The Inept Terrorist?

The Inept Terrorist?

Posted By Greg McNeal On July 2, 2007 @ 3:12 pm In Law Blog, Counterterrorism | No Comments

In the past few months our terrorist enemies have demonstrated that they lack key training and make mistakes.  However, we should not make the mistake of believing they are anything less than a deadly threat.  No matter how comical or inept they may seem– they are committed to a murderous ideology and the threat they pose is no laughing matter.

Unfortunately minimizing the threat is becoming a common and dangerous refrain.  After each thwarted or failed terrorist attack commentators remark about how inept, stupid or comical our murderous enemy is.  Consider Time’s [1] lede in their coverage of the recent attempts in Britain: “Individually the attacks looked inept, almost comically so, the incompetent work of slapstick terrorists.”  [2] The Guardian’s coverage echoed the theme “The attack was seemingly inept but it wreaked huge disruption for weekend travelers.”    

We’ve seen similar comments after almost every previously thwarted attack.  From late night television skits depicting the shoe bomber Richard Reid, to the idiotic comments of Wonkette following the Fort Dix terror arrests (comments which I took issue with here in [3] The Tank.)  After the JFK arrests Bruce Schneier of Wired [4] wrote “If these are the terrorists we’re fighting, we’ve got a pretty incompetent enemy.”

What is behind all of this minimizing?  The inept terrorist motif relates to a larger problem- as government officials continue to successfully disrupt plots and prevent attacks a growing number of people become complacent and buy into the argument that the terrorist threat has been overstated.  For example, John Mueller a political science professor at Ohio State wrote an article in [5] Foreign Affairs last October stating “almost no terrorists exist in the United States…A fully credible explanation for the fact that the United States has suffered no terrorist attacks since 9/11 is that the threat posed by homegrown or imported terrorists — like that presented by Japanese Americans during World War II or by American Communists after it — has been massively exaggerated.”  His book, [6] Overblown further details how the threat has been inflated to produce widespread and unjustified anxiety.  

And he is not alone, how about the BBC special [7] The Power of Nightmares detailing how al Qaeda is all just some made up neoconservative folklore aimed at creating an emergency so George Bush and his ilk can seize greater power— [8] Seriously.  Washington Post columnist William Arkin disagreed with the premise of the series, but still conceded that he thinks [9] “the threat of al Qaeda is a myth.”  Following the JFK arrests, Ariana Huffington dedicated an entire [10] post to telling us why all the terrorists picked up in thwarted terror attempts really are just boobs and low-level criminals exploited by fear-mongering presidential candidates.     

Oh those goofy terrorists are everywhere.  I mean a guy in Britain driving a fuel and explosives laden vehicle into an airport terminal, how silly can you get— that is until you consider the [11] estimated damage that the similarly armed vehicle in Haymarket would have caused.  According to explosives experts it would have been a fireball the size of a house, with a 400 yard diameter shockwave filled with car parts, nails, and shrapnel.  Or how about those moronic Ft. Dix plotters, armed with automatic weapons and RPG’s trying to “take over a military base.”  Well, they likely would have been able to pull off mass murder on a scale which rivaled the Virginia Tech shooting.  And of course that comical [12] Richard Reid, trying to light his shoe on fire, what could that have possibly done?  Well, according to this [13] video it could have done quite a bit. 

Somehow those inept terrorists don’t seem so comical anymore. 

No doubt, the recent failed and thwarted attacks demonstrate to us that our enemies are not highly trained, however that does not mean they are not dangerous.  The bomb-maker who accidentally kills himself on his first crack at making IED’s seems pretty inept, but when it happens after he has created hundreds of bombs he may still be inept but he certainly was pretty dangerous.  Remember Mohamed Salemeh?  In 1993, he rented a Ryder truck and had his co-conspirators fill it with explosives.  They parked it under the World Trade Center and detonated it.  Salemeh then called the truck rental company to let them know he was coming to recover his $400 deposit—he was swiftly arrested.  That may seem comically inept at first, but I bet the families of the six people killed and the 1,042 people injured weren’t laughing. 

Sometimes even the inept terrorists are successful, and we should never forget that. 

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URLs in this post:
[1] lede:,8599,1639143,00.html
[2] The Guardian’s coverage:,,2115970,00.html
[3] The Tank:
[4] wrote:
[5] Foreign Affairs last October: html
[6] Overblown: 1/103-5889828-3669412?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1183347882&sr=8-1
[7] The Power of Nightmares:
[8] Seriously:
[9] “the threat of al Qaeda is a myth.”:
[10] post:
[11] estimated damage:
[12] Richard Reid:
[13] video: