Saturday, February 2, 2019

Actually, Terrorists Are Terrible at High-Tech

When I went to pick up the key for a library meeting room recently, it had a stack of sale books. I tend to monitor mainstream writing on terrorism, so, for a few peanuts, I picked up a book by Berry Davies BEM called "Terrorism- Inside a World Phenomenon". So far, I have gotten to page 3 and have a list of things that are misleading, misinformed, or just plain nonsense. Unfortunately, some of the claims are fairly common. Here is one:

Terrorists now use aircraft as smart bombs to destroy buildings and human suicide bombers to kill and mutilate the innocent. Moreover, terrorists have acquired an intimate knowledge of sophisticated modern weaponry, making the threat of a nuclear, chemical, or biological attack on a major population center inevitable.

There is no source for the 'intimate knowledge' statement. I can, in fact, find such claims in official government sources... going back to the 1950s. There have been people who have been quivering in fear of some two-bit terrorist with 'intimate knowledge' unleashing Armageddon from a rucksack for not-quite seventy years (usually connected to funding requests). Obviously, it hasn't happened, and although we do have a few rare examples of plots by sub-state actors involving Nuclear, Biological, or Chemical (NBC), such as the Tokyo Sarin gas attack, the few attempts are notable mostly for stunning failure. The Tokyo plot involved five attacks on three lines of a major subway, causing a total of twelve fatalities. There will likely be as many routine murders in Chicago between the time I write this and the time that you read it.

Now read the two quoted sentences together. The reason that the perpetrators of 9/11 used aircraft (piloted aircraft are, by definition not 'smart bombs') was because they lacked 'intimate knowledge' of 'sophisticated modern weaponry', let alone easy access to such weapons. They did not even have access to heavy aircraft without hijacking them or sufficient flight skills to fly them without sending people to the US for training (which caught the attention of an observant Minnesota FBI agent who was, nevertheless, ignored).

This is the same reason we know terrorists often turn to suicide bombing in the first place. Ahlamm Tamimi, the planner of the Sbarro Massacre in Jerusalem (2001) makes it clear that she used a suicide bomber because her previous attack failed due to a faulty timer and detonator. This is quite common. Even beyond timers and detonators, terrorists routinely screw up the explosives themselves. A common but highly-unstable terrorist explosive, TATP, has the distinction of killing at least as many bomb-makers as it does people they target.

This long string of failures is why they often plan from the start to fall back on firearms, knives, arson, trucks, etc., when the technical approach does not work. In the Paris Attacks, even though the explosives were made by ISIS' expert bomb-maker (Saleh Abdeslam, now dead), at least one vest did not explode. In the Orlando "Shooting", the explosives set by the attackers failed. In Nicé, the attacker didn't bother and just used a truck. Time and time again, terrorists demonstrate that they are not capable of using even fairly basic military technology.

This, of course, does not mean that terrorists are not a threat and that we should not try to stop them.

Certainly, someone willing to die in the attempt can do significant damage even with crude technology. Maybe some day a terrorist with more advanced technology will break the losing streak and will use NBC to some effect. The fear-mongers will crow at that point that they were right, but what it really would prove is that they have been wrong every day for well-over half-a-century. Terrorists are a threat, but not the kind of threat they are made out to be. By constantly trying to make them into something they are not, we are doing their job for them. After all, they are the terrorists: it is their job to make us afraid. So why do we keep churning out publications which do their PR-work?

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