Stink Bombs As Terrorist Tools

Two teenage boys detonated a stink bomb on a Sydney commuter train, and prompted a counter-terrorism response.

Best quote:

"It would have been terrifying. You're on a train, you hear a loud bang, the logical conclusion that people drew was (that it was) probably a terrorist attack," Mr Owens told reporters.

I agree that it was the conclusion that people drew, but not that it was a logical conclusion.

Posted on May 7, 2007 at 7:15 AM • 43 Comments

Comments

Erik NMay 7, 2007 7:56 AM

Is it reasonable to assume that people apply logic while panicking? Isn't lack of logic a fundamental characteristic of panic?

Are the premises available for logic to be applied? If you hear an explosion, and that is the only evidence to draw a conclusion on, would you instantly guess it was a prank?

With the terrorist hype around I think it is logical that people first guess on a terrorist attack, and the boys should have applied that logic before placing the prank. Similar incidents happened after the first letters of anthrax.

RoxanneMay 7, 2007 8:02 AM

At least this time the kids actually did something in a terrorist vein. Admittedly, they mostly wanted to annoy people, rather than actually hurt them. Now I expect authorities to call for making stink bombs illegal, and next time they'll do it the old fashioned way: Dumping a bag of cow manure. Then we can outlaw cows. :-)

JeMay 7, 2007 8:05 AM

If I hear an explosion near a road I think of a blown tire or a blown compressor on a truck. If I'm in the tube I think about blown suspensions, or stuff that breaks. I don't think about any attacks...

Brandioch ConnerMay 7, 2007 8:06 AM

@Erik N
"With the terrorist hype around I think it is logical that people first guess on a terrorist attack, and the boys should have applied that logic before placing the prank."

No. Because terrorist attacks are so extremely uncommon.

When you hear an ambulance going by, is your first thought that they're probably responding to a terrorist attack?

John RidleyMay 7, 2007 8:25 AM

I hear loud noises often, in many situations, on the roads, in residential and commercial areas, etc. It's never crossed my mind that it was an attack, it's just some idiot screwing around.

Occam's razor, people.

SalmonMay 7, 2007 8:25 AM

So next time make one a quiet one that doesn't make a bang. Maybe that wont alarm the passengers so much.

"You're on a train, you hear a loud bang" Given the poor state of the Sydney trains and network, I would assume that some part of the train had broken, especially given recent events
http://www.drive.com.au/Editorial/ArticleDetail.aspx?ArticleID=37000

Reminds me of:
http://abc.net.au/news/australia/nsw/200402/s1038784.htm
In the end it was a overheated gearbox, which cooked six litres of oil, leaving a smell behind as it drove through the underground network. However not before it crippled the cities public transport for evening commuters.

aopMay 7, 2007 8:25 AM

These types of reactions always remind me of how wild animals react to strange stimuli. Ever see a bear or tiger scared off by a hiker banging some pots and pans?

I think the logic is that one mistake could mean death - an unrecoverable situation. Thousands of false positives and you still have your life.

Unfortunately logic is an abstract concept to the human mind, same reason most people have difficult with it in school - yet the humanities provoke us ;)

tMay 7, 2007 8:32 AM

@Erik N:
"Is it reasonable to assume that people apply logic while panicking? Isn't lack of logic a fundamental characteristic of panic?"
No, yes.

"Are the premises available for logic to be applied?"
Always. The point of logic is to make the best of limited knowledge.

"If you hear an explosion, and that is the only evidence to draw a conclusion on, would you instantly guess it was a prank?"
My assumption would be an accident or mechanical catastrophe of some sort.

"With the terrorist hype around I think it is logical that people first guess on a terrorist attack, and the boys should have applied that logic before placing the prank."
Predictable, yes. Logical, no. The perpetrators had plenty of consequences to consider even without this.

"Similar incidents happened after the first letters of anthrax."
Similar, meaning also minor crimes? Australian teenagers should have been aware of minor crimes committed in a different country, five years ago, when they were children, soon after the worst terrorist attacks on record?

TimmyMay 7, 2007 8:32 AM

I think we should have undercover armed subway marshals to make our commuting safe. In case of terrorist attack or other suspicious activity, they could take immediate action and eliminate the threat.

tMay 7, 2007 8:38 AM

@aop
"Ever see a bear or tiger scared off by a hiker banging some pots and pans?"
I've never seen a tiger while hiking, which proves my anti-tiger rock is working.

"I think the logic is that one mistake could mean death - an unrecoverable situation. Thousands of false positives and you still have your life."
It's one thing for random commuters to panic, another for the authorities to call jumping at shadows a rational response.

Dirk DingleMay 7, 2007 9:10 AM

I leave my cat to protect my house against Huns and Space Aliens. When he hears a noise, since he is a HERO, he automatically assumes either "Hun" or "Space Alien" based upon circumstances. So far, no successful attacks have been made by either Huns or Space Aliens. These train systems need more cats like mine.

AnonymousMay 7, 2007 9:11 AM

In response to a few people...

We can logically conclude that people will likely think it's a terrorist attack - indeed, the boys could have and probably should have, and should not have done something like that.

That said, while it is logical for us to think people will react like that, this does not make it logical for them to react like that.

Dash of meta here, cup of it there...

R.May 7, 2007 9:25 AM

"Ever see a bear or tiger scared off by a hiker banging some pots and pans?

I think the logic is that one mistake could mean death - an unrecoverable situation. Thousands of false positives and you still have your life."

While this logic works well in case of an ape that refuses to run it does not work so well for explosions.

The ape is threatening to hurt the predator in the *future*.
The explosion is already in the *past*.

When you hear a loud bang it is usually much too late to react.

The most effective reaction is to stay where you are (you are still alive -> danger probably is somewhere else) and look around for signs of immediate danger.

The next best reaction is to stay where you are and do nothing.

The worst reaction is to panic and run.
You might run right into the danger.
You might slip and break your neck or run in front of a car.

DanMay 7, 2007 9:25 AM

I think its a logical choice. If an explosion followed by a gaseous cloud in a subway car happened while I was onboard, I wouldn't sit around thinking "stinkbomb". I'd be gone. Even if I'm wrong, I'm alive. But if I was right...

Erik NMay 7, 2007 9:34 AM

@Brandioch Conner:

Explosions are also very uncommon: With the exception of fireworks, I only recall hearing one explosion the last 5 years. That was ETA who placed a bomb 800m from my office.

On the contrary, you hear ambulances and police sirens often, so you don't stop to guess if it is a terrorist attack. You assume it is probably a traffic accident. Funny, because as much as I haven't seen any terrorist attacks, I haven't seen traffic accidents either - I just /know/ they happen more frequently.

@t:

All the referred article mentions is a sound of an explosion. This alone is insufficient to arrive logically at the correct cause.

On the other hand, if people did not panic and instead gathered more knowledge: Train keeps moving, nobody screams etc. then concluding a terrorist attack is not logical.

If anyone should have done anything different, it's the people receiving the emergency call. They should be trained to ask the right questions to identify the cause and any immediate risks (more bombs?) before calling the terrorist alert.

JohnMay 7, 2007 9:43 AM

I think that this proves how dangerous subway systems are. To think that these children could get bombs of any kind stink or not onto a subway train scares me to death. The only 'logical' solution is to halt the subway systems world wide and fill the tunnels with concrete to trap the terrorists inside. Then and only then will it be safe to venture outside.

DanMay 7, 2007 9:46 AM

(Off topic)
Someone died today because they didn't think the backpack laying on their car was a bomb. What would Bruce say about that?

https://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18533412/

With all of the blogs about overreactions, it would be interesting to see what the comments are when its real, and no one "over-reacted".

JohnMay 7, 2007 10:00 AM

"With all of the blogs about overreactions, it would be interesting to see what the comments are when its real, and no one "over-reacted"."

Ok, I'll give it a go:

It's unfortunate that the man died, and my condolences go out to his family.

But if I was in his position, and barring any knowledge that I was being targeted for assassination, I'd do precisely the same thing (move the backpack from the top of my car) with the knowledge that I've probably got a better chance of winning the Powerball (a US Lottery for those who don't know) than that the backpack contains a bomb.

DanMay 7, 2007 10:05 AM

John, I'm not saying I would've done any differently - I generally don't think about bombs that often. But since anytime any authority overreacts they are blasted here, its interesting to see responses when it went the other way (and someone died).

Obviously, I'm sure many people across the US had to move someone's backpack today, and did not die.

JohnMay 7, 2007 10:22 AM

Dan,

If a bomb squad had blown up this 'suspicious package' and it had actually turned out to be a bomb, most people here probably would attribute it to blind luck. Also, a lot of the criticism generated here seems to be around things that are clearly 'not a bomb' (a circuit board with LED's and a battery, a traffic counter, etc).

It's pretty rare to hear "Bomb Squad X detonated an explosive planted in the park today" - more often the stories surround old, forgotten ordnance, unstable chemicals, and other relatively mundane (if dangerous) items.

It would be interesting to hear from individuals involved with the bomb squads that are in the news exactly what they were thinking when the decision to detonate the object was made - it would lend another viewpoint to the public discussion that would be invaluable. Maybe someone could arrange an (anonymous?) interview with a member of Boston's bomb squad and/or a member of another cities bomb squad which opted _not_ to blow up the cartoon network LED's?

ChrisMay 7, 2007 10:35 AM

Let's also be realistic about probable causes for the backpack bomb you linked to. It would seem to make the most sense that the bomb was an attacked targeted at a specific individual, the unabomber used similar strategies. Now barring the bomber being a new serial killer, it would make some sense that the target knew they had gotten themselves into trouble (perhaps they forgot to pay their bookie?).

gregMay 7, 2007 10:47 AM

We are forgeting the most common way we find real bombs.

From the debri....

Brandioch ConnerMay 7, 2007 11:18 AM

@Erik N
"Explosions are also very uncommon: With the exception of fireworks, I only recall hearing one explosion the last 5 years. That was ETA who placed a bomb 800m from my office."

Count the number of terrorist attacks in the US over the past 100 years.

Then count the number of "loud bangs".

I notice that you attempt to exclude common instances such as fireworks.

They are not both "very uncommon" because the number of loud bangs SHOULD be greater by a few orders of magnitude.

I have not been attacked by a terrorist yet. But I have heard "loud bangs" from cars, guns, fireworks, power transformers, etc.

"On the contrary, you hear ambulances and police sirens often, so you don't stop to guess if it is a terrorist attack. You assume it is probably a traffic accident."

Yes, that was the point. A "loud bang" is far more common (by several orders of magnitude) than a terrorist attack.

Therefore, it is irrational to associate it with a terrorist attack.

There have been more Canadians invading the US in the past than there have been "terrorists".

Yet anyone who hears a gunshot and thinks that it may be a Canadian invasion force would be considered irrational.

It's about probability.

Jamie FlournoyMay 7, 2007 11:28 AM

@aop said:
>I think the logic is that one mistake could mean death - an unrecoverable situation.
>Thousands of false positives and you still have your life.

Tell that to Jean Charles de Menezes.

Fenris FoxMay 7, 2007 11:40 AM

From the article, with comments inline:

'"It would have been terrifying. You're on a train, you hear a loud bang, the logical conclusion that people drew was (that it was) probably a terrorist attack," Mr Owens told reporters.'

Wow... I better not go on a subway train after eating Mexican food. It sometimes causes me to produce a loud bang, AND a stinkbomb.

'"It wasn't, we don't treat it as a joke, we don't see it as funny at all.'

I do - the funny thing is all the frogs jumping because they're filled to the lungs with paranoia.

Don't jump, and they'll eventually get tired of saying "frog."

That's been my saying about terrorism for quite some time now; it's not changing anytime soon.

SavikMay 7, 2007 12:03 PM

"When you hear a loud bang it is usually much too late to react."

Patently untrue! If you hear an explosion you should seek cover immediately. Sometimes it takes things a few seconds to come flying your way or come down on top of you.

R.May 7, 2007 12:36 PM

@Savik
There may be a small time window where that is sensible, but i doubt that most people will react fast enough.

If all you have is a loud bang treating it as an explosion may well be wrong. There are many other things that produce loud noises.

gregMay 7, 2007 1:10 PM

How many of you have heard a real explosion?
this was a bang. Not even like a gunshot, which are a lot quiter than a explosion. Real explosions sound rather different from there movie implemetations.

In a real explosion a lot of damage is done by the supersonic shockwave and then the supersonic debrie. Most debri is not all that bad by the time its subsonic and also is so spaced appart that its usally considered outside the kill raduis of most weapons. However at a few 100m/s your not going to moving out of the way either.

Supersonic implies that moving *after* you heard it is somewhat frultless. This is not a warzone. Your not seeking cover from mortors or anything. Where you are seeking cover from *futher* explosions.

Erik NMay 7, 2007 1:35 PM

@Brandioch Conner:

1) It is not reasonable to use statistics of the last 100 years. While terrorist attacks are few, there has been a sharp increase the last 7 years compared to the 50 years before. Since 9/11 peoples' awareness of terrorist threats has changed dramatically. I consider the ordinary peoples' reaction to be logic - in the context of current events.

2) When you expect a particular event then you usually react much more rationally - be it fireworks or nuclear tests. It is reasonable to discard such events.

As mentioned, I don't hear "bangs" regularly. In fact I don't know the real sound of a gun shot only Hollywood sound. The only real "bang" I have heard in post 9/11 times was actually a terrorist attack.

Australia is allied with US as UK, Spain did support the Iraq war. UK and Spain has been attacked by terrorists, both targets where trains. It is logic that Australians will assume they may be target.

I find the ordinary peoples reaction perfectly logic in the current context of actual events and media hype. In retrospect, it is always easy to rationalize, but at the moment of the event I find this logic - to the extent that logic applies.

I do not find the response rational - the response team should be trained to ask the right questions and react accordingly.

markmMay 7, 2007 3:49 PM

The thing is, killing people isn't the goal of most terrorists. It's only a means to the goal, which is terrorizing people - making them afraid and disrupting their lives. When you start assuming that everything is a terrorist attack, you make yourself afraid and disrupt your own life. You're doing the terrorist's job for him.

Now, there have been times and places when terror attacks are so common that it is a reasonable precaution to assume that something that might be a bomb is one - Iraq right now, Great Britain at the height of an IRA campaign, maybe in Spain at times. But for most of the world and most of the time, real threats are so rare that there are bound to be tens of thousands of "suspicious packages" for every real bomb, and giving each suspicious package the full treatment (area evacuated, streets blocked, then blowing it up) hurts us more overall than the real bombs do. And I'm not convinced it does much to stop the real bombings, rather than just making the bombers work a little harder so their bombs don't stick out.

tMay 7, 2007 5:19 PM

@Erik N:
"All the referred article mentions is a sound of an explosion. This alone is insufficient to arrive logically at the correct cause."

My point is: that doesn't make it logical to assume a terrorist attack.

"While terrorist attacks are few, there has been a sharp increase the last 7
years compared to the 50 years before. Since 9/11 peoples' awareness of terrorist threats has changed dramatically. I consider the ordinary peoples' reaction to be logic - in the context of current events."

Firstly, a "sharp increase" doesn't mean anything on its own. A 2/1,000,000 chance is 100% better than 1/1,000,000; it's still a lousy bet. Secondly, outside of war zones, the incidence of terrorist attacks has changed very little. What has changed is the profile given to select attacks.

The term for what you keep calling "logic" is "cognitive bias", specifically toward salience and agency.

"The only real "bang" I have heard in post 9/11 times was actually a terrorist attack."
I think you had it right before: that's the only one you recall hearing (cognitive bias at work). That, or your definition of "real bang" would exclude a lot of the more common occurrences as well as most stinkbombs.

BobMay 7, 2007 5:32 PM

The govt has been training people to think "Terrorist attack" when various uncommon things happen. So yes, it *IS* logical to think it.

Whether the govt has been INTENTIONALLY training people to react this way is a different question. Quite a conundrum, even. According to GW Bush, you should be alert to things out of the ordinary, and possibly consider them as terrorist attacks (or terrorists gathering information), but also go on with your ordinary life. It may come as a shock, but my ordinary everyday life does not involve being alert for potential terrorist attacks. If it did, then Bush would not have to tell me to be alert.

So many contradictions that my head hurts. Should I consider that a terrorist attack?

Brandioch ConnerMay 7, 2007 8:40 PM

@t
"The term for what you keep calling "logic" is "cognitive bias", specifically toward salience and agency."

Thanks. I hadn't thought of phrasing it that way.

Lawrence D'OliveiroMay 8, 2007 2:16 AM

I remember reading in New Scientist a few years ago about research, by the US military I think it was, into stink technology. They had developed something which was like the smell of excrement, only several orders of magnitude stronger. Basically, when you were exposed to it, you completely lost any self-control, and your only thought would be to get as far away from the smell as possible.

Great for forced evacuations, don't you think...

JeffHMay 8, 2007 2:59 AM

@Timmy
"I think we should have undercover armed subway marshals to make our commuting safe. In case of terrorist attack or other suspicious activity, they could take immediate action and eliminate the threat."

These marshals should do what, exactly? Over in the UK we had police shoot and kill some innocent in the Tube because of stupidity like this.

If a terrorist sets off a bomb, it's a bit late for the marshal to do anything, and normal policing and security should deal with 'suspicious activity', whatever that is. Trigger-happy idiots in confined spaces with lots of innocent people will not make the subway safer.

Btw, anyone who is attempting to claim that people should react to the sound of a stinkbomb going off like it's a gun or a bomb haven't heard either. Having briefly trained in the military, I can assure you, both are quite distinctive, usually because you can't hear for quite a bit afterwards.

Now regardless, you'll jump a bit on hearing a loud bang, no matter whether loud like a party popper or loud like a grenade, but there's a big long whack of paranoia between jumping a bit and assuming someone is trying to blow you up. Either way, to be stoical about the problem, if you get as far as hearing a bang, you're either going to live or you're going to get injured/killed, it's pretty much out of your hands by that point, so running around like a headless chicken isn't going to help.

Erik NMay 8, 2007 3:07 AM

@t:

Actually, the mentioned ETA bomb explosion, I first - wrongly - thought it was an accident at a nearby industrial plant. Not till I read the news did I realize it was a bomb. Point is that few people have heard enough explosions and enough of different types to judge from the sound of the explosion and conclude correctly on the source.

Hence, any conclusion on the source drawn from the sound alone, whether right or wrong, is drawn on the individuals' context, not logic or experience. If they had concluded "prank" incident we would all have said, how wise rational behavior, but it would have been blind luck, and just as "illogical".

If you recall the terrorist attacks on western soil since 9/11, most have targeted transport systems. March 11 2004 in Madrid, London july 7 and the copycat attack july 21 2005, all targeted trains. The copycat attack was described as "popping sound"s rather than explosions.

In that context, given the rarity of explosions in general, people will draw conclusions largely based on information from the news. And it appears very "logical" to first think of a terrorist attack - whether successful or not.

As mentioned, given more information you will quickly discard the terrorist theory. It is always easy to be clever in retrospect.

Jan Egil KristiansenMay 8, 2007 4:56 AM

A bang followed by a poisonous smell, while trapped in a train? I would not like that.

By the way, hydrogen sulfide is toxic, although you need to increase dosage.

Brandioch ConnerMay 8, 2007 12:05 PM

@Erik N
"If you recall the terrorist attacks on western soil since 9/11, most have targeted transport systems."

I guess you don't know what "Cognitive Bias" is.

You are looking at a tiny subset of all the "loud bangs".

And then you're trying to associate the characteristics of that subset with the characteristics of the current situation.

In other words, you've already decided that it is a terrorist attack and you're looking for anything that would indicate such.

Such activity is irrational.

Erik NMay 8, 2007 4:00 PM

@Brandioch Conner:

I guess you didn't read my posts: From the very first, I have noted that the sound of an explosion is not sufficient to determine correctly the source and character by use of logic. Any conclusion will be subjective and determined by the context. If people guess right, it will be blind luck.

Once you establish the context, or cognitive bias if you like, you make additional assumptions, apply logic and arrive at a conclusion that is sound - given that the premises hold.

The lack of knowledge, training and experience makes it reasonable that people are biased towards thinking of a terrorist attack. While number of incidents are small, they are big in the news. Most people irrationally worry about what happens in the news, although this is the least likely to happen to them.

In this context, the conclusion is logic - although wrong.

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