In reaction to the several terrorist attacks last weekend, the editors of the Wall Street Journal make a list:
The Federal Bureau of Investigation opened an “assessment,” which is a risk review short of a full criminal probe that includes interviews and cross-checks of federal terrorism and criminal databases. Mr. Rahami was cleared, though he travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan several times over the last decade, including a year in the Taliban hothouse of Quetta.
Family and friends now say Mr. Rahami returned from these sojourns religiously and politically radicalized, and he began wearing traditional Islamic dress. He ordered his IED components online. Missing these red flags was especially notable given New York City’s antiterror focus since 9/11.
Was Mr. Rahami’s spree preventable? More details will emerge, but he is merely the latest domestic terrorist who had encounters with law enforcement or otherwise displayed suspicious patterns before acts of mass violence.
In 2013 the FBI assessed Omar Mateen, the Orlando nightclub killer. He was removed from the terror watch list the next year, despite trips to Saudi Arabia and his acquaintance with Moner Mohammad Abu-salha, a Floridian who became a suicide bomber in Syria in 2014.
The 2015 San Bernardino killers, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, weren’t in the terror database. But they spent a year planning and maintained an extensive digital correspondence about jihad and martyrdom. Malik was born in Pakistan and spent time in Saudi Arabia before marrying Farook.
The FBI also kept a file on the Tsarnaev brothers, the Boston Marathon bombers, after receiving a tip in 2011 that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a dangerous Islamic radical. The G-men missed his trip to a Muslim region in Russia near Chechnya. The voyage registered on a Homeland Security travel monitoring system when he left, but the listing somehow lapsed by the time he came back and no one was alerted. Similar failures have also been documented after the separate attacks on two Tennessee military bases and in Garland, Texas in 2015.
When you look at it that way we don’t appear to have been doing a particularly good job of risk assessment, have we? Please don’t respond with any assertions of the effectiveness of tiger repellent.
There have been any number of explanations offered on why we’re having problems with risk assessment. And every explanation points to its solution. There are certain factors that every one of the cases cited by the WSJ editors have in common. When you start with the most specific (rather than the most general) it narrows the field pretty quickly.
You can’t do a reasonable risk assessment on the basis of fairness. The world just doesn’t work that way.