Over the Memorial Day weekend, there were two distinct kinds of untoward incidents that took place that should make Americans sit up and take notice. While neither may have had terrorist intent, they're just the kind of thing terrorist groups might do to test us.
First, there was the "pressure cooker incident" on Sunday in which a vehicle was found deserted on a street close to the Capitol Hill complex, reeking of gasoline, with a pressure cooker inside — the same kind of device the Tsarnaev brothers used to set off the Boston Marathon bombs with such murderous havoc. The bomb squad was called, the cooker was deliberately exploded to be sure it wasn't a bomb, and the owner of the vehicle was later found and arrested for driving with a revoked license. Little could be found throughout media reports, but the man's name: Israel Shimeles, described only as a resident of Alexandria, Va. The sole exception I could find was an Israeli media report which suggested that he might be one and the same as an "Israel Shimeles in the Bethesda area who is apparently an Ethiopian." Shimeles has subsequently apologized for his "stupidity".
Second was actually an interconnected series of incidents on Monday, Memorial Day itself, when 10 bomb threats were anonymously made — apparently by the same person — against a number of transatlantic flights coming to the United States from foreign locations, including Paris (two flights to two different airports here), London, Madrid, and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The airports affected were in Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, Newark, N.J., and New York City. Fighter jets were scrambled against one of the arriving jets, which was coming to JFK International from Charles de Gaulle airport. No one has yet been apprehended though investigations are ongoing.
Pundits tell us that such threats happen more frequently than one might realize, often the work simply of malicious pranksters. That's certainly possible. But I have found myself speculating about both the pressure cooker and airline threat incidents, and I freely admit it's no more than that.
If a terrorist group were interested in testing means and venues for success probability — which would include watching response times and the kinds of reactions that follow — what would they do? Perhaps something exactly like what happened.
There's little risk in such probes. The fellow with the pressure cooker suffers some minor inconvenience, is charged with a petty offense, apologizes, and life goes on. Meanwhile the terror group has collected a great deal of information about Capitol Hill defensive modes and postures.
And in the case of the threatened airplanes, unless the perpetrator is caught no one suffers any inconvenience at all (other than the passengers and crew, none of whom would be of much concern to terrorists). In fact, even minus the attacks per se, wreaking havoc on today's tightly woven and interconnected international air travel system is a plus to the perverse, given the fear and spillover effects it causes. A minor victory in and of itself.