Steve Chapman

If there was any certainty in the weeks and months after the 9/11 attacks, it was that these were just the first in a campaign of terror on American soil. "You can just about bet on it," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said, "I anticipate another attack."

Gary Stubblefield, who directed the Naval Special Warfare Task Unit in the Pacific area, asserted that, as The Denver Post paraphrased, "the question is not if but when dozens of terrorist cells in the United States will unleash biological, chemical and perhaps nuclear weapons against U.S. cities." FBI Director Robert Mueller estimated the U.S. harbored "several hundred" extremists affiliated with al-Qaida.

Americans had seen in Israel how a homegrown terrorist movement was able to kill hundreds of people with suicide bombings and other attacks. It seemed we could expect the same. A comment often heard was, "We are all Israelis now."

But the predictions have not come true. There have been very few attacks in this country by Islamic extremists -- and nothing remotely on the scale of 9/11. The "sleeper cells" proved to be mostly nonexistent.

This surprising record has been attributed to excellent work by the FBI, CIA and other law enforcement agencies, the war in Afghanistan, and the Bush administration's aggressive treatment of suspected terrorists. But on the list of those deserving credit, the first is a group hardly anyone would have predicted: American Muslims.

Millions of Muslims live in the United States. Had even a tiny percentage been radicalized enough to commit violence, they could have done immense damage. Despite all the efforts to upgrade security at a few crucial sites, it really wouldn't be hard for any group to kill lots of people.

A car bomb in a stadium parking lot, a couple of semi-automatic rifles in a shopping mall, a Molotov cocktail in a crowded bus, a bomb on a railroad track, a runaway pickup on a city sidewalk -- there's an endless list of easy pickings.

There are too many targets to secure them all. It would have been a simple task for a handful of minimally trained volunteers to keep us in a constant state of fear.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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