The US Patriot Act and Successful Terrorist Attacks


In the 21st century, terrorism, both domestic and international, represents one of the most acute threats to national security. Following the events of th1 9/11, the United States took several steps to enhance the nation’s capability to counter terrorist threats. However, evidence suggests that the Act’s surveillance provisions are of limited value for identifying threats, and terrorists may still reach the required conditions for success.

USA Patriot Act

The USA Patriot Act is the 2001 law designed to strengthen the American ability to counter terrorist threats and prevent terrorist attacks. One crucial component of the Patriot Act is the expansion of surveillance practices. Title II made it easier to conduct electronic and telephone surveillance and removed the obligation to prove that an individual under surveillance was an agent of the foreign power (“Patriot Act,” 2001, 286-287). Apart from that, it also facilitated the cooperation between different law enforcement agencies, especially in cases when domestic and international security considerations overlapped. Title VIII in its entirety covers the increasingly severe punishment for terrorist activity and also introduces new penalties for the support of terrorism (“Patriot Act,” 2001, 374-286). Overall, the purpose of the Patriot Act was to enhance the capabilities of American law enforcement and foster better cooperation between the intelligence community, law enforcement, and other agencies.

While the positives of the Patriot Act are the presumed ability to better trace and neutralize the terrorists, the downsides are the infringement of privacy and the limited effect some of its provision has insofar. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which handles warrant requests for surveillance, operates outside public observation and is also famously permissive (Gaines et al., 2018). Moreover, the report on the telephone surveillance program prepared by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (2014) casts a shadow of doubt upon the Act’s effectiveness. According to is, there has been “no instance in which the [surveillance] program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot” (PCLOB, 2014, p. 11). Given this example, one may assume at least the surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act are not particularly helpful in deterring terrorist threats.

Conditions for a Successful Terrorist Attack

Preventing terrorist threats requires eliminating the conditions that the terrorist require to carry them out – which, in turn, necessitates an understanding of the motivations and goal behind them. Generally speaking, the purpose of a terrorist attack is always twofold. On the one hand, the terrorists seek to influence decision-makers by inflicting enough violence and destruction on their power base to force the enemy to accept their political demands. This is what Pape (2003), in his famous study of the strategic logic of terrorism, calls ‘coercive terrorism.’ Apart from that, though, terrorist attacks also serve to advertise the respective terrorist movement and attract new followers. Although the idea of attracting rather than alienating people through acts of terror may seem paradoxical, such actions actually appeal to the socially alienated, who provide a natural recruitment pool for terrorists (Abrahms, 2008). In Pape’s (2003) terms, this motivation is called ‘demonstrative’ terrorism. Thus, the prerequisites for a successful terrorist attack should be conducive to both coercive and demonstrative goals.

In order for the terrorists to conduct a successful attack with a coercive purpose, the main conditions pertain to staffing, logistics, and information security, as well as reasonable goal-setting. First and foremost, the terrorists need a secure way of communicating with a minimized risk of detection, which is why the Patriot Act (2001) puts such an emphasis on surveillance. Secondly, the terrorists require a physical opportunity to move the necessary personnel and equipment close to the place of the intended attack. For example, for the attack on the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993, the terrorists had to rent a van, acquire chemicals for the bomb, make a timing device (9/11 Commission, 2004). The target of the terrorist attack should be important enough to make it impactful, as was the case in bot attacks against the World Trade Center. Finally, Pape (2003) suggests that, while terrorist attacks may achieve modest political gains, they virtually never succeed in wrestling significant concessions from the enemy. Thus, in order for a coercive terrorist attack to be successful in achieving its goal, the terrorist leaders need to pose reasonably limited political demands.

Even without coercive success, attacks, insofar as the terrorists are concerned, may still be a success as long as there is an opportunity to achieve demonstrative gains. Abrahms (2008) points out that terrorists understand the importance of social solidarity as motivation, which is why they conduct attacks even when there is next to no chance of coercive success. From this perspective, the main condition for the terrorist attack becoming a success is the means to advertise it efficiently and potentially attract new members to the terrorist organization. In the age of social media, the Internet provides ample opportunities for that, even despite the attempts of the owners to curb such use of their platforms. Moreover, with the gradual development of social networks based in different countries, the opportunities for state-sponsored terrorism increase as well. In any case, the crucial condition for a terrorist attack to become a demonstrative success is the ability to advertise the attack and appeal to potential supporters.


To summarize, terrorism remains an acute security threat, and the current approaches to preventing successful terrorist attacks are not entirely sufficient. For instance, the surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act proved largely useless for identifying previously unknown terrorist plots or organizations. At the same time, the conditions for a successful terrorist attack, be that logistical and organizational capacities or the ability to advertise the results, persist and even increase.


9/11 Commission. (2004). The 9/11 Commission report. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. Web.

Abrahms, M. (2008). What terrorists really want: Terrorist motives and counterterrorism strategy. International Security, 32(4), 78-105.

Gaines, L. K., Kremling, T., & Kappeler, V. E. (2018). Homeland Security and Terrorism (2nd ed.). Pearson.

Pape, R. A. (2003). The strategic logic of suicide terrorism. American Political Science Review, 97(3), 343-361.

Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board [PCLOB]. (2014). Report on the telephone records program conducted under section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act and on the operations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Web.

Uniting and strengthening America by providing appropriate tools required to intercept and obstruct terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act of 2001. Library of Congress. Web.

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