Sometimes rocket science IS rocket science and must be practiced by rocket scientists. Luckily, very few people who have nefarious intent are rocket scientists and we should be thankful for that. We have all heard stories about hapless criminals who belong to the ‘gang that couldn’t shoot straight’ and we all have a good laugh.
The hapless criminal is on occasion a terrorist however. Hollywood portrayals like 24 where the bad guys are capable and devious and really, really scary and whom can only be stopped because the counter-terrorism good guys (think Jack Bauer) are more capable are not always reflective of reality (spoiler alert!). Yes, there are some very nasty terrorists who are very good at what they do – 9/11, Mumbai, etc. – but there are also many who are only slightly above incompetent.
Yes, there are some very nasty terrorists who are very good at what they do, but there are also many who are only slightly above incompetent
This is what appears to have happened on September 15th in London where an IED was detonated on a timer on the Tube during rush hour. At least 18 commuters have been injured, some seriously, through a combination of a ‘flash fire’ and the ensuing stampede to get the hell out of the car. Authorities in the UK, including MI5 (the UK CSIS) are still investigating and I am very confident that these excellent services will find out who was behind this heinous act, but they have already said that the damage and casualty count could have been much, much worse. The device didn’t do what it was designed to do, i.e. kill lots of people.
The device didn’t do what it was designed to do, i.e. kill lots of people
I was reminded of the case of Aaron Driver in Strathroy, Ontario a little more than a year ago. He was the convert jihadi on a peace bond who posted a martyrdom video online, somehow built a ‘bomb’, got into a taxi and detonated his device. Fortunately – for us, unfortunately for him I suppose – his bomb was lousy and did little more than singe him: it did not even hurt the cabbie sitting less than a metre away. Mr. Driver found his martyrdom when he was killed by the RCMP on site.
I also read regularly about Taliban and Islamic State terrorists in Afghanistan who die when preparing IEDs. Even some who resort to the jihadi weapon of choice these days – knives – sometimes fail as a loser in Paris today lunged at an anti-terror police officer but didn’t achieve anything.
I am not minimising the potential of these failed attacks. Even if mass casualties are not the outcome they do cause fear and terror (hence ‘terror’ism) and the stampede in the Tube is testimony to that. But we have to recognise that the gap between intent and capability is sometimes very large. Lots of terrorist talk the big talk but can only crawl, not walk. We need to stop lionising them and their campaigns to sow fear.
I suppose we should also count our blessings that more professional terrorists appear to be in short supply. This could change of course. In any event, our protectors – CSIS, the RCMP, MI5 – have to take all these threats seriously as they do not have the luxury of dismissing a plot because they assess that the perpetrator is a moron.
Let us hope that the parade of amateurs continues and that terrorists who intend to maim and kill don’t suddenly graduate from jihadi school or that groups like AQ and IS all of sudden attract real rocket scientists in droves. We should be grateful for small mercies.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. He worked as a strategic analyst in the Canadian intelligence community for over 30 years, including 15 at CSIS, with assignments at Public Safety Canada and the Ontario Provincial Police. He specializes in radicalization and homegrown Al Qaeda/Islamic State/Islamist-inspired extremism. He has spoken to audiences about terrorism across Canada and the US and around the world. firstname.lastname@example.org