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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Why Doesn't "Prestige Terrorism" Happen in San Francisco or on the West Coast?

Posted By on Thu, Nov 19, 2015 at 1:22 PM

click to enlarge DAVID SPENCER/FLICKR
  • David Spencer/Flickr

It’s been a week of tense and horrifying news from abroad: last Friday’s shocking terror plot that killed 129 in Paris, the outpouring of grief from around the world, and the high-stakes retaliation — including a Paris police raid that killed the alleged ringleader yesterday. Amidst the bereavement, anger, and introspection, most of us shared the same chilling thought at least once: Could we be next?

Fortunately, no bombs have gone off at San Francisco’s civic events; no airliners have been seized at our airport; no gunmen have marched into our public spaces or government buildings and opened fire. The Bay Area has world-famous cities, instantly recognizable landmarks, shipping ports, airports, and other key infrastructure, but no one has taken aim at them. Nor have they done so anywhere in California or on the West Coast at large .

Are we lucky? The beneficiaries of inscrutable cosmic mercy? Or is there a reason?

Most of us probably aren't keen to spend much time thinking about it, but the question remains: Why doesn’t terrorism happen here?

“The first answer to your question is that it has,” says Matthew Levitt, director of counterterrorism and intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a D.C. think tank about US foreign policy.

Levitt rattles off a laundry list of close calls that most of us have probably forgotten: “Consider the Portland Christmas tree plot, the Millennium LAX bomber, or the 2005 JIS conspiracy, just to name a few.”

It’s true. In 2010, a Somali man tried to set off a car bomb at a Christmas tree lighting in Portland. In 2005, a gang of ex-convicts (calling themselves JIS, Jam’iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh) plotted to bomb several military bases around L.A. And America’s first real taste of terrorism in the 21st century was a foiled New Year’s Day 2000 attempt to blow up LAX.

More recently, a seemingly threatening photo of SFO was featured in a 2014 issue of al-Qaeda’s online magazine, Inspire. (Yes, al-Qaeda publishes a magazine. And in English to boot.)

But threats and failed attempts only make the question of why we‘ve been spared all the more mysterious.

“We can only speculate, because no one can see into the minds of those planning these attacks,” says Steve Weber, who teaches international politics at UC Berkeley. “But the simplest explanation might be best: Many of these people have a dated view of the United States." 

Weber adds, “To them, the US is Washington and New York. That’s the image of American power. They don’t care about Silicon Valley. They’re not going to blow up Apple’s headquarters, because they haven’t been influenced by that.”

Weber isn't the only one who thinks this. Almost everyone consulted for this story cites “prestige terrorism” as the principal factor that puts the East Coast at greater risk. Normally, San Franciscans chafe at being deemed less influential than New Yorkers, but this is a rare case where you really feel better about coming in second .

Then there‘s geography. If we‘ll pardon the phrase, getting here is just a pain in the ass for most terrorists.

“For the majority of these people, the easiest route to the US is through Europe, and that leads straight to the East Coast,” says Mike Sena, president of the National Fusion Center Association. (Fusion centers are information sharing apparatus to help different levels of government collaborate, many of them created post-9/11 to network security information.) “Once they’re here they’re not going to hop on another plane” and fly five more hours to some other city.

Would-be LAX bomber Ahmed Ressam came into the country via Canada, but few other terrorists seem inclined to follow that route.

Potential terror targets in California and our northerly neighbor states are spread out farther than back east, which complicates attempts at grandiose simultaneous attacks. It’s only 230 (driving) miles from New York to Washington D.C., and 215 from New York to Boston, but nearly 400 miles from San Francisco to L.A., and more than 600 from here to Portland and Seattle.

The 9/11 Commission reported in 2004 that the original plot involved taking more planes, including one that would have been sent to the US Bank Tower in L.A., but the plotters decided that coordinating simultaneous attacks over such a long distance was impractical.

So, hooray for the coastline. But what about the people who are already here?

Most of the identified perpetrators in the Paris attacks were Europeans, not people who had to infiltrate the country from abroad. Bruce Newsome, professor of International Studies at UC Berkeley, says that “risk populations,” both immigrants and natives, tend to be concentrated on the East Coast. “Hispanics and Asians are not high terrorism hazards.”

His terms are a bit cringe-inducing, but lots of people probably agree. Clark Lombardi, a law professor at Washington University who specializes in Islamic law, assesses the population question more broadly: “Look at where people live. Let’s speculate that a thousandth of a thousandth of a percent of any given population are sympathetic to terrorism. The bigger your sample, the more of those people there will be.”

The last census showed twice as many Americans concentrated on the East Coast as the West, and that included Nevada and Arizona.

Is it really that simple? Does San Francisco (population 850,000 or so) just have fewer slips in the terror lottery? Or is it who we are — our society and culture — rather than just where we are or how many of us there are that makes the difference?

“Our national narrative is wrapped around immigration and diversity,” says Eric Bordenkircher of the Center for Middle East Development at UCLA. “Look at Europe: A lot of European countries have national histories very tied up in being exclusive rather than inclusive, and it’s very much a secular environment there.”

All of which are factors that might make young Muslim men more likely to become alienated and vulnerable to messages about violent revolution.

That’s a bit of a double-take claim for most of us, because we tend to think of Europe as more open and socially liberal than the US. And America is certainly an alienating place to be Muslim these days.

But it’s a question of degree. Europe’s melting pot attitude is a recent development in its history, while America, and particularly the Bay Area, have always had it (albeit with many ups and downs). Ultra-xenophobe political parties like Greece’s Golden Dawn and France’s National Front are enjoying a surge in popularity, and they’re the kind of people who make even Donald Trump look downright soft-spoken and compassionate.

Competing theories aside, almost everyone agrees on one point: We’re not invincible. It’s a scary, complicated world, and San Francisco is as much a part of it as Paris or New York. Maybe the best solution is not to wonder why it’s them and not us, but to remind ourselves that we’re all in this together, no matter where we are.

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Adam Brinklow

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