What's up with these 'incompetent' terrorists?

What's up with the Islamic terrorists? Their latest failed attempt in Times Square does not stand alone in the litany of unsuccessful follow ups to 9/11. There was the incompetent Nigerian underwear bomber during the Christmas season. There was the infamous - and fortunately inept - shoe bomber, Richard Reid. And there have been numerous other attempts, both publicized and unpublicized, in which the terrorists have failed to achieve any measurable success.

There was also a failed Islamic plot to attack Jewish targets in the Bronx last year. Now I don't want to portray the Islamic terror world as having gone hopelessly incompetent. That is belied by the heinously successful assault in Fort Hood and by the murder of the CIA agents in Afghanistan. But compared to the sophisticated, meticulously planned and deadly effective attacks of 9/11, many of the recent forays by our Muslim enemies have proven remarkably amateurish and unsuccessful.

What's up? I think there are four possible explanations:

  1. The terrorists were incredibly "lucky" on 9/11; it would be unreasonable to expect circumstances to be so favorable for them in that way again.
  2. Since 9/11, we have killed or incapacitated their best people, leaving only second rate terrorist wannabees to plan and execute new attacks.
  3. Our defenses have improved considerably.
  4. They're holding back.
I think that there is some legitimacy to all four explanations. Not only were they "lucky" on 9/11, but we were completely asleep. Incredibly, they could have been luckier - if the Newark flight had not been delayed, Todd Beamer and his heroic comrades would not have learned of their tragic fate soon enough and the Capitol might have been rubble. Certainly we have decimated much of the Al Qaeda leadership, but I doubt that there aren't adequately capable lunatics available to replace them.

Of the four, I give the least credence to the third explanation, as the events of last weekend demonstrate. But I worry that the fourth explanation is the most accurate. Neil Braithwaite argued in this blog that the Times Square event was likely a trial run. Perhaps. More seriously, I worry that they are holding back their best operatives until they can deploy some sort of WMD - or at least a weapon that can inflict far greater damage than the airplane missiles of 9/11.

I hope that explanations 1-3 are on target, but I fear that #4 could be the correct one. While they wait for their moment, they see no harm in continuing with "low level" attacks - even if they fail. Such attacks: increase our paranoia, are cheap to perpetrate, keep their cause on page 1, provide training for their personnel and probe our weaknesses. Besides, they can't help themselves; their hatred for us is so great that, whether they seek our death by a thousand pin pricks or via some huge Gotterdammerung, they are not going to stop trying.