If it’s a little tough for Americans to adjust to the reality of the Boston bombing, it’s because nothing like this has happened to us for a very long time—since around 9/11, in fact. In the 11 and a half years since then, despite repeated waves of overseas terrorism from Iraq to the Middle East to Europe, experts say the only other well-known and successful domestic terrorist attacks have been the anthrax attacks of October 2001, the November 2009 massacre at Fort Hood by Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, and an incident in Austin, Texas, in 2010 when a man flew his plane into an IRS building, killing himself and one other person.
There have been many close calls involving bombing attempts, but all have been stopped in time—until Monday. Indeed, if there’s any area of almost total continuity between George W. Bush and Barack Obama, it is this: assiduous counterterrorism efforts at home.
Yet the relative calm at home belies the growing rage and intent of extremist groups, both U.S. groups connected to right-wing extremism at home and do-it-yourself jihadists inspired by Internet preaching. The timing of the Boston bombing, coming on Patriots' Day in Massachusetts, might well suggest the former, says Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert at Harvard University.
“The actual successful attacks have obviously died down, but there is a huge resurgence since Obama was elected,” says Stern. “All these discussions about whether they’re going to take away our guns would be another reason to suspect antigovernment groups. The other thing that points in the direction of right-wing extremists is the date.”
Patriots’ Day, which commemorates the battles of Lexington and Concord and is celebrated in Massachusetts on the third Monday of April, “has been for a long time an exciting day to be an extremist violent group,” says Stern. The Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, the Columbine high school massacre allegedly timed with Hitler’s birthday, and a more obscure incident in which authorities raided a compound occupied by a radical “Christian Identity” group called "The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord” in 1985 all occurred in April. “This whole week is a very important week for right-wing extremists,” Stern adds.
And yet authorities have interdicted just as many would-be jihadist terrorists in recent years. After Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani émigré, almost detonated an explosive-packed vehicle in Times Square in May 2010, Obama grew almost obsessed about the near-miss and stepped up efforts to interdict domestic terrorists, aides said. “The president wakes up thinking about what he can do to stop attacks,” a senior administration official said then.
A series of successful “sting” operations has followed. Among the culprits were Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, a Bangladeshi man accused of trying to blow up New York's Federal Reserve building in October 2012, and Farooque Ahmed, whom the FBI secretly guided into a Washington Metro bombing plot in 2010. Earlier this year, Mohamed Mohamud, a U.S. citizen originally from Somalia, was convicted in a plot to set off a bomb at a public Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Ore., in yet another setup by the FBI involving an undercover agent who pretended to be a member of a terrorist group helping Mohamud.
So effective have these tactics been that some critics fear civil liberties are at risk. Trevor Aaronson, a reporter for Mother Jones, recently published a book, "The Terror Factory," that accused the FBI of building a vast network of informants to infiltrate Muslim communities and, in some cases, cultivate phony terrorist plots.
In the aftermath of the Boston tragedy—no matter who is responsible—such criticisms may be muted. “You have to applaud to the efforts of our enforcement agencies to foil terror plots,” says Hedieh Mirahmadi, a Muslim community organizer based in Washington, D.C., who has worked with federal agencies to interdict radicals. “We’ve had a large number of homegrown terror plots stopped. That’s a tremendous record. That began under Bush as well, and let’s be fair and say that.”