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How to respond to the “Stupid Terrorists Club”

What didn’t kill us could make us stupider


 

What didn't kill us could make us stupider

It took only a few hours after reports emerged of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt at blowing up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day for Internet wags to start making light of the incident, calling Abdulmutallab the “crotchbomber,” the “jockstrap jihadi,” and a member of the terrorist “brotherhood of the travelling pants.”

Soon after, U.S. officials hit upon what must count as one of the greatest innovations in public security in years: mockery. Would-be suicide bombers now know that if they try, but screw up, their scorched underwear will be paraded before cameras for all to laugh at. Add that to the indignity of having your sad I’m-so-lonesome-I-could-die online ramblings read aloud on air by attractive young news anchors, and it makes you wonder why anyone would sign up for this terror business in the first place.

Why, you’d have to be stupid. For aspiring terrorists though, it would appear that being remarkably stupid is something close to a job requirement. The classic case is the Fort Dix six—a group of Islamic radicals who plotted to attack the U.S. army base in New Jersey in 2007. But first they made a DVD of themselves firing weapons and yelling “Allah Akbar,” and it all went sideways when they took the DVD in to Circuit City to be copied; they were promptly ratted out to the authorities by staff.

As early as 2005, it seemed as though most of the capable and intelligent terrorists had already blown themselves up in successful attacks, been killed by coalition forces, or were in hiding. Daniel Pipes was so inspired by the parade of idiocy, he opened his “Stupid Terrorists Club,” which was a constantly updated list of wannabe jihadis whose missions were foiled not by crack security work, but by their own ineptitude.

In fact, the only serious rival to terrorist stupidity is our system’s failure to catch it—and our official reaction to it when it happens. With typical sobriety, the U.S. Transport Security Administration responded to Abdulmutallab’s scorched-crotch tactics by immediately issuing a new set of regulations (eventually scaled back somewhat) that required full pat-downs at airport security, forbade pilots from telling passengers where exactly the plane was, and forced passengers to sit in their seats for the last hour of flight while banning them from holding a blanket on their lap or accessing carry-on baggage.

All of which had the predictable effect of creating chaos on the ground and engineering a climate of suspicion and fear among tired, anxious travellers. Two days after Abdulmutallab’s failure, a Nigerian businessman took ill on the same Amsterdam-Detroit flight and had to spend long stretches in the airplane’s washroom. We’ve all been there, but this time edgy flight crews decided—in what was likely a case of hysteria-induced racial profiling—he was being “unruly” and radioed ahead for security teams. When they landed, he was led off in handcuffs while his fellow travellers sat for hours as their luggage was tossed out on the tarmac to be inspected.

All of this security theatre would be worth it if any of it promised to make us even marginally safer, but you won’t find many independent analysts or experts who think it will. Bruce Scheier, a security consultant and the self-appointed scourge of the TSA, denounced the bovinely reactive character of the agency’s response this way: “It’s like saying the terrorist wore a green shirt, so no more green shirts.” Scheier has claimed for years that only two things have made flying safer since 9/11: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers now know that they are ultimately responsible for resisting hijackers.

The truth is, the odds of getting killed by a terrorist attack on an airplane are minuscule. Drawing on figures put together by stats whiz Nate Silver, the website Gizmodo posted a chart listing the total number of commercial flights between 1999 and 2009 (almost 100 million), the total number of passengers (over seven billion), and the total number of passengers killed in the four successful attacks (647). Add it all up, and the odds of being a victim of in-flight terrorism are about the same as winning the lottery.

Of course, all the math in the world doesn’t change the fact that Abdulmutallab might have succeeded, and there may be more like him out there. Why wasn’t he put on the U.S. no-fly list? How could he have got through security? The narrow answer is that the system failed. It turns out that the CIA had met with Abdulmutallab’s father to discuss his son’s increasing radicalization, and that there were credible intelligence reports about a “Nigerian” being prepared for a terror attack.

The broader answer is, there are people out there who want to kill us, and there is only so much an open society of fallible people can do to stop them. We can try our hardest to identify threats and minimize risk, but every now and then someone is going to succeed in killing a handful of members of our civilization.

As a result of the crotch-bomber’s efforts, more suspicious people will now find themselves on no-fly lists, the U.S. will probably drop some bombs on al-Qaeda bases in Yemen, and international air travel will become an even more undignified endeavour. Will it make us any safer? Not much. In the end, the main reason there are so few successful terrorist attacks is that blowing up a plane is already pretty hard, and most terrorists aren’t that smart.


 

How to respond to the “Stupid Terrorists Club”

  1. A government agency is found with their pants down, they are exposed as foolish and incompetent so they double down and punish everyone else.
    Makes perfect sense.

  2. Next time I fly, I'm wearing a shirt that says "Not a Terrorist"

    • Let me know how that works out for ya! ;)

  3. Ahmadullmullah is probably singing soprano in the choir now.

  4. In terms of bang for the buck his attack was incredibly successful. He cant be that stupid if for the price of an airline ticket and a crotch full of explosives he has billions of dollars in damage to the world airline industry.

    • Your right. We should have just sat this idiot on the tarmac and made sure his explosives worked properly the second time.

  5. Here's a Wall Street Journal everyone should read – carefully – especially all those who believe terrorists are stupid. The article's title is "The Meaning of al-Qaeda's Double Agent." Google up this title if you can't get the link below to work. I promise it's worth reading – carefully.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704

    It's about the recent terrorist "double agent" from Jordan who infiltrated one of our camps in Afghanistan and murdered seven CIA agents and the "double agent's" Jordanian contact man.

    Read the article and then tell me which side is stupid.

    • According to press reports last night, the Taliban leader who planned the attack on the CIA station in Afghanistan reportedly died last week from injuries inflicted by a retaliatory Predator missile attack executed shortly after the suicide bombing. He is the second Taliban leader to die from such attacks in the last 12 months. Stupid works both ways.

  6. Nice article, Potter. Agreed on all but one thing: Why do you keep saying "us"?

    The Macleans website says you are Canadian – certainly this is a Canadian magazine – yet all of your terror examples in the article talk only about the United States, which, last time I checked, is quite a separate country from Canada.

    Tell me, where's the "us"?

    Yes, there has been some terrorist attempts against Canada but there are repeated ones against the States (about ten vs. hundreds). Yes, Canada has increased a few airport security measures but every "stupid" one you describe were all administered by the States.

    No "us".

    I'll tell you why there's no "us". In fact, a phrase in your final paragraph inadvertently reveals it. You state, "The U.S. will probably drop some bombs on al-Qaeda bases in Yemen."

    There sits a major reason why terrorists, dumb or otherwise, attack the United States. And a big reason why they don't attack Canada. Canada does not react stupidly to conflict by dropping random bombs on random Muslim countries.

    Canadians hate how the United States employs this type of behaviour and are fiercely proud that we don't. Why on earth would you attempt to align us with the United States on something so opposed to our ideology?

    No "us".

    A much better name for the article would subtly be: "What didn't kill US could make US stupider."

    • I completely disagree with your naive theory of why they don't attack Canada. They do not attack the United States because the US drops random bombs on random Muslim countries. How many attacks did the US suffer during the Clinton years when Clinton didn't retaliate? This terrorism started three decades ago with the rise of the Ayotollah regimes which believed in a strict and ancient interpretation of Islam and the rejection of evil western influences. It did not start with GW Bush.

      They attack the US because the richest superpower is viewed as a source of evil full of infidels. One of the reasons that Canada has not suffered the same terrorist attempts as the US and some other western countries like Britain and Spain is because the attempts that were in the planning stages were luckily caught by CSIS. Just pure luck. I

      t is the belief that people like you have that Canada is the good guy and the US brings on their own misery because they act 'stupidily' are naive. I'm sorry to tell you that if you live in a western country and live a western lifestyle, you are a target. Your citizenship will not shield you on this one.

      • Ayatollah? Wahabbi influenced terrorism

        I'm sure you had no idea that Ayatollahs are Shi'i and Wahabbi's are Sunni. No way in hell are they related.

        Here is the problem with most westerners, you don't know that you don't know.

        You think you do

    • I have already met a few people that are from the U.S, and they don't even learn like the Canadians do in school, we learn a lot of different Country to understand, what its likes to be, and also we don't have to pay like the United States does, and they have more poor people then we do as a Canadian, we don't have to pay for a baby to be born at a hospital.

  7. Canada has an ideology?

    Is it like Canadian champagne?

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