FAISAL Shahzad was no Timothy McVeigh, let alone a Mohamed Atta.
McVeigh, who killed 168 people in Oklahoma City in 1995 with a massive truck bomb, took the trouble to learn how to make a bomb that worked. Atta, who piloted one of the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers on 9/11, even learned how to fly.
Mr. Shahzad, who left a vehicle rigged to explode near New York's Times Square on Saturday night, was a bumbling amateur. He might still have killed some people, of course. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the bomb could have exploded and caused a big fire. But the casualties would have been in the dozens, and more likely only a few. Not enough, in other words, to drive Americans crazy again.
I'm choosing my words carefully. Ever since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. media (with the eager assistance of the Bush administration) have worked to persuade Americans that terrorism is the greatest threat facing the country. The enterprise has succeeded, and most Americans actually believe that terrorism poses a serious danger to their personal safety.
Nobody has been killed by terrorists in the United States since 9/11, but the fear is so great that just one big attack with lots of casualties would still have disastrous consequences. There would be public pressure for government to do something large and violent, in the delusionary belief that that is the way to defeat terrorism. That is what I mean by "driving Americans crazy."
The main goal of terrorist attacks is to drive the victims crazy: to goad them into doing stupid, violent things that ultimately play into the hands of those who planned the attacks. Terrorism is a kind of political jiujitsu in which a relatively weak group, such as al-Qaeda, attempts to trick a far stronger enemy, such as the U.S. government, into a self-defeating response.
The U.S. response to 9/11 was self-defeating. A more intelligent strategy would have been to try to split the Taliban regime of Afghanistan, many of whose leading members were outraged by the threat of a U.S. invasion that the action of their Arab guests had brought down on their heads. A combination of threats and bribes might have persuaded the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden and his whole al-Qaeda crew.
It was worth trying first, but the political pressure on the White House to invade Afghanistan was extreme - even though those who knew anything about terrorist strategies understood that that was exactly what bin Laden wanted Washington to do.
Bin Laden's goal was to build support among Muslims for his militant ideology by convincing them that they were under attack by the infidels. The best way to do that was to sucker the infidels - i.e., the Americans - into invading Muslim countries.
The 9/11 attacks succeeded in triggering a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and President Bush then gave bin Laden more help by invading Iraq as well. As a result, al-Qaeda has made some progress toward its ultimate goal of sparking Islamist revolutions in the Arab world and the broader Muslim world, though probably not nearly as much as bin Laden hoped.
Because Washington was already doing what bin Laden wanted, he had no reason to carry out further major terrorist operations in the United State, and there is no evidence that al-Qaeda has attempted any. Faisal Shahzad's amateurish bomb certainly did not meet that organization's standards.
But would al-Qaeda now be interested in carrying out a big attack in the United States, if it could manage it? Probably yes, forby the middle of next year U.S. troops will be gone from Iraq. There is reason to suspect that President Obama's ultimate goal is to get them out of Afghanistan, too, even if he first has to protect his flank politically by reinforcing them.
As long as U.S. troops occupy Muslim countries, bin Laden's cause prospers. If they leave, the air goes out of his balloon. He therefore now has a strong motive for mounting a major terrorist operation on American soil.
The goal would be to drive Americans crazy enough that they decide to keep fighting the "war on terror" on Arab and Afghan soil. The last thing al-Qaeda wants is for the infidels to go home.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.