Istanbul Attack and the Challenge of Prevention

The Istanbul night club massacre underscores the vulnerability of an open society to this type of terrorist attack. In an episode reminiscent of Orlando, Florida, a lone gunman shot his way into club, killing its security guard and 38 revelers. He then vanished into warren of the ancient city's streets.

The terrorist chose his target well. A nightclub openly serving alcohol on a secular holiday symbolizes everything that the Islamists hate. Its popularity with foreigners was a bonus. Twenty-five tourists died in the attack, which will certainly discourage anyone planning a vacation in Turkey.

An epicenter in the struggle with the Islamic State, Turkey has been hit repeatedly over the past year. The Christmas Market attack in Berlin, however, reveals that such an attack can occur anywhere at any time. A determined operative armed with a light automatic weapon or driving a truck and willing to die for his cause is virtually impossible to stop.

Modern cities are target-rich environments. Governments can secure airports and public buildings. They cannot protect the thousands of places people gather to work, shop and recreate. Venues and events are soft targets. Acting alone or under the direction of ISIS, a single individual can easily create a mass-casualty incident at any locale where large numbers gather.

Americans may be breathing a sigh of relief that we escaped a holiday attack. Our good fortune, however, probably stems more from our lower threat level than from the prowess of our intelligence or law enforcement agencies. The 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States are woven into the rich tapestry of American life. They enjoy the same benefits and opportunities as everyone else and the same success rate. They are not concentrated in ghettos or subject to widespread discrimination. Inclusion and respect for diversity are good antidotes to extremism.

As Orlando and San Bernardino illustrate, the U.S. does face an Islamist threat, although it is far lower than the one in Europe. Countering it requires good intelligence and effective law enforcement. These measures will, however, never be enough. Only by mitigating circumstances that make people prone to radicalization and identifying those at risk can attacks be reduced or prevented.

Terrorists such as the San Bernardino shooters often show warning signs friends and family ignore. Eliciting cooperation from those who interact with at-risk populations is crucial. Given the impossibility of protecting every potential target, prevention is the best option.