Top 10 Terrorist Acts On American Soil

Terrorism is not a new phenomena. Although it has been used since the beginning of recorded history, it is still very difficult to define. Terrorism can be best described as both a tactic and strategy; a crime and a holy duty; a justified reaction to oppression and an inexcusable abomination. Obviously, it depends on whose point of view you are representing. Terrorism has often been an effective tactic for the weaker side in a conflict. As an asymmetric form of conflict, it confers coercive power with many of the advantages of military force at a fraction of the cost. Due to the secretive nature and small size of terrorist organizations, they often offer opponents no clear organization to defend against or to deter.

The United States Department of Defense defines terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.” Within this definition, there are three key elements—violence, fear, and intimidation—and each element produces terror in its victims. The FBI uses this but defines it in a much more specific way: “Terrorism is the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” The U.S. Department of State defines terrorism to be “premeditated politically-motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience”.  There again is not cohesive definition to this broad term.

Outside the United States, there are even greater variations in what features of terrorism are emphasized in definitions. The United Nations produced another definition of terrorism in 1992; “An anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons, whereby – in contrast to assassination – the direct targets of violence are not the main targets.” The most commonly accepted academic definition starts with the U.N. definition quoted above, and adds two sentences totaling another 77 words on the end; containing such verbose concepts as “message generators” and “violence based communication processes”. Less specific and also less verbose, the British Government definition of terrorism from 1974 is “…the use of violence for political ends, and includes any use of violence for the purpose of putting the public, or any section of the public, in fear.”

All in all, terrorism is seen as a criminal act that influences an audience beyond the intended victim. The strategy of terrorists is to commit acts of violence that draws the attention of the people, the local government, and the world to their cause. The terrorists plan their attack to obtain a paramount publicity, choosing targets that symbolize what they oppose. The effectiveness of the terrorist act lies not in the act itself, but in the public’s or government’s reaction to the act. For example, in 1972 at the Munich Olympics, the Black September Organization killed 11 Israelis. The Israelis were the immediate victims. But the true target was the estimated 1 billion people watching the televised event.

As you know, in 1993, al Qaeda tried to blow up the World Trade Center. They just failed on that occasion. And we, the United States, had been the victim of terrorist attacks by al Qaeda on more than a handful of occasions in the 1990s. What happened on 9/11 that is so important is that they proved beyond a doubt that they were not the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, which is what we thought was the case before 9/11. When we realized just how competent and dangerous they were, we then began to hypothesize what might happen if they got ahold of weapons of mass destruction, and particularly, if they got ahold of nuclear weapons. So the terrorist problem has been with us for awhile, and most IR theorists have spent some time studying it. But what has changed over the past year is the level of threat. We understand that we’re up against a much more formidable and much more dangerous adversary than we thought was the case throughout the 1990s. So that’s point number one.

Point number two is the question of what does a Realist theory of international politics have to say about terrorists? The answer is not a whole heck of a lot. Realism, as I said before, is really all about the relations among states, especially among great powers. In fact, al Qaeda is not a state, it’s a non-state actor, which is sometimes called a transnational actor. My theory and virtually all Realist theories don’t have much to say about transnational actors. However, there is no question that terrorism is a phenomenon that will play itself out in the context of the international system. So it will be played out in the state arena, and, therefore, all of the Realist logic about state behavior will have a significant effect on how the war on terrorism is fought. So Realism and terrorism are inextricably linked, although I do think that Realism does not have much to say about the causes of terrorism.

That is why we turn to another source ton understand terrorism.

Since 11 September 2001, there were many papers being written by scholars who apply game theory to the study of terrorism. Game theory is an appropriate tool for studying terrorism for six reasons. First, game theory examines really well the strategic  interactions between terrorists and a targeted government, where actions are interdependent and, thus, cannot be analyzed as though one side is passive. Second, strategic interactions among rational actors, who are trying to act according to how they think their counterparts will act and react, characterize the interface among terrorists (e.g., between hard-liners and moderates) or among alternative targets (e.g., among targeted governments, each of which is taking protective measures). Third, in terrorist situations, each side issues threats and promises to gain a strategic advantage. Fourth, terrorists and governments abide by the underlying rationality assumption of game theory, where a player maximizes a goal subject to constraints. Empirical support for terrorists’ rationality is given credence by their predictable responses to changes in their constraints – e.g., the installation of metal detectors in January 1973 led to an immediate 2 substitution away from skyjackings into kidnapping. Fifth, game-theoretic notions of bargaining are applicable to hostage negotiations and terrorist campaign-induced negotiations over demands. Sixth, uncertainty and learning in a strategic environment are relevant to all aspects of terrorism, in which the terrorists or government or both are not completely informed.  Game Theory is the best international relations literature to turn to when trying to understand terrorism.

Keeping Game Theory in mind, this top 10 article takes a look at 10 terrorists acts on American soil.  It is ranked based on number of fatalities/injuries and the strength of the terrorist act itself. Top 10 list is writing this article in commemoration of the tragic events of the Boston Marathon in April of 2013.

1. September 11, 2001

Fatalities: 2,993; Injuries: 8,900

Any Top 10 List about Terrorism should begin with the September 11, 2001 attack as it was the largest of its kind on American soil. Initiated by an extremist organization named Al Qaeda, and its powerful leader Osama bin Laden, the attack led to America’s entrance War On Terror.

The attacks themselves were coordinated affairs: 19 members of Al Qaeda managed to hijack four airliners believing they were doing so for Jihad. Two of these planes were crashed into New York City’s World Trade Center. A third plane was crushed into the Pentagon in Washington DC. The fourth plane, which is believed to have been headed for targets in Washington DC as well, crashed into a field in Summerset County, Pennsylvania, after passengers attempted to regain control of the plane from the hijackers.

The damage was horrific. Both World Trade Center towers were demolished – crashing to the ground within less than 2 hours of impact. The Pentagon was heavily damaged as well. 9/11 is the most lethal attack carried out against the US, and continues to have ramifications in the nation’s foreign and domestic policies.

Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, feelings of uncertainty immediately ensued regarding national security as fear loomed of possible future attacks. At the same time, feelings of uncertainty resounded regarding exactly what impact these attacks would have on the economies of both the United States and the global community. Such uncertainty was warranted given that the United States was already in the midst of a recession.

In addition to striking at the heart of the entity that symbolizes US military capability (the Pentagon), the attacks also struck an important economic symbol (the World Trade Center complex), resulting in a four-day hiatus of Wall Street trade activities. An attempt to predict the impact of these events on the economy resulted in the formation of basically three camps of forecasters. One set of forecasters—which consisted of an insignificant few—projected the economy would worsen, causing a deepening in the recession and a loss of U.S. economic hegemonic power. A second camp of forecasters—and the majority of forecasters—believed that, beyond New York’s economy, the attacks would not alter the country’s economic direction in which it was already headed. In essence, barring another attack, the recession would continue. A third camp of forecasters projected benefits to result from the attacks in the form of an increase in spending on security and technology development needed to adjust to globalization and all that comes with it.

Indeed, the United States and the international community for the most part were in shock. First, the events that transpired on that day were not like any other catastrophe to occur within the United States. Second, US stock markets halted for four business days and stocks fell immediately in the re-opening days of the stock market, with the Dow Jones falling 684.81 points on re-opening day; the 9/11 attacks simply fueled more concern given that the markets were already undergoing tumultuous times with the “dancing in the dollars” era coming to a close by year-end 2000. Third, while economic growth slowed immediately following the attacks, the US economy was already in a recession with consumer confidence declining throughout the months prior to the terrorist attacks. Finally, the United States had just experienced a very tumultuous close presidential election. As such, the 2000 election resulted in a divided country, with many political pundits quickly blaming both the outgoing Clinton administration and, to a lesser extent, the current Bush administration for failing to prevent these attacks.

Needless to say, as for the Bush administration, initially most political views seemed to rally around the flag. Yet, as time passed, such sentiments waned as the country grew “war weary” after finding itself engaged in fighting two wars with the second war being recognized as a mistake altogether.

North Korean Propaganda Posters


2. Oklahoma City Bombing

Fatalities: 169; Injuries: 675

While acts of terror seem to be carried out primarily by religious extremists, this wasn’t the case with the number two entry on our top 10 list.

At 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, a rental truck filled with explosives detonated in front of the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The powerful explosion blew off the building’s entire north wall. Emergency crews raced to Oklahoma from across the country, and when the rescue effort finally ended two weeks later the death toll stood at 168 people, including 19 young children who were in the building’s day care center at the time of the blast. More than 650 other people were injured in the bombing, which damaged or destroyed more than 300 buildings in the immediate area.

A massive hunt for the bombing suspects ensued, and on April 21 an eyewitness description led authorities to charge Timothy McVeigh, a former U.S. Army soldier and militia sympathizer, in the case. As it turned out, McVeigh was already in jail, having been stopped a little more than an hour after the bombing for a traffic violation and then arrested for unlawfully carrying a handgun. Shortly before he was scheduled to be released from jail, he was identified as a prime suspect in the bombing and charged. That same day, Terry Nichols (1955-), an associate of McVeigh’s, surrendered in Herington,Kansas. Both men were found to be members of a radical right-wing survivalist group based in Michigan.

On August 8, Michael Fortier, who knew of McVeigh’s plan to bomb the federal building, agreed to testify against McVeigh and Nichols in exchange for a reduced sentence. Two days later, McVeigh and Nichols were indicted on charges of murder and unlawful use of explosives.


3. Atlanta Olympic Games Bombings

Fatalities: 2; injuries: 200

A bomb explodes at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta during the Summer Games, killing two people and injuring more than 100. Eric Robert Rudolph was arrested in 2003 in connection to this attack and also an attack on an abortion clinic in 1998. He plead guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.

Two people were reported to have been killed and firefighting officials said as many as 200 people may have been injured. The explosion happened at 0125 local time during a rock concert in the Centennial Olympic Park.

Warning came too late. After the blast, the area was immediately surrounded by police and cordoned off.

The nearby press centre was closed because guards feared another explosion. Eyewitnesses described a scene of chaos and carnage. People lay on the ground with head and other injuries as police tried to clear the area.

The police say they received a phone call warning of the bomb and describing its location but it was too late to evacuate the park. They did, however, manage to clear the immediate vicinity.

It is reported the caller’s voice had the characteristics of a white American male.

Security at the Games – already billed by the authorities as the largest peacetime security operation for a public event in American history – has been stepped up with extra bag searches and regular sweeps for explosives.

‘Act of vicious terror’

It seems most visitors are determined the attack will not stop them enjoying the Games and events such as boxing, diving and track and field attracted healthy numbers of spectators today.

President Bill Clinton has reacted defiantly saying the Olympic Games should carry on as planned to show the nation would not be cowed by acts of terrorism.


4. Boston Marathon Bombing

Fatalities: 3; Injured: 180

April 15, 2012’s terror attack on the Boston Marathon killed an 8-year-old boy watching with his family, a 29-year-old woman and a Boston University graduate student from China. More than 180 others were injured, many losing limbs as a result of horrific twin blasts near the race’s finish line, in the heart of the city.

For some, the attacks brought immediate comparisons to the September 11, 2001, attacks, partly because of reports that investigators talked with Saudi Arabian citizens who were at the site — even though a U.S. official said one Saudi male questioned was simply in the “wrong place at the wrong time.”

For others, the bombs that exploded near the finish line of the marathon Monday afternoon felt more homegrown, more akin to the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that left 168 people dead or the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing that killed two.

Authorities took pains to caution Americans against jumping to conclusions.

Barack Obama in a televised conference said that investigators don’t know whether the bombing was a work of an organized group or a disgruntled loner. Nor do they know if the violence came from within the United States or stemmed from a plot hatched overseas.

The Bomb:

Federal agents zeroed the next day zeroed in on how the Boston Marathon bombing was carried out – with kitchen pressure cookers packed with explosives, nails and other lethal shrapnel – but said they still didn’t know who did it and why.

An intelligence bulletin issued to law enforcement and released late Tuesday included a picture of a mangled pressure cooker and a torn black bag the FBI said were part of a bomb.

The FBI and other law enforcement agencies repeatedly pleaded for members of the public to come forward with photos, videos or anything suspicious they might have seen or heard. Top 10 List will keep you updated as soon as information emerges.

Details (Updated 04-20-13):

On April 18, in a 5:20 p.m. news conference the FBI released photos and a video of two suspects, and  needed the help of the public to identify them. The FBI said that one of the suspects had been seen placing a backpack at the bombing scene minutes before the second bomb exploded.

Suspects at the Boston Marathon prior to bombing. Authorities identified  the people in the video as two brothers: 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev and 19-year-old Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev. Ethnic Chechens from the North Caucasus, the two emigrated to the United States in 2002 and had been living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They had previously lived in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan, and Makhachkala, Dagestan, Russia. Both brothers are Muslims.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev (October 21, 1986 – April 19, 2013) was killed during a massive manhunt launched in the early hours of April 19 .He was born in Russia. He had been arrested in 2009 for domestic assault and battery after assaulting his girlfriend. He was not a U.S. citizen, but living in the country as a permanent resident. He had been quoted as saying, “I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.” Top 10 List wonders why.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (born July 22, 1993) at the time of the incident was a student at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, with a major in marine biology.  He was born in Kyrgyzstan. He became a U.S. citizen on September 11, 2012. On television, his uncle, living in Maryland, pleaded with Dzhokhar to turn himself in. He was found and taken into federal custody following a standoff in the evening of April 19 and is now in critical condition.

The Manhunt:

Immediately after photos were released,  a shooting followed on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, near the Stata Center (Building 32) on April 18 at 10:48 p.m. EDT (02:48 UTC, April 19).  Multiple shots were fired and Sean Collier, 26, an MIT police officer from Somerville, Massachusetts was critically wounded.  Collier was sent to hospital where he was pronounced dead.

The suspects next carjacked a silver Mercedes SUV in Cambridge and forced the owner to use his ATM card to obtain $800 in cash. They released the man after the ATM cash limit was reached. The suspects admitted to the man that they were responsible for the Boston bombings. Police chased the vehicle to Watertown, Massachusetts. Police in Watertown reported that they exchanged gunfire with two suspects following the MIT shooting, with explosions and automatic weapon fire heard.  Later that evening, The Boston Globe reported that the shooting suspects were the same men being sought in the Marathon bombings. The two suspects exchanged gunfire with police and even threw a pressure cooker bomb at them, which exploded in midair after the lid failed. One suspect, Tamerlan, was captured and killed, whole the other, Dzhokhar, managed to escape.

In the morning of April 19, after the car chase and a bloody xchange of fire with law enforcement, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was taken to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he died of multiple gunshot wounds, he had sustained in the shootout. The second suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.The brothers had tossed pipe bombs from their car at officers who pursued them into Watertown from Cambridge. Early on April 19, Watertown residents received reverse 911 calls asking them to stay indoors.

Thousands of law enforcement personnel participated in a door-to-door manhunt in Watertown, as well as following up other leads, including at the house the brothers shared in Cambridge. The father of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers, Anzor Tsarnaev, speaking from his home in Makhachkala in Dagestan, encouraged his son to give up peacefully: “Give up. Give up. You have a bright future ahead of you. Come home to Russia.

The manhunt ended in the evening of April 19 when authorities surrounded Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, who had taken refuge under the canvas cover of a Watertown resident’s boat. He was discovered by the boat’s owner’s neighbour, David Henneberry, when, shortly after the “shelter-in-place” order was rescinded, Henneberry noticed that the tarp covering the boat was loose and the lines securing the tarp were cut. He lifted the tarp to investigate and saw a human body lying in a pool of blood. Tsarnaev’s presence was later verified through thermal imaging cameras. He was taken into custodyafter a standoff, and transported to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center where he is reportedly in serious condition.


5. Bombing at WTC, 1993

Fatalities: 6; Injured: 1040

Bombing at World Trade Center, New York City, NY took place the first time in February of 1993; truck bomb in basement parking garage started fire; 5 Islamic suspects arrested in March; 6 killed, 1,040 injured; damages estimated at $550 million to $1.1 billion.

It took officials 11 hours to completely evacuate roughly 50,000 people from the buildings.It left a gaping hole in the wall above the path underground station. Most of those who died are believed to have been crushed by the station ceiling.

It ripped through three floors of concrete, scattering ash and debris and set off a fire that sent choking smoke and flames up through one of the 110-story “Twin Towers”.

Total pandemonium!

Thousands of office workers were trapped as smoke filled up through the buildings. With no working lifts or lighting there was total pandemonium.

People did not know whether to stay in their offices or to be brave and journey down via the smoke-filled stairwells.


6. TWA Bombing in LaGuardia Airport

TWA Bombings

A bomb hidden in a locker exploded at the TWA terminal at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, killing 11 people and injuring 75. Palestinian, Puerto Rican and Croatian groups were suspected, but no arrests were ever made.


7. Fraunces Tavern Bombing

Fraunces Tavern Bombing

Fatalities: 4

On January 24, 1975, a bomb went off at historic Fraunces Tavern in New York City, killing four people. It was one of 49 bombings attributed to the Puerto Rican nationalist group FALN between 1974 and 1977 in New York.


8. Bomb in Time Square

Pakistani immigrant Faisal Shahzad left an explosives-laden SUV in New York’s Times Square, hoping to detonate it on a busy night. Street vendors spotted the smoke coming from the vehicle and the bomb was immediately disabled. Shahzad was arrested as he tried to leave the country and was sentenced to life in prison.

Times Square on a Saturday night is one of the busiest and most populated locations in the city, and has long been seen as a likely target for some kind of attack.

The license plates on the Nissan were registered to another vehicle — a Ford pickup truck that was taken to a junkyard near Bridgeport, Conn., within the last two weeks, according to a law enforcement official. The previous owner of the Ford was interviewed Saturday night by the F.B.I., but it did not appear he was regarded as a suspect. Still, the junkyard was considered a primary target of the initial investigation.

The S.U.V.’s standard vehicle identification number had been removed and investigators scoured it to see if the number appeared elsewhere.


9. Bomb explodes outside the nation’s capitol.

Capitol Hill

On Nov. 7, 1983, a bomb exploded inside the United States Capitol shortly before 11 p.m. No people were harmed, but an estimated $250,000 in damage was caused. In May 1988, six members of the “Resistance Conspiracy” were arrested and charged with the bombing, as well as related bombings of Fort McNair and the Washington Navy Yard


10. Underwear Bomber


The famous underwear bomber’s explosives failed to go off during the 2009 Christmas Day plot because he wore the potentially deadly undies for three weeks.

Two FBI agents told reporters that when the bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, confessed to the plot and the disgusting facts surrounding his bombing making experience.

Abdulmutallab pleaded guilty to attempting to blow up Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day. He was able to get through security and onto the plane, but the underwear bomb he was wearing failed to detonate. Instead, it caught fire, severely burning Abdulmutallab in the groin area.

The young jihadist was given multiple life sentences, but not before saying in court that he was still “proud to kill in the name of God.”


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2 Responses

  1. Conan

    We brits are well aware of how terrible the threat of a terrorists bomb can be. I remember working in london at the height of the IRA bombing attacks. An there were bomb alerts on train stations and in London every few days. Some real, some hoaxs but thats the goal of bombing. Next week, if you heard there was a “suspect package” found in Boston, even if all it is was an empty bag, the fear is already there. I also was on the train to work during the 7th July bombing of our trains and buses.

    All you can do is be vigilant and continue with your life. I would think that i cant dodge a bomb if it happens, and what if i changed my destination and ended up walking into a bomb? Its better to worry about threats you can see, like cars. 🙂

    But with every bomb and the victims that die or are injured. With all that terror and pain you also see the best in humanity as people rush to aid those hurt at cost of themselves. They try to cause fear but it brings people together.

  2. Joanna

    This post highlights how many of these terrible acts have happened over the last few years. I can’t imagine what all these victims must have gone through but my heart goes out to them.

    Like Conor mentioned, the goal of these bombings is meant to scare us. I’m not going to let terrorists take over my life 🙂


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