If you're going to be a terrorist, you've got to play it cool. In 1999, would-be bomber Ahmed Ressam filled his car with explosives and drove it from Canada to the U.S. border. But at the very moment a customs inspector approached, he panicked and ran away. Naturally, Ressam's freak-out raised suspicion and resulted in his arrest [source: Schanzer].
Ressam isn't the only terrorist whose destructive attempt has been thwarted. In the 12 years since the 9/11 attacks, an estimated 54 other terrorist attacks on the U.S. have failed [source: Zuckerman]. And these are only the attempts we know about, which have been publicly documented through news articles and official briefings. The actual count of "almost" attacks is likely much higher.
Some credit an effective trifecta for keeping the U.S. relatively safe from terroristic harm: police work, intelligence reports and citizens willing to report suspicious activity [source: Avlon]. And sometimes the terrorists themselves bungle the plan. Whatever the strategy to uncover current threats, there are powerful lessons to be found in examining previous plots that have failed. Let's start with one from way back in history.
The Gunpowder Plot of 1605
Think terrorist plots are a purely modern invention? In 1605, a failed terrorist attack -- perhaps the first in modern history -- was made on the British Parliament. Although motives for the plot are murky, it is believed to have been an attempt to reinstate Catholicism by assassinating the Protestant king of England.
Whatever the plot's religious leanings, one thing is certain: Five men planned to blow up the House of Lords during the state opening on Nov. 5, 1605, when the king would be present, as well as members of Parliament. After an anonymous letter supposedly warned off a Catholic noble, the Houses of Parliament were searched. On Nov. 4, around midnight, one of the group's members, Guy Fawkes, was found huddled in a cellar directly beneath parliamentary chambers. Unfortunately for Fawkes, he was also found with barrels upon barrels of gunpowder.
The five conspirators, including Fawkes, were either killed or taken to the Tower of London where they were tried, found guilty and executed. Their heads were placed on pikes and displayed throughout London. Currently, Nov. 5 is a loosely organized holiday known in England as Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night, and is celebrated with bonfires and fireworks -- and the occasional Fawkes dummy burned in effigy [source: Houses of Parliament].
The Underwear Bomber
This failed terrorist plot by 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab gets high marks for creativity. On Christmas Day in 2009, the Nigerian native wearing underwear loaded with explosives managed to get through airport security and board a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
Once aboard the plane, Abdulmutallab cozied up under an airline blanket and proceeded to blow up his undies. Nearby passengers were alerted by loud popping noises coming from his nether regions, followed by flames as the bomb malfunctioned. Several passengers then sprang into action and subdued Abdulmutallab, who was arrested by authorities [source: Schanzer].
Abdulmutallab later revealed to the FBI that he'd been wearing the underwear bomb for three weeks to get used to it. It was a stinky decision, one that authorities believe ultimately led to the bomb's malfunction. ("[It] caused a little bit of separation in the sequence of events in the explosion," as FBI agent Ted Peissig told ABC News.) Abdulmutallab received multiple life sentences for the unsuccessful attack [source: Ferran].
The Ohio Mall Bomber
If you're going to live a quiet life away from threats of terrorism, Ohio seems like a nice place to do it, right? Not if Nuradin M. Abdi had his way.
The Somali national, who ran a cell phone business, was charged in 2003 with plotting to blow up a Columbus, Ohio, shopping mall during the busy holiday shopping season. Abdi had partnered with members of al-Qaida, a militant Islamic organization, to complete military-style training abroad and then carry out a mission that would leave potentially hundreds of Americans dead. Officials were quick to report the plot had been foiled early in the planning stages.
The Shoe Bomber
A bad case of the hotfoot led to the demise of this terrorist's plans. In December 2001, Richard Reid took the first step in his dastardly plot. The United Kingdom native and al-Qaida recruit built a hidden compartment into the heel of a shoe and used it to house enough homemade explosives to potentially blow up an airplane.
Wearing the shoe bomb, Reid was able to pass through airport security and board a flight from Paris to Miami. Then his plan suddenly grew two left feet.
Reid had trouble igniting a match and even more trouble getting the shoe-bomb's fuse to light. When the fuse finally sparked, the bomb didn't detonate because Reid's foot was too sweaty [source: Schanzer].
By then, flight attendants and passengers had noticed Reid's suspicious activity and tied him to his seat, where an onboard physician gave him a tranquilizer. Reid later pled guilty to terrorism charges and was sentenced to life in prison [sources: CNN, Elliott].
In September 2002, six men, most of them born and raised in Lackawanna, a town in western New York, suddenly became the terrorists next door.
The men, known as the "Lackawanna Six," were arrested for terrorist ties after attending an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan where they showed support for the militant global Islamic organization. An anonymous letter to the FBI started the investigation.
All the men were American citizens of Yemeni descent and their arrest by the FBI in 2002 shocked neighbors who hadn't suspected they were living in the midst of budding terrorists. The men pled guilty to "providing material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization" and were sentenced to prison terms [source: Carafano].
Now freed, the men still live and work in western New York, all married with children. On the 10th anniversary of the case, Dr. Khalid Qazi, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council-Western New York, told a TV news station that the men "definitely are remorseful, they definitely want to ... put this behind them, and be positive contributors to the community" [source: Friona]. Today, some critics wonder just how big a threat they really were [source: Purdy and Bergman].
The Times Square Bomber
Times Square is one of the busiest places -- in one of the most populated cities -- on Earth, which makes it an ideal place to people watch. And bad news for would-be bombers.
In 2010, a Pakistani immigrant driving an SUV parked illegally near Times Square and promptly abandoned his vehicle. But not before lighting the fuse of a homemade bomb fueled by propane, diesel and ammonium nitrate.
Faisal Shahzad expected his exit to be followed by a ground-shaking boom. Instead, the plot went up in smoke when a watchful street vendor noticed Shahzad's rapid exit, which was followed by smoke coming from the vehicle. The vendor called police, and the area was quickly cleared.
Thankfully, the faulty bomb didn't detonate (it was wired incorrectly), but if his plan had worked, Shahzad would likely have killed dozens of bystanders. He was later sentenced to life in prison. The judge said she hoped he spent some of his prison time thinking about "whether the Koran wants you to kill lots of people" [sources: Associated Press, John].
Fort Dix Plot
Thanks to undercover operatives, a terrorist plot to attack U.S. soldiers with assault rifles and grenades was foiled in May 2007. Six men were arrested before the violent plan could take place at the Fort Dix Army base in New Jersey.
The FBI infiltrated the group after receiving a tip from a store clerk who got suspicious after the men dropped off a video to be copied to DVD. The video showed the men firing their weapons and calling for jihad [source: Fletcher]. A 16-month investigation revealed they had gone on training missions in the nearby Poconos Mountains and had the weapons they needed to carry out an attack.
The men – including three Albanian brothers -- were arrested and in December 2008, five were convicted on conspiracy charges, four were found guilty on weapons charges and one pled guilty to aiding and abetting the plot. All were sentenced to multiple years in jail; four of the men received life sentences [source: Carafano].
Synagogue Terror Plot
It required the work of undercover agents and a few fake bombs, but by May 2009, the New York Police Department had arrested four men for a failed terrorist attack. The men -- James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen -- had planned to bomb Jewish synagogues in New York City and to shoot missiles at Air National Guard airplanes at a base in Newburgh, N.Y.
An informant infiltrated a mosque and befriended the men, three of whom were born in the U.S.; then monitored their attempts to buy Stinger missiles. Agents were able to sell the men fake explosives. The men were nabbed as they attempted to stow the faux bombs in a car and at various Jewish religious sites.
Three of the men were later found guilty and convicted to 25 years in prison. The fourth, Payen, was ordered to have psychiatric testing as his lawyer said he was schizophrenic. He was later sentenced to 25 years, too [sources: Carafano, Dolmetsch].
The USS The Sullivans
The target of this terrorist plot in January 2000 wasn't on U.S. soil. Instead, it was the USS The Sullivans Navy ship, which was docked near the port city of Aden, Yemen.
The terrorist's plan was a straightforward one: Al-Qaida operatives would load explosives into a small boat, navigate near the Navy ship and then blow up themselves, their boat and the Navy's carrier.
It seems like the plot could have used a few more layers. After launching from the beach, the boat immediately sank under the weight of the explosives. The conspirators regrouped to plan another attack.
Unfortunately, Jamal Ahmed Mohammed Ali Al-Badawi and Fahd al-Quso were successful using the same tactics on the USS Cole in October 2000 and killed 17 U.S. sailors and injured 40 others.
In 2004, the pair was among a group of six sentenced by a Yemeni court for the Cole attacks [sources: Department of Justice, Branigin. Al-Quso was later released but continued his al-Qaida activities, including meeting with the "underwear bomber." He was killed by the CIA in a drone attack in 2012 [source: Al-Haj]. Al-Badawi was sentenced to death, but escaped during a prison transfer in 2006. He later turned himself in and was set free by Yemeni authorities. As of 2013 the FBI was offering a $5 million reward for his capture [source: Tilford].
Fountain Place Plot
In 2009, Hosam Smadi, a 19-year-old man from Jordan on an expired student visa began posting on a Web site known for its radical Islamic leanings. Smadi lived in Texas at the time and, according to FBI reports, seemed determined to act out his violent plans.
Soon, he was at the center of a 10-month FBI sting -- one that eventually supplied Smadi with a fake bomb made to his exact specifications. Smadi then drove an SUV carrying the bomb into a parking garage under a 60-story Dallas skyscraper known as Fountain Place. When he got inside an undercover agent's car and attempted to set off the bomb by dialing a cell phone number, Smadi was arrested.
In 2010, Smadi pled guilty to attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. He was sentenced to 24 years in prison in a courtroom just a few blocks from the building he'd once threatened to blow up [sources: FBI, Trahan].
Oak Ridge TN was crucial in the development of the nuclear bomb during WWII. HowStuffWorks goes into the secret city.
Author's Note: 10 Terrorist Plots That Failed
In light of 9/11, the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and a spate of other threats, terrorist acts certainly feel like a growing reality. What I was surprised to discover while researching this article, though, is a history of terrorism spanning centuries and ethnic groups. Terrorism is nothing new. In 19th-century Russia, for example, terrorist sought to overthrow the ruling regime by killing Czar Alexander the Second -- after half-a-dozen failed attempts. In fact, the word "terrorism" was first used in 18th-century France to describe a government that used terror to rule its citizens. Although the modern definition of "terrorism" has flipped (it's more likely to mean acts of aggression used to undermine a government), it's no less a threat than it ever was.
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