Mid-September saw a flurry of domestic anti-terrorism activity in New York and Colorado. There were raids of several homes in Queens of suspected Islamic militants. Law enforcement officials were apparently looking for homemade explosives but didn’t find any. No arrests were made. However, several days later, Najibulla Zazi – an Afghan immigrant who lived in Queens – was arrested in Colorado on charges that he made false statements during a terrorism investigation. According to papers subsequently filed in a Brooklyn court, Zazi received explosives training at an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan in 2008, moved from Queens to Denver immediately upon returning in early 2009, and eventually began preparing to make bombs by purchasing large amounts of chemicals at beauty supply stores and renting a hotel suite to experiment with mixing the materials for use in bombs.
We won’t know until the case winds its way through the court system, but it’s certainly possible that Zazi is the real deal – a would-be terrorist with both the intent and capability to cause serious harm. If – and it’s important to emphasize "if" – that turns out to be the case, Zazi highlights the difficulties of homeland security. First, he represents an indigenous rather than external threat. Even if we could (and we can’t), sealing the borders to keep terrorists out wouldn’t work as a homeland security measure because Zazi – a legal immigrant from Afghanistan – is already here. And in Zazi’s case, as a legal U.S. resident he was able to pass an airport employee security check.
So unless we intend to deport every Muslim not born in the United States and ban Muslims from immigrating to America, we will have to accept the real possibility of homegrown terrorism. But even those draconian measures wouldn’t be enough to stop homegrown terrorism – we would also have to prohibit Muslims from living in America since we couldn’t know with certainty that any of them wouldn’t eventually become terrorists (as was the case with the London tube and bus bombers, all of whom were born in the United Kingdom).
The Zazi case also demonstrates the relative ease of acquiring the means to make bombs (or as it is now more fashionable to call them: improvised explosive devices, aka IEDs). Zazi allegedly shopped at beauty supply stores for products containing hydrogen peroxide (which can also be purchased off the shelf at your local pharmacy) and acetone (found in nail polish remover). Mixed together properly, these can be used to create the explosive triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, which was used in the 2005 London subway and bus bombings that killed 52 and injured hundreds.
So are we now going to outlaw beauty salons or make buying beauty products a crime of conspiracy to commit terrorism?
Finally, if – again, if – Zazi turns out to be the real deal, while we should feel fortunate that he was able to be stopped before killing anyone we must also realize that we got lucky. If potential terrorists are few and far between, perhaps we can continue to get lucky. But if it’s more than an isolated case, we can’t be lucky forever. As the Irish Republican Army once told the British government: "We only have to be lucky once; you will have to be lucky always." Eventually, if enough people try enough times, someone will succeed.
Therefore, trying to catch would-be terrorists before they can blow anything up is a last line of defense. But if it’s our only line of defense, then it’s a losing proposition. Ultimately, we need to address the reasons why people would become terrorists who would attack America – including a needlessly U.S. interventionist foreign policy that gives Muslims good reasons to resent us as crusaders or occupiers seeking to change their world.