemes to strike at their enemies. The overwhelming majority – 99 percent plus – never advance beyond the idea stage, and 99% of the ones that progress beyond that point fail due to a lack of money, equipment, or sufficient intelligence to hatch a workable plot.
Of the remarkably small fraction that remain – people who are really, actively attempting to execute a terrorist attack – would any of them even get close to completion without undercover law enforcement showing up to offer, remarkably enough, whatever the plotter happens to need in terms of weapons or supplies? Would this guy plotting to blow up the Fed ever have managed to get his hands on a real bomb, or did he walk into a law enforcement trap specifically because he couldn't figure out how to get one?
These cases follow the same pattern and leave themselves open to the same question: Are these people "real" terrorists, capable of executing a plot of any complexity, or are they wannabes, so clueless that they couldn't knock off a liquor store until the FBI came waltzing in to offer them bombs, vehicles, technical skills (bomb-making manuals, etc) and other things they wouldn't otherwise get? Logically, if it is possible to get thousand-pound bombs (real ones) from some terrorist source there would be a greater number of terror attacks. I mean, law enforcement couldn't intercept and halt all of them. Some plotters would end up getting their "bomb" from the FBI but others would acquire a real one from a real criminal/terrorist.
The fact that this is not happening suggests that the only people out there offering to make 1000 pound bombs available to terrorists are…undercover FBI agents. People have almost exclusively fear- and gut-based reactions to the dangers posed by terrorism so it's no surprise that we don't think very deeply about these cases. It is worth asking, though, just how much danger this person actually presented on his own without the helping hand of the FBI. Did we just have a narrow miss from a major terrorist attack? Or did we just arrest a person with evil intentions that would never have materialized if left to his own resources?