Why is terrorism not ubiquitous? It takes no brains or training to rent an apartment, turn the gas on in the kitchen stove, and blow up the building. It takes no brains and almost no training to rent a truck, buy three tons of nitrate ammonium fertilizer, mix it with you-know-what, park the truck at any building and blow it up. It takes only minor brains and moderate training to derail a train transporting chlorine cisterns. Terrorists can legally purchase weapons and equally simply procure C-4 explosive by registering a demolition company. Propane gas cylinders can be purchased in hundreds from multiple vendors without drawing anyone’s attention.
The FBI intercepts many terrorist attempts, but the grassroots terrorism described above is suitable for two- or three-men cells and usually cannot be detected beforehand.

One explanation for the lack of grassroots terrorism is the built-in moral prohibition. The US Army, for example, could feasibly take over the country, like the many coups that happen in other countries, but it doesn’t. Criminal gangs can kidnap local politicians to exchange them for jailed members, as German insurgents kidnapped Peter Lorenz in 1975, but such cases are few. The population of populist countries is widely conformist, to the point of sending their children to the Vietnam and Iraq wars, and is not prone to confronting the government. Social security destroyed the most important reason for people to care about their children: financial. People don’t rely on children for their old-age security. In the absence of financial exigencies, moral issues are not strong enough to make parents cut off their child’s finger instead of allowing him into the army for a senseless war.

People are afraid to go against the ruling system on their own, but assemble in groups, which is where security services detect them. Many people support terrorists, but few can go out and kill by themselves as lone wolves. The three-hundred-million-strong American nation produces only a handful of psycho murderers, and its five million Muslims are statistically unlikely to produce many suicide terrorists. But not even one? It’s hard to comprehend why, despite the abundant Internet indoctrination, no man stood up against the system by terrorist means. Raskolnikovs might be rare because they undermine universal moral tenets, but “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” and high-enough goals justify the means; there should be no shortage of lone terrorists.

People don’t detest terrorism the way they detest murder; terrorism is a tool only, and can bear good fruits of freedom as well as sour fruits. Osama’s efforts are doomed. Freedom fighters like Thomas Jefferson used violence to break the constraints on a fully-fledged new order. Osama misuses terrorism to create a new order; such an approach cannot work in the West. Terrorism has some potential in Muslim states saturated with Islamic opposition; Osama can terrorize the despotic governments into allowing the Islamists to seize power in free elections. Even in the Muslim world, terrorism has no long-term potential: Iranians, for example, have grown opposed to the ayatollahs in only three decades.

Terrorists long for state sponsors not only for money and weapons, but predominantly for psychological reasons: the support reassures them. It’s not even about safety; many terrorists are ready to die. Their problem is deep human discomfort of confronting a towering entity alone.

If the above insight is true—and no other concept explains the lack of ubiquitous terrorism—then Al Qaeda emerges as an exceedingly odd organization. Al Qaeda has never had a state sponsor. No meaningful terrorist group ever existed without the support of a state or state-like entity. From the medieval Assassins with their own mountainous quasi-state to the Red Army Faktion supported by the German Stasi, all terrorists relied on Big Brothers. Al Qaeda purchased safe havens in Sudan and Afghanistan, but never had a Big Brother to rely on. Either Al Qaeda is a historically unique organization—an unlikely assumption—or it’s not a terrorist powerhouse.

Osama, too good to be true