As law enforcement and counterterrorism officials continue the massive manhunt and investigation into the twin bombings in Boston, there's speculation as to whether the attacks were the work of "homegrown" actors, that is, terrorists residing in the country.
Right-wing extremists are possible culprits. After all, they like to come out of the woodwork in the month of April. Recall the Waco siege ended on April 19, 1993. Timothy McVeigh honored that ignominious day by blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City two years later, inspiring the Columbine high school students to go ballistic on April 20, 1999.
Alternatively, al Qaeda-inspired terrorists may be responsible for the Boston massacre. For years now, the leadership has called on its foot-soldiers to strike the homeland from within rather than to partake in risky operations abroad.
When Americans think of terrorism, they naturally think of the international variety (in which the perpetrators are not from the target country). The United States has historically been the leading target of international terrorism, while incurring relatively little bloodshed at home. Embassies -- not sporting events -- have been the preferred target of terrorists looking to take American lives. For this reason, terrorism datasets such as the U.S. State Department's Country Reports on Terrorism and ITERATE have historically been limited to incidents of international terrorism, ignoring domestic attacks entirely. Yet this national experience is actually anomalous. Each year, domestic terrorists kill far more people across the globe than do international terrorists.
Why do domestic groups have superior killing power? There is power in numbers. And unlike international terrorist groups, domestic actors can hope to draw supporters from local populations, helping to challenge government policy. But do the Boston attacks herald a newfound wave of domestic terrorism? Will they attract enough supporters to test Washington or our fundamental way of life? Not a chance. And here's why.
Simply put, too few terrorists exist within our borders to pose an existential problem. The policy community is fond of saying how lone wolf terrorists are hardest to stop. This is no doubt true. But left unsaid is they are also inherently weak, incapable of mounting complex operations. Lone wolves like Faizal Shazhad and the underwear bomber have tended to be quite feckless. Timothy McVeigh did manage to kill 168 people in one shot. But his first bombing was his last. Smaller groups may be able to launch such attacks from time to time, but are ultimately unable to sustain a proper campaign.
The United States is relatively terrorist-free for several reasons. For starters, democratic channels enable citizens to peacefully address their political problems. Without question, the aggrieved in the United States are better off going to the ballot box than planting IEDs. Indeed, American minorities are pretty happy here, including Muslim Americans. This contentment translates into moderation in not only their tactics, but also in their political preferences. Domestic terrorist groups are hence unattractive political outlets.