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Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 18:27 | SYDNEY
Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 18:27 | SYDNEY

Thankfully, most terrorists are stupid



9 September 2011 16:03

Although the al Qaeda threat has been greatly exaggerated over the last decade, it's worth pointing out as we near the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that one of the main impediments to a far more dangerous terrorist threat is the terrorists themselves.

The 9/11 attacks were so shocking in part because they were so novel — no one had ever seen terrorists use such methods before. But terrorists since then have been less imaginative and less competent. Charles Kurzman, writing in Foreign Policy, points to the example of a lone terrorist in North Carolina who tried to mow down random pedestrians with his car 'to punish the government of the United States for their actions around the world'. Thankfully, no one was killed:

Taheri-Azar's incompetence as a terrorist is bewildering. Surely someone who was willing to kill and die for his cause, spending months contemplating an attack, could have found a more effective way to kill people. Why wasn't he able to obtain a firearm or improvise an explosive device or try any of the hundreds of murderous schemes that we all know from movies, television shows, and the Internet, not to mention the news? And once Taheri-Azar decided to run people over with a car, why did he pick a site with so little room to accelerate?

Even more bewildering is that we don't see more terrorism of this sort, a decade into the "global war on terror" launched by the United States in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. If every car is a potential weapon, then why aren't there more automotive attacks? Car bombs have been around since the 1920s, when the first one was detonated on Wall Street in New York City, but they require a fair bit of skill. Drive-through murder, on the other hand, takes very little skill at all. People have been killing people with cars ever since the automobile was invented, and the political use of automotive assault was immortalized in a famous 1966 film, The Battle of Algiers, in which two Algerian revolutionaries drive into a bus stand full of French settlers. Yet very few people resort to this accessible form of terrorism. Out of several million Muslims in the United States, it appears that Taheri-Azar was the first to attempt this sort of attack; so far he has been followed by two possible copycats, leading to one fatality. (The trial of Omeed Popal, who killed a pedestrian, has been delayed for several years while the court tries to determine whether he is mentally fit to stand trial.) In addition to cars, plenty of other terrorist weapons are readily accessible. One manual for Islamist terrorists, published online in 2006, listed 14 "simple tools" that "are easy to use and available for anyone who wants to fight the occupying enemy," including "running over someone with a car" (No. 14) and "setting fire to homes or rooms at sleep time" (No. 10).

The example that comes to my mind is the car bombing of Glasgow Airport in Scotland in 2007. This case was made famous in Australia by the furore surrounding Mohammad Haneef, but the telling detail is the fact that at least some of the people involved in the attack (maybe all of them) were linked to the British National Health Service. One of the two men in the car was a medical doctor at a hospital where he presumably had access to government computers, restricted drugs and patients.

It is a blessing that these terrorists chose not to exploit that position of trust. Instead, rather bafflingly, they decided to strike where counter-terrorist defences are at their strongest – an airport. The bomb-carrying car they hoped to drive into the terminal was stopped by bollards put there for exactly that purpose, so the terrorists almost literally butted their heads against a brick wall.

Granted, I would be speaking less lightly of this episode had the bomb they were carrying actually gone off. And that's to say nothing of the two bombs the same men planted near London night clubs just days before, which also failed to detonate

But still, the focus on big blasts is puzzling. Events such as the Washington sniper episode demonstrate that individuals with ordinary or unlikely weapons (a rifle, a box of matches, a medical license) can cause vastly disproportionate levels of disruption. If practiced persistently and on a larger scale, such a campaign can have serious economic costs.

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