Thank God for incompetent terrorists

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. borealisrisk@gmail.com

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Why we will never ‘eradicate’ terrorism

Scientists have made great progress in eradicating diseases that once maimed or killed millions of people. Think of smallpox. Or polio, which a few years ago was on the verge of disappearance though state instability and war have allowed it to cling to life. The reason why these scourges were defeated (apparently there is a difference between eradication and elimination but that distinction is beyond the scope of this blog) is that efforts at developing vaccines or removing the conditions under which the disease flourished were successful. And we should all be grateful for that.

There is, however, a vast difference between eradicating a disease and eradicating terrorism. The former is the result of a biological organism, the latter is a human-driven social phenomenon. So when I hear a world leader claim that his government has ‘eradicated’ terrorism my skepticism peaks. Recently, both Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and the Algerian Minister of the Interior have made such statements (and the Algerian Army has vowed to ‘resoundly defeat terrorism’).

When I hear a world leader claim that his government has ‘eradicated’ terrorism, my skepticism peaks!

In other words, dialogue, negotiations, talks, and compromise have been judged to be insufficient – hence the move to more physical means.

 In addition Malaysia’s new most senior police officer has said it is time to ‘weed out’ terrorism. Here is why I am not so confident that they are correct.

(As a side note it is particularly galling to hear the Saudi king say that his regime has won out over terrorism given that it is precisely his kingdom’s aberrant version of Islam that has fed it for decades).

Terrorism is a tactic whereby a person, or more frequently a group of people or a whole movement, decide that the use of violence to advance some kind of ideological goal is required. These people want change and they have concluded that the only way to achieve this change is through the use of force. In other words, dialogue, negotiations, talks, and compromise have been judged to be insufficient – hence the move to more physical means. I find that the founder of Al Qaeda, Abdallah Azzam, summed up this view very well when he proclaimed “Jihad and the rifle alone; no negotiations, no conferences, and no dialogues.” It is really hard after all to defeat a tactic.

Even if, sorry Mr. Azzam, negotiations with terrorist groups are sometimes possible – we have seen for example what are very promising peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC – they are hard and they take time. As a non-state actor, a terrorist group is a difficult negotiating partner that can make demands a state cannot. And of course a given group can back out of a deal if it believes that the conditions have not been met or ‘rogue’ elements decide to return to violent means.

Secondly, as a tactic, terrorism is a tool available to a wide variety of ideological currents. We focus a lot on Islamist extremism these days, and for good reason, but as my friend Jamie Bartlett recently wrote in Foreign Policy the next big threat may come from the far left/green movement. If, as I expect, the jihadis aren’t going away any time soon (and a senior former UK intelligence official agrees with me), we may have to deal with multiple serious terrorist challenges simultaneously. That will tax limited resources.

In the end, a given terrorist group can be (temporarily) defeated. But terrorism cannot. We cannot eliminate a tactic that is used by such a wide variety of groups of people for the simple reason that it is simple, works, and grabs our attention (Brian Jenkins’ notion of terrorism as theatre). We generally date the genesis of terrorism to the latter half of the 19th century during the anarchist wave (using US political scientist David Rapoport’s ‘wave theory’ of terrorism idea) but it has probably been around since the creation of societies (rather than bands of hunter-gatherers). And it is here to stay.

Declaring victory against terrorism also suffers from the challenge of waging war against common nouns (think drugs, crime, etc.). These wars never end because one of the protagonists, unlike a state, cannot surrender: did you ever hear a bag of heroin say “Don’t shoot! I give up!”? So these proclamations are made for political and propaganda reasons but they really should be taken with a grain of salt.

This is not a defeatist position, it is a real one. And the sooner we can stop dreaming of unlikely goals the better off we will be.

>> NEXT WEDNESDAY: Why do we have anti-terrorism laws if are not going to use them?

Phil Gurski

President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. Phil 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. borealisrisk@gmail.com

The cutting edge of terrorism

When most people think about terrorism and terrorists they probably go immediately to explosives, suicide vests, firearms and, increasingly, the use of cars and vans. Attacks in which these ‘tools’ are used are ubiquitous and have become a scourge in far too many countries. Nary a day goes by without news about an incident somewhere in which one of these methods has been used. Whether it is a suicide bomb in Kabul or a Boko Haram ambush in Nigeria’s northern Borno State or the recent van atrocity in Barcelona it seems that the only thing new on any given occasion is the particular combination of city and MO.

We have also seen a trend in the use of knives of late. Attacks that have been executed with sharp instruments have been seen in Turku (Finland), London (UK) and, if we want to go back a few years, in Woolich (UK) – a combined vehicle/machete killing. There has been quite a bit of commentary on why knives have been so prevalent and these tend to reduce to availability. After all, who does not have a drawerful of sharp implements at home? Why make things complicated (i.e. bomb construction) when you don’t have to? While it is probably true that this kind of operation results in fewer casualties (dead and wounded) it is still terrifying.

This was not just an ordinary knife attack: the terrorist tried to kill and maim with a four-foot SWORD.

I think there is more to this development than is obvious at first blush. In the wake of an attack outside Buckingham Palace, I’d like to draw your attention to an important underlying theme. For the incident at the home of the UK monarch was not just an ordinary knife attack: the terrorist tried to kill and maim with a four-foot SWORD.

Now sometimes a sword is just a sword and is used because it is there. For instance last week in Taiwan a man attacked a guard at the Presidential Palace with a samurai sword he had just stolen from a museum ‘to express his political views’ (surely there are other ways to do this). This may be symbolic but it is well beyond my expertise to make a comment about the imagery of the samurai.

But swords are very meaningful tokens for jihadis. They hearken back to the ‘glory days’ of Islam that these extremists think they are ushering back, when Muslim warriors created a vast empire from India to Spain in less than a century. Swords were, and still are, the weapon of choice for a ‘real man’. A common kunya (nom de guerre) among Islamist extremists is Saif ulislam – the sword of Islam.

This evocation of a long dormant past probably also explains why the Saudi government, the self-appointed guardian of ‘authentic Islam’, uses swords in Riyadh’s ‘Chop-chop Square’ for public executions. There is also still a call for wannabe mujahedin to train in the techniques of classic Islamic warfare: horseback riding, swimming and the ability to use a sword.

For a terrorist to wield a sword in an attack may strike some as anachronistic but you have to admit seeing someone yell ‘Allahu Akbar‘ while slashing people with a metre-long blade would be a pretty harrowing experience. Not to mention the horrific injuries a sword does to its victims. I am no armament expert but I have read enough accounts of medieval battles to know that being stabbed and hewn with a long blade is not a pleasant experience.

The downside is that it takes some skill to use a sword and I can’t imagine that there are many that are adept at it. As I noted above this would reduce the number of serious injuries and deaths. Furthermore, first responders who arrive on the scene are equipped with vastly superior weapons with which to neutralise the terrorist. As they say, ‘never bring a sword to a gun fight’.

As they say, ‘‘never bring a sword to a gun fight’’!

It will be interesting to see if we come across more sword attacks, copycat or otherwise. One thing I do know is that terrorists want to re-create an imagined history. What better way to do it than with historical methods? Yes, they will use more modern instruments – TATP, AK-47s, internal combustion engines – but for some there is the romanticism of the tried and true.

Phil Gurski

President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. Phil 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. borealisrisk@gmail.com