Governments take terrorist threats very seriously. But the seriousness of terrorism has to be balanced against how very ineffective – even incompetent – most terrorists actually are.
When printer cartridge bombs were found on a flight about to depart from East Midlands Airport in England to the US on October 29, the regulatory and security response was immediate and uncompromising.
The packages originated from Yemen, so all cargo from Yemen was banned. And Somalia, too. The German government even stopped all passenger flights from Yemen. Toner and ink cartridges above 450 grams were completely banned from passenger flights travelling to the US, not just coming from Yemen, but coming from anywhere at all. The pat-down security procedures on all passengers travelling anywhere within or into the US were boosted.
A substantial reaction, but not an unusual one. Security agencies always hastily crack down on all sorts of activity when terrorist plots are discovered.
Yet just a few weeks later, it is hard to be scared by the printer cartridge bombs at all.
The plot failed on multiple counts. The bombs were found, they were disarmed, and they posed a minimal threat to human life and property. Neither does it represent innovation in terrorism – mail bombs have been around for centuries.
The bombs travelled on passenger jets, certainly, but only by accident. As they were cargo, the bombs were carried on passenger aircraft early on the journey from Yemen through the Middle East. The plan was to explode the bombs in US airspace, but investigators suggest it could have exploded over Canada.
Had the bombs exploded, they would have destroyed a cargo jet and its tiny crew, not the synagogues to which they were addressed.
The bomb maker to whom this has been attributed – Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, al-Qaeda’s chief engineer in the Arabian Peninsula – is responsible for the failed Christmas Day 2009 bomber, and a failed assassination attempt on a Saudi intelligence chief. The only fatality of that latter incident was al-Asiri’s brother, who had hidden the explosives in his rectum.
The printer cartridge bomb plot was detected by traditional counterterrorism intelligence. Some reports suggest information about the plan came from undercover Saudi agents within al-Qaeda’s Yemen operation – the terrorist network is, apparently, a lot easier to infiltrate as it tries to stave off long-term decline by expanding its franchises into Yemen and the Maghreb.
So, like many other terrorist scares, in retrospect, there is a lot less to the printer cartridge bombs than first seemed. There seems little reason to be worried.
But nothing quite demonstrates the strangely pathetic nature of the terrorism threat more clearly than al-Qaeda’s new English language magazine.
The October issue of Inspire contains some bizarre suggestions for jihadists plotting in the West. For instance: one article recommends terrorists weld steel blades onto the hubs of a four-wheel-drive and drive up onto a crowded footpath. Doing so, we read, will “achieve maximum carnage”. But that seems more like a terrorist plot hatched by Mad magazine than professional, trained Islamic revolutionaries.
When they’re not utterly stupid, they are oddly banal. Another Inspire recommendation is to shoot up lunch spots that are popular with government workers. So in a decade, al-Qaeda has gone from targeting the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon – the two symbolic organs of American power – to threatening Starbucks outlets one at a time.
Then there is “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom”, which suggests repurposing a home pressure cooker to become an explosive device. Such a device is weak, apparently, so the magazine recommends it is placed “close to the intended targets”.
It is surprisingly hard to detonate explosives successfully. Despite the large number of detailed guides to bomb-making littering the internet – whether written for anarchists or jihadists or self-destructive teenagers – the history of terrorism suggests budding bomb-makers are undertrained and underprepared.
The shoe-bomber, Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a flight from Paris to Miami in late 2001, failed because his explosives were damp. The Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, burnt his trousers off trying to ignite explosives in his underpants.
The May 2010 Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, could not get his car bomb to detonate. He just set the car on fire. Shahzad was apprehended, in part, because he left his house keys in the ignition.
In late November, the “Portland car bomb plot”, in which a 19-year-old Somali-American tried to blow up a Christmas event, was foiled because his car bomb was a fake. The explosives had been provided by undercover FBI agents who – it appears – had goaded him into becoming an operational terrorist in the first place.
If so, it would not be the first time: a 2007 plot to attack a US army base in New Jersey was almost certainly a case of FBI entrapment. And it will no doubt occur again. There was a bizarre case reported in The Washington Post this week of a mosque in Los Angeles taking out a restraining order on a man spouting pro-terrorism views, and reporting him to the FBI. The man turned out to be an FBI informant trying to infiltrate the jihad.
Despite all this clownishness, the overreaction to every failed terrorist attack has serious consequences. Terrorism succeeds not because of what it does to its target, but what its target does to itself in response.
Measured in money, the cost of terrorism is dwarfed by the cost of the reaction to terrorism. Security responses threaten civil liberties and the rule of law. Nobody needs to be reminded how, since the September 11, 2001, attacks the legal, political and administrative security apparatus has been unalterably changed in the US, Australia and throughout the Western world. The economic cost of this alone is staggering. There are now 1271 separate American government bureaucracies dedicated to security.
Millions of Americans have security clearance and access to this sprawling bureaucracy – apparently allowing a disaffected, low-ranking soldier to gather a huge number of military and diplomatic records and send it to WikiLeaks.
Our government has embarked on its own national security empire-building. The size of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has tripled in the past decade.
Then there are the inconveniences caused by knee-jerk reactions to failed terrorism plots. The discovery of the printer cartridge bombs may mean in-flight wireless internet is scrapped, in case the internet is used to detonate explosives. After all, if it is possible to imagine, it is necessary to ban.
There’s also political pressure in Britain to install high-tech screening devices to scan every piece of cargo travelling on aircraft, with the cost borne by freight companies.
After November’s car bomb attempt, Portland is now beefing up security and getting rid of parking at public events.
And after the Christmas bomber, the US government dramatically increased the number of body scanners and intrusive pat-downs. The outcry over the privacy and health consequences of these extraordinarily invasive measures has been deafening. The phrase “security theatre” has become widely used, even among commentators predisposed to being tough on terrorism.
Two things to note: the invasive body scanners have been installed in response to a failed terrorism attempt, not a successful one. And independent security experts have discovered that the scanners are unable to detect the sort of explosives the Christmas Day bomber tried to use.
So, naturally, the Australian government plans to spend $200 million introducing body scanners here within the next few months.
And measured in lives, the reaction to terrorism is often far worse than the potential damage caused by terrorists.
Admittedly, this point does not apply if you believe drone strikes and other military actions kill terrorists exclusively. There are indications the US will respond to the printer cartridge bombs by escalating its covert war in Yemen to include drone attacks.
Next year will be the 10th anniversary of September 11. The devastation of those attacks now looks like a rare fluke. It is one which is unlikely to be repeated. If nothing else, aircraft passengers will no longer passively allow anyone to forcibly take over a plane. Passenger awareness is probably the most powerful airline security “innovation” in the past decade.
And it is becoming increasingly clear there are no great terrorist “masterminds”. The war on terror has no great Bond villain. There is no Einstein of al-Qaeda.
Incompetent terrorists are still dangerous; they can still kill.
But after the initial panic, the vast majority of terrorist incidents are less threatening than they first seem.
The director of the US National Counterterrorism Centre said last week “we help define the success of an attack by our reaction to that attack”. Let’s try not to make our reaction to terrorism worse than the threat of terrorism.