Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot

The recently publicized terrorist plot to blow up John F. Kennedy International Airport, like so many of the terrorist plots over the past few years, is a study in alarmism and incompetence: on the part of the terrorists, our government and the press.

Terrorism is a real threat, and one that needs to be addressed by appropriate means. But allowing ourselves to be terrorized by wannabe terrorists and unrealistic plots—and worse, allowing our essential freedoms to be lost by using them as an excuse—is wrong.

The alleged plan, to blow up JFK’s fuel tanks and a small segment of the 40-mile petroleum pipeline that supplies the airport, was ridiculous. The fuel tanks are thick-walled, making them hard to damage. The airport tanks are separated from the pipelines by cutoff valves, so even if a fire broke out at the tanks, it would not back up into the pipelines. And the pipeline couldn’t blow up in any case, since there’s no oxygen to aid combustion. Not that the terrorists ever got to the stage—or demonstrated that they could get there—where they actually obtained explosives. Or even a current map of the airport’s infrastructure.

But read what Russell Defreitas, the lead terrorist, had to say: “Anytime you hit Kennedy, it is the most hurtful thing to the United States. To hit John F. Kennedy, wow…. They love JFK—he’s like the man. If you hit that, the whole country will be in mourning. It’s like you can kill the man twice.”

If these are the terrorists we’re fighting, we’ve got a pretty incompetent enemy.

You couldn’t tell that from the press reports, though. “The devastation that would be caused had this plot succeeded is just unthinkable,” U.S. Attorney Roslynn R. Mauskopf said at a news conference, calling it “one of the most chilling plots imaginable.” Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) added, “It had the potential to be another 9/11.”

These people are just as deluded as Defreitas.

The only voice of reason out there seemed to be New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said: “There are lots of threats to you in the world. There’s the threat of a heart attack for genetic reasons. You can’t sit there and worry about everything. Get a life…. You have a much greater danger of being hit by lightning than being struck by a terrorist.”

And he was widely excoriated for it.

This isn’t the first time a bunch of incompetent terrorists with an infeasible plot have been painted by the media as poised to do all sorts of damage to America. In May we learned about a six-man plan to stage an attack on Fort Dix by getting in disguised as pizza deliverymen and shooting as many soldiers and Humvees as they could, then retreating without losses to fight again another day. Their plan, such as it was, went awry when they took a videotape of themselves at weapons practice to a store for duplication and transfer to DVD. The store clerk contacted the police, who in turn contacted the FBI. (Thank you to the video store clerk for not overreacting, and to the FBI agent for infiltrating the group.)

The “Miami 7,” caught last year for plotting—among other things—to blow up the Sears Tower, were another incompetent group: no weapons, no bombs, no expertise, no money and no operational skill. And don’t forget Iyman Faris, the Ohio trucker who was convicted in 2003 for the laughable plot to take out the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch. At least he eventually decided that the plan was unlikely to succeed.

I don’t think these nut jobs, with their movie-plot threats, even deserve the moniker “terrorist.” But in this country, while you have to be competent to pull off a terrorist attack, you don’t have to be competent to cause terror. All you need to do is start plotting an attack and—regardless of whether or not you have a viable plan, weapons or even the faintest clue—the media will aid you in terrorizing the entire population.

The most ridiculous JFK Airport-related story goes to the New York Daily News, with its interview with a waitress who served Defreitas salmon; the front-page headline blared, “Evil Ate at Table Eight.”

Following one of these abortive terror misadventures, the administration invariably jumps on the news to trumpet whatever ineffective “security” measure they’re trying to push, whether it be national ID cards, wholesale National Security Agency eavesdropping or massive data mining. Never mind that in all these cases, what caught the bad guys was old-fashioned police work—the kind of thing you’d see in decades-old spy movies.

The administration repeatedly credited the apprehension of Faris to the NSA’s warrantless eavesdropping programs, even though it’s just not true. The 9/11 terrorists were no different; they succeeded partly because the FBI and CIA didn’t follow the leads before the attacks.

Even the London liquid bombers were caught through traditional investigation and intelligence, but this doesn’t stop Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff from using them to justify (.pdf) access to airline passenger data.

Of course, even incompetent terrorists can cause damage. This has been repeatedly proven in Israel, and if shoe-bomber Richard Reid had been just a little less stupid and ignited his shoes in the lavatory, he might have taken out an airplane.

So these people should be locked up … assuming they are actually guilty, that is. Despite the initial press frenzies, the actual details of the cases frequently turn out to be far less damning. Too often it’s unclear whether the defendants are actually guilty, or if the police created a crime where none existed before.

The JFK Airport plotters seem to have been egged on by an informant, a twice-convicted drug dealer. An FBI informant almost certainly pushed the Fort Dix plotters to do things they wouldn’t have ordinarily done. The Miami gang’s Sears Tower plot was suggested by an FBI undercover agent who infiltrated the group. And in 2003, it took an elaborate sting operation involving three countries to arrest an arms dealer for selling a surface-to-air missile to an ostensible Muslim extremist. Entrapment is a very real possibility in all of these cases.

The rest of them stink of exaggeration. Jose Padilla was not actually prepared to detonate a dirty bomb in the United States, despite histrionic administration claims to the contrary. Now that the trial is proceeding, the best the government can charge him with is conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim, and it seems unlikely that the charges will stick. An alleged ringleader of the U.K. liquid bombers, Rashid Rauf, had charges of terrorism dropped for lack of evidence (of the 25 arrested, only 16 were charged). And now it seems like the JFK mastermind was more talk than action, too.

Remember the “Lackawanna Six,” those terrorists from upstate New York who pleaded guilty in 2003 to “providing support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization”? They entered their plea because they were threatened with being removed from the legal system altogether. We have no idea if they were actually guilty, or of what.

Even under the best of circumstances, these are difficult prosecutions. Arresting people before they’ve carried out their plans means trying to prove intent, which rapidly slips into the province of thought crime. Regularly the prosecution uses obtuse religious literature in the defendants’ homes to prove what they believe, and this can result in courtroom debates on Islamic theology. And then there’s the issue of demonstrating a connection between a book on a shelf and an idea in the defendant’s head, as if your reading of this article—or purchasing of my book—proves that you agree with everything I say. (The Atlantic recently published a fascinating article on this.)

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have all the facts in any of these cases. None of us do. So let’s have some healthy skepticism. Skepticism when we read about these terrorist masterminds who were poised to kill thousands of people and do incalculable damage. Skepticism when we’re told that their arrest proves that we need to give away our own freedoms and liberties. And skepticism that those arrested are even guilty in the first place.

There is a real threat of terrorism. And while I’m all in favor of the terrorists’ continuing incompetence, I know that some will prove more capable. We need real security that doesn’t require us to guess the tactic or the target: intelligence and investigation—the very things that caught all these terrorist wannabes—and emergency response. But the “war on terror” rhetoric is more politics than rationality. We shouldn’t let the politics of fear make us less safe.

This essay originally appeared on Wired.com.

EDITED TO ADD (6/14): Another essay on the topic.

Posted on June 14, 2007 at 8:28 AM107 Comments


Cryptogaphy Expert June 14, 2007 8:38 AM

The alleged plan, to blow up JFK’s fuel tanks and a small segment of the 40-mile petroleum pipeline that supplies the airport, was ridiculous. The fuel tanks are thick-walled, making them hard to damage. The airport tanks are separated from the pipelines by cutoff valves, so even if a fire broke out at the tanks, it would not back up into the pipelines. And the pipeline couldn’t blow up in any case, since there’s no oxygen to aid combustion.

Everybody stand down, a security, terrorism and explosives expert determines existing terrorists no longer a threat to U. S.

Bruce Schneier June 14, 2007 8:55 AM

Fair comment.

For some reason, the Wired editors deleted the links to the people who said that the JFK plot was rediculous.

I just put two of them back; I don’t have time right now to find all the others.

I didn’t find any expert who said that the plot was feasible.

But I never intended to say that I had the expertise to pass judgment on the feasibility of the plot.

(Damned Wired editors.)

Clive Robinson June 14, 2007 9:00 AM


Perhaps it says more about how “our government and the press” regard the intelegence and attention span of the U.S. (and U.K.) public in general?

Moshe Yudkowsky June 14, 2007 9:07 AM

According to press reports, the plotters were fully cognizant of the problems with oxygenation and with penetrating the tanks, and were researching how to overcome them.

It’s physically possible to blow the tanks. Kerosene is inflammable. A competent noncom from Fort Bragg with access to C4 could easily have the entire place in flames.

As for the purported motives of the terrorists, they may have been misguided in the particulars, but they were correct in that blowing the tanks would have been in fact a huge strike.

This isn’t a “movie plot” threat. This is “head in the sand’ reaction to a real threat.

I remind you of the tiny little error that the French resistance made during the last days of Nazi occupation, also regarding fuel lines, also difficult to do, also a “movie plot’ threat, but one that resulted in serious damage to Paris.

hawk June 14, 2007 9:09 AM

Thank God. A rational view at last. Now if only you and Bloomberg could make policy…
This government as a business seems to have produced agencies that fight for territory like drug pushers

David Wilford June 14, 2007 9:15 AM

The “movie plot” aspect of this potential attack isn’t that it’s physically possible, but that it wasn’t remotely close to being realized. It was more at the stage of “let’s do lunch” than mounting an actual production, basically. That the media and more than a few politicians happily jumped at the opportunity to fearmonger their reading and voting audience is something to be expected at this point, although Bloomberg is a notable exception.

guvn'r June 14, 2007 9:39 AM

@Moshe, access to C4 (or ANFO) is only part of the requirements, access to the target or a delivery system are another, and one that seems nonexistent in these plans.

I think we need to take a realistic view, there are threats and that needs to be taken seriously, but every half baked moron who comes along doesn’t. Problem is distingushing the credible threats from the incredible.

Another problem is that the powers that be are best served by continually whipping up hysteria about the threats, as a way of motivating compliance with their own half-baked schemes to counter the half-baked threats.

Counter terrorism is as much a threat to our liberties as terrorism, it’s just a different attack vector.

Ian M June 14, 2007 9:43 AM

Well written, and totally rational (as ever). How can we get US/UK governments to come round to your way of thinking?

Carlo Graziani June 14, 2007 9:59 AM

“Following one of these abortive terror misadventures, the administration invariably jumps on the news to trumpet whatever ineffective “security” measure they’re trying to push… Even the London liquid bombers were caught through traditional investigation and intelligence, but this doesn’t stop Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff from using them to justify (.pdf) access to airline passenger data.”

Oh, the “Liquid Explosives” case had much more dire and ridiculous securocratic consequences than mere justification for privacy invasion. The explosives that the idiot terrorists were alleged to plan to mix on board turned out to be either insanely difficult or actually impossible to prep outside a chem lab with chilled mixing vessels and fume hoods. Any attempt to do so in an aircraft lavatory would have resulted in a hilarious own-goal, not a downed aircraft.

But TSA had been lobbying for years to ban liquids, presumably on the “better safe than sorry principle” that regularly displaces actual cost-benefit analyses in anti-terror security. So when the UK cops’ investigation of the idiots was outed, they seized their chance, and now when boarding aircraft, we ritualistically stuff our microscopic quotas of shampoo and toothpaste into ziplock bags, for no apparent reason.

anti-sophistry June 14, 2007 10:10 AM

From the investors.com link about Bloomberg:

“America’s founding fathers warned that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, but in the 21st century it may very well become the price of life, too.”

This is, thus, saying that eternal vigilance is the price of life, which I’m not sure is what the author of that piece wants to say.

Algirdas June 14, 2007 10:10 AM

Moshe Yudkowsky:

“A competent noncom from Fort Bragg” is a professional soldier from US military’s elite special ops division, with tens, if not hundreds of thousands of government dollars spent in training, and likely years of action around the globe putting this training to use (possibly blowing up fuel tanks in places like Colombia). I readily agree that such noncom could quite conceivably blow up fuel tanks of pretty much any airport in this world, JFK included; but claiming that a wannabe criminal would have the same abilities as an elite soldier makes a poor argument. Also, access to C4 is not too easy as well (a pure speculation on my part, I admit) if you are a civilian criminal, as opposed to member of covert ops military team.

Winston Smith June 14, 2007 10:27 AM

We’re showing just how Strong we can be in the face of this horrific War on terrorism. Guess we’ll tackle Freedom soon, too.

“War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.”

Jef Poskanzer June 14, 2007 10:41 AM

The people in our government who over-emphasize ridiculous threats ARE TERRORISTS. They are using terror for political gain. They are collaborating with the people they claim to oppose.

And yay for Mayor Bloomberg.

kashmarek June 14, 2007 10:50 AM

The only real thing that bothers me here is that if our Homeland Security folks get wind of two plots, one real and one a wannabe, with resources to tackle only one of the two, which will it be? I fear they would opt for the wannabe plot because it is easier.

sooth_sayer June 14, 2007 11:09 AM

“Entrapment of Terrorists” .. what an idea .. I thought only politicians were subject to inducement with bribes and sex.

Bruce .. get a life .. If I came to you and offered you money and fame (ok .. not fame) would you consider blowing up Sears Tower?

Agreed that this JFK plot was unlikely to cause much damage .. but even a bad attempt would have been far more expensive than putting up with “evil ate at eight”

I read your blog for science .. but you have a real issue of trust in the “good” side .. may be reading too many attacks in the middle has ruined your gut.

BrooklynGasGuy June 14, 2007 11:13 AM

“You couldn’t tell that from the press reports, though. “The devastation that would be caused had this plot succeeded is just unthinkable,” U.S. Attorney Roslynn R. Mauskopf said at a news conference, calling it “one of the most chilling plots imaginable.” Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) added, “It had the potential to be another 9/11.””

I saw Ms. Mauskopf on local TV here in NY city and I was thinking what a total dolt she was for spreading that ridiculous FUD about the possible “devastation” that was aborted. Since I used to work in the field around high pressure natural gas lines and I currently work on systems that monitor these pipelines in the NY metro area I have a pretty good idea about what threats of this nature are feasible and what is a bunch of crap.

Kudos to Mayor Bloomberg, I can’t believe I’m writing this! :-), for being a voice on reason on this issue and maybe former mayor, and now presidential candidate, Rudy Giuliani can also stop the terror-mongering but if he did that what else could he run on?

Sez Me June 14, 2007 11:19 AM

I agree with general theme that our approaches are often misguided, and that it is too often CYA and theatre.

One thing I will say in defense of our government, though, is that, sadly, our system too often encourages CYA and theatre. 9/11 was almost unimaginable to most people, yet it was demanded to know why the dots weren’t connected, hearings held, etc. Then when the government tries to connect the dots, often wrongly I might add, they are in trouble for that as well. Part of it is our two parties always trying to take each other down for anything they can. Part of it an expectation for the government to somehow have a perfect record at preventing some things that just can’t reasonably be prevented without the cost to liberties–a cost that is often far too great considering the trade-off.

If we want liberties protected, when something happens we need to be reasonable in assessing it, not just why it happened, but if it were reasonable to be prevented without too much power.

If we are going to make unreasonable claims that somehow all dots should be connected, then we must be ready to live with a government having more power.

Let’s not put our government in a no win situation. We shouldn’t ask for one thing, or vote for another, and then complain when we get that.

I think Bruce’s approach would be best. Given the current risks, those are the best trade-offs. But if we want it to happen, we need to not apply unreastic expectations to government. We must accept great risk to security, or greater risk to liberty. We can’t pick one then ding our opponents over the other.

Disgusted with this nonsense June 14, 2007 11:22 AM

Implausible movie plot threat conjured up by half-baked idiot => media hype to help increase the ratings and ad revenue => self-serving politicians who play up the slightest threat to keep us all scared into voting for them => paranoid citizens who take it all at face value and think the sky is about to fall, again => LOTS AND LOTS OF TERROR.

Rinse and repeat, until someone with sufficient authority FINALLY breaks the cycle and we start focusing on and protecting against actual real plausible threats from well-organized enemies, instead of getting our panties in a knot over plots which belong on “America’s Dumbest Criminals”.

I mean for God’s sake, the real terrorists don’t have to lift a finger to terrorize us, when we’re obviously quite capable of doing it all by ourselves.

The terrorists WANT us to live in fear, and that’s exactly what people are doing. The bad guys are winning, the media and the Republican party for the most part are helping that to happen. Way to go, champs.

You know what else? As far as reacting to real and present threats goes, if Bush & co. had listened to the intelligence people back in mid-2001, and had done some basic connect-the-dots work, if they’d cried “wolf!” back then when there was PLAUSIBLE THREAT, maybe there’d be almost 3000 people NOT dead today and we wouldn’t be knee-jerking to everything that even looks a little like it could be a terror plot in the making while our freedom washes away.

Rich June 14, 2007 11:27 AM

My favorite part of the “Miami 7” Al-Qaeda wannabes was their shopping list which included UNIFORMS.

Talk about not having a clue.

bzelbob June 14, 2007 11:32 AM


Right on! 🙂
One of your best articles ever!

(One of the others is, of course, “Refuse to be Terrorized” which I hope someone makes into a tshirt soon.)

I would like to humbly suggest that your next book be called “Security Theater” and show how some of the movie plot threats submitted by your readers would be far more effective than the plots of the bands of idiots our government calls terrorists.

Or, alternately, you could show that the things that government does in reaction to “terrorism” are more dangerous than the what the “terrorists” actually try to do.

Or Both.

Lee Short June 14, 2007 11:54 AM

I think a big part of the hype here is that the average American has absolutely no idea how safe jet fuel is under everyday conditions. I work for a company that makes jet engine test facilities, and have often been at a test cell when engines are being tested. If there’s small fuel spill, it’s no big deal — the stuff’s just not very volatile. It just sits there.

Sits. There.

On. The. Floor.

In. A. Pool.

Eventually, someone gets around to cleaning it up. But only after they’ve finished adjusting the pressure line they’re working on, and grabbed a drink of water.

Anonymous June 14, 2007 12:56 PM

How can you say they are incompetent? They have an entire nations shitting themselves and wasting tens of millions of dollars everytime someone sneezes… they have the citizens of those same nations so worried about things that are unlikely to happen that people are willing to blindly forfiet their rights and freedoms, and are so paranoid everyone is reporting everyone else for the least little item…

I’d say they are pretty competent…

Ed T. June 14, 2007 12:58 PM

“…the average American has absolutely no idea how safe jet fuel is under everyday conditions.”

I remember back in the days when the SR-71 was in service, you would almost ALWAYS see a puddle of fuel under the tanks. Because the airplane actually grew in size during flight (the intense heat caused the metal to expand), the thing was riddled with “expansion joints”, some of which let fuel leak through.

The stuff was so safe, you couldn’t set it off with a cigarette lighter! It had to be – otherwise the USAF would never have let one of those very expensive airplanes leak fuel all over the place.


Lee Short June 14, 2007 1:15 PM

@Geoff — The fuel tank that combusted at Buncefield is listed as “unleaded motor fuel” rather than jet fuel. It’s possible that jet fuel could explode like that but vaporization of jet fuel requires a poorly designed or maintained tank or a system where it is under significant pressure (as in an operating aircraft).

Anonymous June 14, 2007 1:24 PM

@kashmarek: “I fear they would opt for the wannabe plot because it is easier.”

Not only because it is easier. Also because the success of the real plot would give another very tangible boost to the level of paranoia.

X the Unknown June 14, 2007 1:31 PM

@sooth_sayer: “Bruce .. get a life .. If I came to you and offered you money and fame (ok .. not fame) would you consider blowing up Sears Tower?”

Well, what do you mean by “consider”? I would certainly both consider and plan such an activity as part of a modern-setting role-playing game. I can think of several thousand other gamers who would, too.

Therein lies the rub. You could easily record lots of “damning” dialog, and even find documentation of the planning – but it would all have been part of a game.

I’m willing to bet that cagey use of a recorder in an FBI training-session, in which one “team” were acting as terrorists, could produce similar evidence.

Without more-concrete physical evidence, this sort of stuff means NOTHING!

Spotter June 14, 2007 1:35 PM


“I remember back in the days when the SR-71 was in service, you would almost ALWAYS see a puddle of fuel under the tanks … The stuff was so safe, you couldn’t set it off with a cigarette lighter!”

A minor quibble: the fuel used by the SR-71 was not like normal avaition fuel. It was much more viscous substance that required heating by pumping it around the airframe that was hot from air friction to get it to burn efficiently. I think normal aviation fuel burns very well.

The crews that maintained the aircraft enjoyed showing new pilots their planes, which did indeed leak fuel into trays on the floor, just to see the pilot’s reaction.

X the Unknown June 14, 2007 1:39 PM

@bzelbob” “Or, alternately, you could show that the things that government does in reaction to “terrorism” are more dangerous than the what the “terrorists” actually try to do.”

Or, as part of the “Security Theater” book, you could calmly and explicitly define Terrorism as something like “…causing public terror in order to make the people pressure the government into acting a certain way…” – and then accuse both the major media outlets and most government officials of being Terrorists!

X the Unknown June 14, 2007 1:45 PM

I believe that there are many types of “Jet Fuel”. Some, for high-performance military jets, might be very combustible or even potentially explosive. Commercial jets, on the other hand, use whatever is cheapest, and tune their turbines to burn that as efficiently as possible.

Last I checked (which was over a decade ago, I’ll admit), this meant commercial “Jet Fuel” was basically kerosene.

Coalition of the Drilling June 14, 2007 1:47 PM

There may be a pattern here. People aren’t so easily scared anymore, 9-11 is wearing thin. So certain groups come up with these ridiculous terror plots – fully knowing that they are ridiculous for they are designed to be ridiculous. But then they hit again with a ‘real’ one and everybody is back to square (scare?) one. But something has changed. From now on no one will ever take a terror scare lightly – no matter how ridiculous it is: “Remember the last time we made fun of these bungling wanna-be terrorists”. And now you can go ahead and hollow out ANY AND EVERY part of the constitution you want. The sheeple will practically demand it from the politicians. They’ll beg that they’d be kept under constant surveillance and that the police be given all the rights in the world to stop those damned terrorists. Mission accomplished!

CleverShark June 14, 2007 1:53 PM

re: the lasting impact of the ‘liquid bomb’ plot

I pray daily that there isn’t a terrorist somewhere elaborating a plot (real or facetious) whereby explosives are dissimulated in trousers and underwear, because if such a plot is ever discovered air travel will REALLY become unpleasant…

Spotter June 14, 2007 1:53 PM

I am happy to say that I agree with Bruce that a lot of “terrorist” attackers are rather dim Walter Mitty types.

Less happily, I also recall reading about a professional simulated terrorist attack against an unnamed airport fuel depot in “Spies Among Us” by Ira Winkler. The penetration testers were ex Special Operations soldiers who successfully smuggled a fake bomb onto a fuel tanker that was heading into the fuel depot. Although the expertise of the penetration testers was unusually good, their methods and equipment were very straightforward and low-tech. It is possible that future terror attackers will be a bit smarter.

Meanwhile we are humiliated by pointless airport security restrictions …

Albatross June 14, 2007 1:55 PM

As Keith Olbermann has exhaustively demonstrated


The Bush Administration uncovers one of these “terrorist plots” everytime the news is inconvenient for them (I’m waiting for today’s distract-the-public story following Judge Walton’s announcement that Libby should go to jail).

The people who insist that we must STFU and do whatever the President says are simply cowards, so terrified of the remote chance of terrorism that they’re willing to put aside reason and the Constitution and cower wherever and whenever they are told to.

Courage is standing up in the face of terror; Patriotism is supporting the Constitution.

Trichinosis USA June 14, 2007 4:10 PM

@ Albatross:

Yes, they discovered a while ago that crying wolf wasn’t enough, so instead they farm for idiots and low-hanging fruit with no funding and no brains. They look for chatter and home in on it, add agent provacateur and ding, fries are done and on the front page.

The news they were trying to hide in this particular case was the forced resignation of Tim Griffin, Karl Rove’s right hand man, because the House Judiciary Committee was getting a little too close to finding out about the games that were played with Florida’s votes during the 2004 election. More here:


Any time anybody gets close to being able to indict a core member of the Bush administration, especially Cheney or Rove, one of these easily contrived “foiled terrorist attacks” hits the front pages.

It gets to the point where it’s a good idea to check Der Spiegel, the International Herald Tribune and trusted liberal blogs to find out what news they’re trying to hide every time they come up with another pack of killer clowns. One key hint is the look on Mauskopf’s face. What is she smirking about? I thought the only people who thought there was anything funny about terrorism would be the terrorists. Unless, of course, the joke is on the gullible American public…

A June 14, 2007 4:39 PM

This article is kindof the article in the new york times, you know august 2001, about how there really wasn’t any danger in allowing plastic cutter knives on to planes.

We all know how that one turned out. You seem to want a repeat.

And let’s not forget what these muslims do when they’re sufficiently in the majority :


Why do we keep silent on muslims teaching their children that “all non muslims are vile beasts” (quran 8:55) ? To be killed in ambushes (9:5) and constantly fought (9:123).

Oh and obviously telling their children they’ll go to hell unless they kill an unbeliever (9:111).

Why don’t you look up what we’re dealing with for once, and actually take a look at the problem. At the justice systems in countries like Iran and Pakistan, or even Palestine (a FAMILY got executed for one man selling land to … a Jew !).

Thousands of people ecstatic in the street because Americans died.

And then clarify how we secure ourselves against a “tiny minority” of 1-30% of 1 billion people. Because I’d be very interested in your security evaluation on that little detail.

noteworse June 14, 2007 6:54 PM

here and there i expect to see stupid people but yes sir i do think the article is great and as New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg , who said: “There are lots of threats to you in the world. There’s the threat of a heart attack for genetic reasons. You can’t sit there and worry about everything. Get a life…. You have a much greater danger of being hit by lightning than being struck by a terrorist.”

Why do we keep silent on Muslims teaching their children that “all non Muslims are vile beasts” (quran 8:55) ? To be killed in ambushes (9:5) and constantly fought (9:123).
wow it seem like the bible with it history of bloodsheding is forgotten
but as always you can only see what you want to see.

Brandioch Conner June 14, 2007 7:09 PM

The thing I’m still wondering about this latest plot is when, exactly, did the FBI informant come into contact with the terrorists?

When did the FBI become aware of the terrorists and their plot?

Think about it for a moment. There aren’t that many scenarios.

#1. The FBI became aware of the terrorists and recruited the informant to infiltrate their organization. How did the FBI become aware of them? Why did they choose that informant?

#2. The FBI became aware of the terrorists after the informant had made contact with the terrorists. Was it because the informant told the FBI about them? If so, were incentives offered to that informant? Money? Reduced sentence?

Personally, and without any other information that has been presented, I’m leaning towards the second scenario. The petty criminal was talking to a crazy old man with revenge fantasies. When the criminal was busted on some charge, he bargained to turn over the terrorists in exchange for his freedom. But to do that, he needs to keep prodding them.

Michael Ash June 14, 2007 9:41 PM

&;This article is kindof the article in the new york times, you know august 2001, about how there really wasn’t any danger in allowing plastic cutter knives on to planes. We all know how that one turned out. You seem to want a repeat.”

I suspect this is a troll, but just in case anybody reads and believes it….

The 9/11 hijackers used box cutters, not plastic knives, which are still available on airplanes today, as are aluminum beverage cans which can be easily transformed into improvised knives.

However, the main element in the 9/11 attack was the passenger’s acceptance of the hijacking because, let’s face it, five guys armed with box cutters versus fifty people armed with nothing much, we know who wins that one. (And we know who won that one, over Pennsylvania.) It will not happen again, and as such these items are now safe.

Jon Sowden June 14, 2007 11:36 PM

“Why don’t you look up what we’re dealing with for once, and actually take a look at the problem. At the justice systems in countries like … Pakistan …”

pssst Dude? The Pakistanis are our allies now. You have to say nice things about them. Did you not get the memo?

PJ Philipp June 15, 2007 1:02 AM

In your book, you mention the odds of being struck by lightning is 1 in 9 billion per day. When I take 12 million people give them a lifespan of 60 years, then multiply that with the number of days for 60 years and then divide that by the number of victims in the WTC, I get less odds than that. Mayor What’shisname is wrong. BTW my odds of being in the WTC were 1 in 36, (two dicerolls/snakeeyes) much much less than the odds of being killed in the US by a automobile (1 in 88). All references according to your book.

Andy B June 15, 2007 3:51 AM

Bloomberg got it right. My God, an American politician making sense?! It was that thought that saw Northern Ireland through 25 years of terrorism – there are bigger risks. In the US, I’d worry much more about being shot, flu or bee-stings.

Re: Buncefield, I believe that it was unleaded fuel that started the fire – but there were many fuels there (including Diesel – I nearly got stuck), and I’m fairly sure that it was one of the supplies for Luton and Heathrow.

My grandfather, who worked on BP Tankers all his life, told me that there are many grades of jet fuel – but they were always worried when dealing with some American jet fuel. ‘Course, that info is 30 years old now, and he didn’t say what planes the fuel was for – I’d expect that most commercial jets run of the same stuff worldwide. And you’d expect it to be pretty damn stable. He did say that some of the jet fuels were like that.

averros June 15, 2007 4:12 AM

It’s physically possible to blow the tanks.
Kerosene is inflammable.

Commercial aviation does not use kerosene (it’s a rocket fuel). It uses Jet Fuel A, which does not burn in the air until it is heated to about +38C.

If you manage to create a puddle and heat some part of the puddle until it is able to burn, the flame will eventually heat and consume the rest. When you blow a tank, you get a deluge of cold fuel, so the fire goes out, the heated portion being forcibly mixed with a large quantity of cold stuff.

(Note that the dynamics of fire in enclosed spaces like aircraft fuel tanks is completely different – so they do blow up).

dave P June 15, 2007 4:48 AM

The most telling aspect of all these purported plots is that there was, in each case, an FBI stooge directing the activity of clueless patsies, providing them with ideas and support. Without the FBI, these people would certainly remain disgruntled morons with no recourse to action. These villains are created by the FBI so the FBI can save us from them. This is not a confidence-inspiring tactic.

Richard June 15, 2007 5:23 AM

The only plausible threat from liquids I ever heard explained is that a group of plotters could separately take on board a bottle of sodium cyanide solution and a strong acid, then mix them together on board.

It’d be sufficient to ask the people to taste each liquid they take on the plane, rather than ban liquids altogether.

Anonymous June 15, 2007 5:35 AM

@PJ Philipp:

You got it wrong. Using a limited time frame (say, 10 years), you should compare the number of people in the US hit by lightning strike in that time frame, and the number of people died in terrorists attacks.

Annually, there’re about 1000 people injured by lightning strike, and 10% of them died.* Even using the 10 years time frame, apparently much more people are hit by lightning strike than killed by terrorists in the US. Since terrorists attacks are rare, if you make the time frame longer, lightning strikes win even more.

Peter June 15, 2007 5:40 AM

Incompetent terrorists, whether egged on by government infiltrators around the world or not, are succeeding – without ever directly causing any damage or injury themselves.

How many pointless security processes and restrictions have been implemented to fliers in the last few years ? I flew from London to Frankfurt and back this week, for the first time in over a year, and the very obvious “theatre” going on and the delays and the hightened level of security-stress was simply too much. On the way back from Frankfurt we had to go through two, yes, two identical security checks with plenty of random and arbitrary checks on different parts of people possesions and bodies. My understanding is that the liquid-bomber’s chemistry has been debunked and yet the restrictions still apply – could this be because if they were removed then the power-that-be would publicly have to say they got it wrong ? Preventing embarassment to our governments and agencies appear to be a major driver in this whole circus.

This is all succeeding in spreading fear, disruption and general chaos. The terrorists, regardless of their mixed and differing agendas, are winning.

hibernatus June 15, 2007 5:40 AM

To be a terrorist in these days, you don’t need to have weapons nor be able to operate explosives, just a pen (or text editor), good imagination and to be able to publish it. Then a whole country would be frozen by terror.

Yes, the pen is mightier than the sword.

mistersquid June 15, 2007 6:53 AM

Your article persuasively expresses a distinction between being able “to pull off a terrorist attack” and the mere ability “to cause terror.” Thank you for such thoughtful and incisive writing.

The only thing I would change is its title, which does not need the word “modern.”

Art June 15, 2007 7:58 AM

All you need to create ‘terror’ these days is to whip up a Popeye-Sweetpea bomb with two cans of spinach and a dirty diaper. I kid you not. Sigh.

Puma June 15, 2007 7:59 AM

Something that doesn’t get reported much about the last few “terrorist plots” (Fort Dix, the JFK thing, the guys in New Jersey) is that while they all may have wanted to blow things up and the like… they were all being manipulated by the FBI. One of the Fort Dix “terrorists” called the FBI to tell them that he was worried that someone he knew (an FBI informer/plant) was offering maps of the base.
Thinking about something is not a crime, or all the writers and role-playing gamers will have to be locked up right now. WHat is a crime is for the FBI to manipluate people into a “conspiracy” and then arrest them for it.

Sarr June 15, 2007 9:07 AM

And don’t forget the Detroit “terrorists.” Not only were they acquitted, but the US Attorney who prosecuted them is facing charges.

What appears to have happened is that they found some guys who looked “interesting” and brought them in to squeeze them a bit and see if anything came out. Unfortunately Ashcroft heard about it and did one of their “terrorist conspiracy” announcements, and then the poor guys in Detroit tried to construct enough of a case to avoid embarrassing the boss.

DBH June 15, 2007 9:30 AM

@PJ, you are also conflating your particular retrospective probability of having been in the WTC, with the general or even your particular probability of being in a terrorist incident. E.g., I landed on runway 2 left at LAX 2 minutes before the next plane which crashed into a taxiing commuter jet. My odds of having been in that particular accident are retrospectively high (a few seconds later departure and we would have been the ones in the accident.) However, my odds of being in a plane wreck are still microscopically small, AS EXHIBITED BY the fact I wasn’t in that wreck.

Geno Z Heinlein June 15, 2007 10:30 AM

How can you say they are incompetent? They have an entire nations shitting
themselves and wasting tens of millions of dollars everytime someone sneezes…

Exactly. On 9/11 the attackers blew up two buildings and killed 2800 people.

The billions of dollars of damage to the US economy from shutting down the airports for days? We did that. More billions from the slowdown of the economy for years? We did that. Trillions lost to an invasion of Iraq, thinking the locals were going to throw flowers at us when we ‘rescued’ them? Us again. The loss of our national identity by stripping ourselves of our own civil rights? Guilty as charged.

If I was a terrorist, I wouldn’t even bother trying to blow anything up. I would just make sure there’s someone who looks like they’re trying to blow something up, at least once a week. The more outlandish the plot, the better, so there will be more media coverage. Then we’ll screw ourselves, and the bad guys can laugh their asses off at how stupid we are.

Marshall June 15, 2007 10:32 AM

It’s not just that the current politics in the United States are oriented towards a perspective that we are under constant threat of terrorism, it’s that there seems to be a fantastic desire for some of these largely fanciful plots to be real. It’s an embarrassment to the notion of civilization that both the public and its appointed leaders are unable to bring the threat of terrorism in line with other areas of public policy. Anti-terrorism policy seems to live in its own universe, where the idea of cost-benefit analysis is meaningless and irrelevant.

I work with and around the Port of Los Angeles, and their whole reality has shifted to believe that they are ground zero for some fantasy attack, who’s very nature would be revolutionary and unprecedented. It leeches into even the simplest of operations, and in the most expensive ways. I strongly believe that there is an intersection between crippling fears of liability on the part of government and civic agencies and the violent persecution fantasies of those in the pork barrel security establishment that is the primary generator of our public security policy.

C Gomez June 15, 2007 11:01 AM

I believe the mistake in the essay is believing this plot caused any sort of terror. It didn’t faze me in the least. I believe there are no reports of anyone taking their kids out of school, changed any plans, or stopped taking any trips on airplanes because of it.

On 9/11, when people didn’t report to work in conspicuous places (such as say… Disney theme parks)… that was terror.

So I believe it is plainly obvious the plot and its revelation caused no actual terror.

And yes, many of the “terrorists” we are fighting are complete idiots. There’s no other explanation for why the United States hasn’t suffered another major terrorist attack. I completely agree that practically nothing has been done to prevent terrorism in this country, other than do-nothing “security theater”. Still, no attacks… maybe the enemy is an idiot.

Finally, I think calling this arrest terrorizing or overreaction is missing the point. These men were contemplating the targeting and killing of civilians for no reason other than hating Americans (which is the very definion of genocide). It doesn’t matter that they are morons. They were committing acts of conspiracy. Worse, it is conspiracy to commit genocide. I have no problem with taking them out of society.

Swampdog June 15, 2007 11:22 AM

At the very least, our government is acting like the boy who cried “wolf”. The fairly recent example of the “terrorist threat” at Fort Dix, as I see it, plays out like this.
Some group of yahoos begging to be caught pays a commercial company to duplicate tapes of them running around the countryside shouting “Jihad on the nasty Americans” and shooting semi-automatic weapons.
The FBI follows them around for a YEAR and infiltrates their group waiting for them to do something dangerous
Eventually the FBI entraps them by setting them up with an arms deal sting when they need the bust.
It’s all over the puppet news media for a few days and then forgotten about.
Sound like a threat to you? It certainly doesn’t to me. Any real terrorist with an automatic weapon could cause more damage in 10 minutes at the neighborhood mall than these idiots did with a year’s “planning”. Every time they run one of these idiot cases up the flagpole their credibility sinks lower and lower. Not much further down they can go, at this point.
Does that mean there are no threats out there? Certainly not, but either our government can’t really tell us about the real cases (not implausible) or there are no real cases (also not implausible). I tend to believe that there are no real cases within the US, I went for the “tip of the iceberg” idea once when Colin Powell stood in front of the UN with evidence of WMD in Iraq. “Wow, I thought, that’s pretty thin, but that’s just the stuff they can tell, the real stuff must be pretty heavy for an honest man like Mr. Powell to be so worked up”. I’m still a little bitter about that, and, “fool me once, shame on me uhh, won’t get fooled again”

un pobre guey June 15, 2007 11:43 AM

The “War on Terror” is a lie. It exists to suck money out of the US Treasury as well as directly out of taxpayers’ pockets. It exists to maintain a sense of imminent emergency in the Persian Gulf to support petroleum prices that are very likely 5 to 10 times their commercial value based on actual production and transportation costs and a profit similar to other industrial sectors. This even though only a fraction of the oil we consume originates there. Will we end up paying $4/gal for gasoline before the end of summer? How can that possibly be justified?

We spend a gargantuan amount of money on “defense” already, and yet all major presidential candidates and most legislators who wish to be re-elected believe we need to spend even more. And yet, the average Joe has to go deeply into debt in order to get a college education. Which subsidy would be a better investment in our society’s future?

We live in a quasi-military quasi-dictatorship led primarily by defense, petroleum, and large engineering concerns, followed closely by financial and media companies.

I could rant on, but you all know where I’m going with this.

.Shane. June 15, 2007 11:54 AM

Good essay and I essentially agree. My only criticism is that I think you let the public off the hook. The politicians and media couldn’t get away with this if we didn’t let them, if at some level we didn’t accept it. It’s like there’s some significant % of the population that wants the order that living in fear brings.

So, I’m glad you are part of the public that is trying to bring some reason to the discussion.


Allahu al-Atheist June 15, 2007 1:39 PM

@A: “Why do we keep silent on muslims teaching their children that “all non muslims are vile beasts” (quran 8:55) ? To be killed in ambushes (9:5) and constantly fought (9:123).”

Rather than pointing out similar passages in, for instance, the bible, (cf http://www.godlessgeeks.com/LINKS/BibleQuotes.htm), let’s just remember that:

a. Contemporary religions tend to take such statements with a grain of salt;

b. Islam. Is. Not. One. Enormous. Unified. Religion. Nohow. Hasn’t been a caliph since 1924. Hasn’t been one recognized by ALL Muslims since the Sunni-Shi’a split. Like most enormous confessional categories, Islam is just a loose term for an extraordinarily diverse group of faiths.

c. Like anybody else in the damn fool world, most Muslims are generally trying to get through the day. Reactionary regimes in post-colonial or post-occupation countries (like all those A mentions) often manage to manipulate literature, religion, history etc. to produce people who are willing to kill other people. This does not mean that “these Muslims,” are in any way representative of the majority (who live in Indonesia and India, BTW).

One the other hand, universally attacking an enormous and varied religion, as A and many in the “West” seem to do continuously, is an effective way to polarize the situation, and has been serving to make a lot of ambivalent people into violently oppositional people.

“Terrorist” and “Muslim” are not the same thing. And as Bruce so ably demonstrates, “terror” isn’t terror until someone says it is.

Robert Murtha June 15, 2007 3:44 PM

I wouldn't lend any credence whatsoever to any of these so called "plots" that the FBI periodically comes up with until they show me the explosives.  There's nothing to this latest "plot"  but a deceitful government snitch and some loose talk.

X the Unknown June 15, 2007 4:17 PM

A quote from Joseph Goebbels:

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

piboulder June 15, 2007 5:33 PM

What I often hear the discounters in the JFK Airport plot say is “they had no money”. What they don’t say is that they were caught while in the process of pursuing financing for the operation, and the pursuit of it was serious and credible.

What I find troubling about the discounting of the plot is while, yes, they may not have succeeded, we seem to forget that the first WTC plot in 1993 failed as well. It was a grandiose scheme to topple one tower into the other, and cause them both to collapse. They parked the van bomb in the wrong place, though supposedly they had enough explosives to accomplish the attack they intended. They learn from their mistakes. It’s better to not even let them try to carry out an attack.

Maybe the prosecutors are blowing this out of proportion, but maybe not. Given enough powerful explosives, anything’s possible. The thing we need to remember about the 9/11 Commission Report is they said before that day we had a “lack of imagination” in anticipating such an attack. So imagining what they could’ve done had they managed to procure the financing and materials, done the planning, and found the people to do it is not out of bounds. The only legitimate way in my mind that you can dismiss the plot is if you can show that there was no realistic way, logistically, that they could’ve caused the damage they wanted to.

Plots can evolve as well, given enough time. Flying planes into the WTC was extremely gutsy, and may I say, creative. The WTC had sufficient security to stop a truck bomb from harming it. They found a different way to accomplish their goal. Few people anticipated such an attack. The theory that it could be carried out existed beforehand, but it was dismissed as “wild fantasy”.

I agree that some of these “terrorists” are lightweights who don’t deserve to be feared. The Fort Dix plot was such a case, but we can only say this after the fact. We underestimate some people at our peril.

nex June 15, 2007 6:07 PM

“Thank God. A rational view at last.”

Indeed. Let’s pray for more rational thinking and trust in God to give it to us.

Dave June 15, 2007 6:50 PM

Dude. Seriously… your audience here is hopefully the people who did not already figure all this out, right?

Then why in the world would you use a word like excoriated?? You think dumb folks like us know words like that? Eh? No way, man. I was on the verge of getting your point when that one threw me for a loop.

TJ June 15, 2007 7:08 PM

If we’re going to be intimidated into giving up rights, accepting overlordship, we have to actually feel as though there are terrorists. As always, 95 percent of them are bunglers — but given that the actions in airports are designed to intimidate us, any bunglar in a storm.

Too conspiratorial? Right. Look at the federal budget deficit. What up with that?

philipb June 15, 2007 9:49 PM

Thanks for the article. I grew up in London during the height of the IRA campaigns (they missed me but only just) so I feel I have some perspective on this issue. I proudly became an American citizen 2 years ago & it disheartens me to see this great nation and my former home cower like cowards every time some wannabe with a half-baked terror plot pops on the scene.

Rick June 15, 2007 10:41 PM

Funny how the vast majority of these “terrorist” plots are moronic plans in the hands of nitwits. Isn’t the contrast with the highly focused and skillful 9/11 attack astonishingly stark? Is it possible that they cannot be compared? Could it be that there is a fundamental difference in the underlying mechanisms of 9/11 and nearly everything in the 10 years before and 7 after?

9/11 smells of professionals, of people who can keep secrets, of carefully recruited operatives, of knowledge, and of training. It also reeks of money and ruthless power. The truth is still in the shadows.

Clive Robinson June 15, 2007 11:33 PM

Back in Dec 2004 I wrote the following, and it looks like it is still valid today.

Security like may other things is a process subject to the “laws of human nature”,

1, It continously evolves.
2, It has non linier but oscilitory behaviour.
3, It’s subject to market forces.
4, It’s subject to prejudice.
5, It’s subject to resource limitations.
6, It’s a three state game (win,draw,lose)

and several others.

The Comunist block colapsed for many reasons however one of the prominent ones was it could not afford it’s security (market forces).

East Germany did not see it’s downfall and 9/11 happend, not because the information was not there but there where insuficient analysts (resources) and they where looking in the wrong areas (prejudice).

When a security event (9/11) happens in an open society there is a knee jerk action, security quickly ramps up as long as there are the resources and the people it is applied against accept it, which for a time they do. In an open society the limitations start to apply and security ebbs slowly away, untill such time as another security event happens. This gives one type of oscillitory behaviour.

In a closed society security builds up slowly as the resources are found for it, it continues to increas beyond the point where it is sustainable leaving the society week and inflexible. At some point an event happens such that causes the resources to be diverted away from security (crop failer, epedemic, earthquake etc). As the event is dealt with the resources return to security, unless the event was sufficient to cause an attempt at a change in governance. Unfortunatly this is often expensive in infrestructure and manpower (Civil War) often the change results not in an open society but another closed society and this is the second type of oscilitory behaviour.

In both cases there is a time lag involved, time to election in an open society, time for overt oposition to gain imputus in a closed society.

All societies are placed somewhere between the extreams of open and closed. Thise means that their resultant pattern is a combination of both major types of oscillitory behaviour and appears chaotic when a scociety is away from the extreams (I wish you luck on trying to model it ;).

As Bruce points out in his artical there are two main types of security in an democratic society Governmental (mainly open) and Corparate (mainly closed), in normal times they are usually in conflict, however they play for marginal wins or draws, based on the accumulation of assets or resources (money). This causes minor oscilitory behaviour.

In a closed society there are again two types of security Governmental (mainly closed) and Organisational (usually closed) again they are usually in conflict. The organisations are either part of the current covernance or in opostion to it. If an organisation is part of the Government it tends to play for minor wins and settle for draws, based on the accumulation of influance and control (power). If not part of the government they are usually signed up to what is a mutual destruction pact where there is no draw only total win and total lose.

Where ever there is conflict you get an advancment of tactics and behaviour (evolution) usually the predomenent entity (Governement) has the advantage in this due to superior but limited resources.

However in a closed society a non governmental organisation has the advantage of playing against a resource rich but limited oponent, that has many unrelated organisational oponents (both real and imaginary). If the organisation does not become subject to scrutiny (prejudice) from the government then their activities can progrees without hinderence. This gives them a significant advantage when it comes to single/first strike events (Fall of East Germany etc).

Real terorists / freedom fighters are usually the product of closed societies, imaginary ones are usually the products of open societies (Reds under the bed etc). They are by nature closed organisations that might at a later stage if they replace the government become mainly open (ie democratic). Often they pretend at being open (Faux Democratic) but remain closed (Dictatorships).

Up to half way through the last century the scope of any coperation or organisation was limited by communications (both physical and informational) this tended to limit their sphers of influence (horizons) they had. Likewise governemnts where also limited by communications but less so, however they had the advantage of playing as organisations in a (non) society that had no governance.

The problems of Univerasl Survailance did not arise prior to that time as there was effectivly little freedom except for governments.

In the 1960’s the “Golden Age” of freedom started when the cost of mobility droped to the point where it was available to all (in the Western World). This gave rise to the possibility that ordinary people could move away from their “home vilage” and start a new life, coincidentaly leaving any mistakes behind them. This “Golden age” started comming to the end when the cost of processing information dropped down to a point where all information could be held “on-line” and arbitary rules could be tested against large databases of information (profiling or targeting). The first loss of freedom that came about for the avarage person was credit, oganisations either traded credit histories amongst “peers” or setup rules based on statistical norms (credit profiling). It became possible for provably credit worth people to be refused credit, however very non creditworthy people quickly found out how to make themselves lappear very creditworthy and got credit.

The same sillyness has moved on to counter terorisum, however somebody did not learn the lesons from credit profiling. As counter terorisum is about life and liberty not money it is a whole lot more serious for anybody it effects (whic is all of us).

The big problem is that norms are based on past data and simplistic models, security is evolutionary and chaotic. Also no entity is omnipitant in outlook or has even close to the resources to be so. Terorists have very bad “credit” in counter terrorisum but know how to look “creditworthy”. Worse they try to remain invisable until their First/Single Strike so effectivly have no “credit history”, and offten no intention of living long enough to creat one.

Ultimatly the solution to terorisum is not security that is by definitian “reactive”, it is always destined to fail. But proactive policies that do not allow situations to occur where terorisum can be born of hate and envy and grow sufficiently to turn on you. The solutions are also not military in nature as warfare always has civilian casualities and they in turn have relatives who will hate you.

Kip Hawley June 16, 2007 11:14 AM

Bruce’s comment that, “…we need real security that doesn’t require us to guess the tactic or the target: intelligence and investigation…” perfectly sums up my belief as well. That is the irony of the 3 ounces/baggie. TSA had to address that specific tactic and has become famous for the baggie — but our overall security strategy is summed up by Bruce’s quote.

            Over the last 18 months TSA has changed its security from an objects-based checkpoint focus to one that is flexible and covers the threats we know are active as well as ones that are not known to us. Some examples:
  • removing small scissors, tools, and other nuisance objects from the prohibited items list;
  • retraining all TSO’s in more sophisticated bomb training and deploying over 100 bomb techs to checkpoints;
  • working with Congress to revisit the lighter ban (we take over 20,000 lighters a day, tying up checkpoints on a lousy ignition source that is a distraction from effective IED components);
  • incorporating behavior observation in major airports ahead of the checkpoint to identify threats earlier, including in the public areas;
  • the equivalent of 700 full-time TSOs on unpredictable “pop-up” security checks everywhere on the airport including vehicle checks and construction areas;

  • K-9 teams in and around checkpoints and gate areas;

  • increased activities by plain-clothed security Inspectors and Federal Air Marshals (coordinated with local law enforcement) everywhere on the airport;

  • professionally trained and equipped officers to verify ID and boarding documents;

  • a new surge team of well over 100 TSOs, FAMs, Inspectors who come in unannounced (like at 2:30 a.m.) to airports for multi-day activities;

  • and most importantly, sharply upgrading our intelligence and law enfocement capability, including literally daily senior level coordination of intelligence and law enforcement activity with the other agencies with those responsibilities.

Which brings us to last August. TSA was rolling out these proactive measures when the UK-based plot forced us to act on an emergency basis. (The plot was real and the bomb methodology was different from what’s been in blog speculation.)

Going forward, you will see more hand-held technology and more mobile, flexible security. Less focus on static checkpoint defense and more on a connected web of measures. Not “predict and protect”, but covering the critical points and flexing elsewhere, filling the gaps on an unpredictable basis.

Yes, the baggie and shoes are lightning rods because they appear to only address specific vulnerabilities, but TSA understands “real security” and needs help from readers of this blog and many others to change the public/media mindset from ‘movie plot’ scenario-based security to one that’s appropriate for today’s sophisticated, adaptive terrorist.

bob June 16, 2007 11:47 AM

@Kip Hawley

A first step might be the elimination of the shoe-removal theatric, as well as the liquid-restriction.

It’s difficult to take someone seriously, either a person or an organization, if they continue doing the same stupid thing they’ve always done. Like a dog who always runs when you pretend to throw the ball, the extent of their thought process is clearly manifest.

Rick June 16, 2007 12:07 PM

@Kip Hawley

What “sophisticated, adaptive terrorist?” Bruce’s article is about the apparent non-existence of such a creature, except in very rare instances, possibly only the single 9/11 plot as far as publicly known incidents are concerned. I appreciate your attempt to justify your bureaucracy’s existence, and paint it as a serious, hard-headed, critically important service, but that is quite frankly a ludicrous and disingenuous portrait of the TSA.

And please don’t resort to the old “if only you knew what I know but you don’t so you have to trust me” gambit on which the “War on Terror” scam is founded.

ForReal June 16, 2007 2:07 PM

“if shoe-bomber Richard Reid had been just a little less stupid and ignited his shoes in the lavatory, he might have taken out an airplane.”
I’ve always seen this one as another BS threat; the fool certainly could have managed a neat double amputation (did he have late stage diabetes?), but danage an airline enough to take it down!
Perhaps the small amount of explosives that he could have been carrying (the important details never seem to be given, you notice) may be enough to down a plane IF placed in the correct structural points on the air frame. But in a passenger seat or bathroom – a hole in the presure cabin, but that’s it.
Unless I’m wildly mistaken about howpwerful explosives have become.

sooth_sayer June 16, 2007 10:32 PM

@ForReal ..

I would like to know if you would like to be on a flight where Richard Reid “tries” his terrorism.

Pontification from chair .. there is no shortage of folks like you after Bruce’s lead, who I might add is NUTS on this.

The 9/11 bombers NEVER had never expressed any intention of buying explosives .. All they want to do was to learn to fly. Did they pull it off .. almost a movie plot like Bruce calls these things.

I don’t want to say it .. but probably some of you have not had the loss from terrorism to have such a cavalier attitude.

Terrorism is REAL .. the response is going to be quiet UGLY till it’s defeated.

There is NO way to protect what we had before 9/11 … actually even 1972 if you are old enough to remember that !

c June 17, 2007 12:13 AM

The Christian Science Monitor has an article about private facilities that perform critical economic functions. Specifically, the article mentions the issue of how to secure these facilities. See http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0605/p01s03-usgn.html

Of more interest, though, is the picture that accompanies the article. In the picture, there is a brightly-colored marker that warns about the presence of an underground petroleum pipeline. Among other places, the pipeline passes through at least one residential neighborhood. It could be claimed that the marker makes it easier to attack the pipeline. At the same time, removing the marker could increase the chance of unintentional damage to the pipeline. (In addition, an attacker may have an advantage with an unmarked pipeline because it might be easier to falsely justify their damage as “accidental.”)

DougC June 17, 2007 12:28 PM

I dunno if it’s worth the effort sometimes. Those who “debunked” the liquid explosives were dead wrong, don’t know chemistry, and made one fatally incorrect assumption — that the maker intends to live through the experience. Lots of things are easily possible if one doesn’t have that requirement.

Most explosive manufacture (nitro compounds, and the peroxides) are exothermic — they generate heat, and can “thermally run away” and detonate — the hotter they get, the faster they produce more heat. The trick in this case would have been to create a situation where the reaction was nearly complete before self detonating. Not that hard to practice in the backyard and using different volumes and starting temperatures for the precursor chemicals. One debunker’s statement that you need chilling and a fume hood shows how badly he misunderstood the situation. Those are what you need to live through the experience and have your stuff NOT explode while making it.

This is the opposite of the terrorist goal.

Anyone who doesn’t believe this is welcome to come over for a demo. Doh, ask anyone who actually makes explosives for a living. The trick is not having them go bang too soon.

We lose nitroglycerin factories regularly over this, I live near one that has blown several times in the last few decades (Radford Arsenal, VA). And this is with utmost care in everything they can think of. A friend had a finger “peeled like a bannana” by a small batch of acetone peroxide he was making “just going off”. He was lucky (actually, he was careful) it was only a small batch.

I’ve had similar experiences here in my lab, but have been lucky as regards injury. I’m VERY careful with energetics and their precursors (many of which are nastier the way they are, and safer converted into mere high explosives — remember energy tends to run downhill).

Most jet fuel is more or less kerosine, but a lot of other stuff gets put into tanks and pipelines at airports. All they’d have gotten (at worst) though is a big fire, not that big a deal. Of course we’d self-panic over it.

What is extremely weird to me is that we worry so much more over whether “someone did it” vs “it was an accident”. The dead are dead either way, the cost is basically the same, except we lose more civil liberties if we can blame someone. I’m originally from DC, and talked to many friends up there who were pretty terrorized by that sniper, even though he wasn’t gaining on, say, traffic accidents (or doctor mistakes) as a cause of death. When I pointed this out, the best response I got was “well he’s aiming at us on purpose”. So? An irresponsible drunk driver isn’t taking the time to NOT aim at you, you’re dead, what’s the difference?

At least the guy running around with a gun and shooting people is a lot more likely to be apprehended. The drunks often have lawyers and money, and get away with that stuff time after time.

Anonymous Brit June 17, 2007 2:26 PM

I visited the States in 05 and I was amazed over the complete lack of security in the airport (I indeed managed to accidentally sneak something – a lobster cracker – onboard which was only confiscated at Heathrow when I was going aboard a connection) and also how a rucksack we were wearing wasn’t x-rayed or scanned as we went up a skyscraper in a major US city!

Anonymous June 17, 2007 6:12 PM

Have terrorists recently made threatening moves with lobster crackers? I had no idea that visiting a seafood restaurant was so dangerous.

Ralph June 17, 2007 7:35 PM

“Terrorism is REAL .. the response is going to be quiet UGLY till it’s defeated.”

Calm down. Sure people hating each other and blowing each other up is real – just like lightning strikes.

But this fear you feel in your gut is not something we can fix for you.

People die every day in hundreds of different ways. You must embrace rational thought and have measured responses to these “risks”, or your fears will overtake you and destory what life you have today.

Clive Robinson June 18, 2007 4:39 AM

@ DougC

A lot of what you are saying is true, however you missed the important point,

For an explosion to be of use it has to have sufficient force to damage the structure it is intended to damage / destroy.

As the force of an explosion decresses rapidly with distance, the amount of explosive you require goes up nearly proportionatly.

This was one of the reasons it required a compleatly new bomb design to destroy the dams in Germany during the second world war.

I could go on about getting the required yield from improperly mixed / made explosives but it is something that is extreamly difficult to model reliably so I will say that it is quite easy to get less than 10% of the force you expect from the quantities of the constituent chemicals.

Also I could go on about the fact that liquid explosives are not very effective at destroying structural members as the force is very difficult to direct. The advantage of them in mining etc was that you drilled a hole in what you wanted to destroy and so kept the force constrained that way.

We know from a previous terorist attempt that exploding something like a shaving container full of properly made liquid explosive under a seat one away from the window only made a hole in the cabin floor.

Is it possible to bring an aircraft down with liquid explosives made on board possibly, but you realy would need to know what you where doing not just with the making but with the placing etc. The sort of person who would possess this level of knowledge and ability is not likley to be wasted on a one off event unless it had a very very high value to the terorists.

Marshall June 18, 2007 1:06 PM

@ Kip Hawley

If you intend for your organization or your positions on policy to be taken seriously, then you need to start with the portion the public most directly interfaces with. If I had to evaluate the effectiveness of the TSA based upon the apparent hiring standards and training of the employees that I’ve interacted with at numerous airports, then I would have to seriously question the competence and overall skill levels of employees all the way up the ladder.

Which brings us to last August. TSA was rolling out these proactive measures when the UK-based plot forced us to act on an emergency basis.

It’s statements like this that make it look like the TSA can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. An unimaginable amount of public money and trust has been invested in the TSA – regardless of the the whole perception vs. reality debate on terrorism, a great deal of competence is expected based upon that investment.

Ridley June 18, 2007 9:17 PM

Thoughtcrime at its best: no real weapons, no real plans, no real threat. Just bad intent. Big Brother would be proud. Now all we have to do is “vaporize” them via the Ministry of Love…I mean Guantanamo Bay.

DigitalCommando June 19, 2007 10:00 PM

BREAKING TERRORIST NEWS: at 7:30pm last night, an FBI informant uncovered yet another sinister terrorist plot. After several hours of exausting surveillance work, agents moved in and arrested several thousand terrorists nationwide. The terrorists had obtained millions of devices known as “gyro-twirlys” Their plan was to break into several million homes while the occupants were asleep and install the gyro-twirlys into the toilet paper roll of each bathroom. By pulling down on the sheets of toilet paper, the gyro-twirlys would have caused the toilet paper roll to careen into an uncontrollable 3000 rpm spin causing the users body to be sucked into the spinning roll. “Thank god we uncovered this” beamed DHS spokesman Jack Mehoff, “We would have had millions of dead mummified civilians on our hands” He also advised that due to this incredible capture, the toilet paper security level have been moved back to condition BROWN.

GuyFromOhio June 20, 2007 4:21 PM

” “The devastation that would be caused had this plot succeeded is just unthinkable,” U.S. Attorney Roslynn R. Mauskopf said at a news conference, calling it “one of the most chilling plots imaginable.” ”

The smug look on her face throughout that press conference told the whole story. You didn’t have to look far to see how inflated the entire prospect was.


Steve Savage June 23, 2007 6:31 PM

You can blame all this on protestant fanaticism. It doesn’t matter on which side you are, pro-jew, anti-jew, neither is important. The president is a protestant fanatic with jesus on the brain and supported by fundamentalist christian nutjobs who think islam is somehow unified and will take over the world.

Reality is, islam has over 22 major sects, they all hate each other, and the only way islam has managed to spread is through christian oppression of it, otherwise it would have been a footnote in history…a religion of sheep herders.

Christians, jews, buddhists, and hindus all have nukes, and the islamic world is WAY behind militarily.

So the next time you hear dubya telling us its time for the next crusade, remember who’s whispering the ideas into his ears….fundamentalist protestants.

Bruce July 1, 2007 1:31 AM

“…allowing our essential freedoms to be lost by using them as an excuse…’

See, if you can’t express something in plain english, there is a good chance that it ain’t true.

As my uni essay-marker would say, ‘Unpack that sentence.’ And what do you get? A square circle.

Anonymous July 1, 2007 7:10 AM

It seems that recent events in the UK do indeed portray UK terrorists as idiots:
As far as I can determine, three attacks were attempted.
1. Car bomb in London detected and defused – a real gift for police forensics.
2. Another car bomb in London towed away and later made safe!
3. An attack on an airport in which one terrorist managed to uhm… burn himself.
It is in bad taste to laugh at other’s misfortune but I cannot help myself. If this is the calibre of “terrorist” we have to deal with then there’s nothing to worry about.

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Clive Robinson July 1, 2007 9:31 AM


“If this is the calibre of “terrorist” we have to deal with then there’s nothing to worry about”

No I don’t agree with you, not because I want to scare things up but simply because improvised explosive devices of this type are often unreliable at best. Most times we know about IEDs that go off not those that don’t so we do not have reliable information on the success ratio. Because IEDs of this type are unreliable offten they are transported with a safety cuttout to stop them going off whilst the terrorist is still close.

From some of the news reports it appeas that the actuator was a mobile phone. It is also unclear if the target was the night club or the vehical was just parked up prior to final deployment. Afterall the Gay Pride March was this saturday and the London Gay Community has been attacked in the past by lone bombers.

Apparently smoke was seen in the vehical which started the alert. Maybe the device had not been triggered and it was the mist from escaping gas. Or maybe it had just started burning accidentaly for some other reason and did not go off because the terorists had not put the the safety cut out back in we do not know (yet nor are we likley to unfortunatly).

The second vehical was actually towed away and put in an underground storage park which might well have stopped a mobile phone actuator from working.

The use of gas cilinders in a fire as an explosive device is not new, anybody who is old enough to have seen news footage of gas plant “bleve” on the news would realise just how effective they could be. Or alternativly have a look at,


Where they show a method of converting the effect to TNT equivalent…

More recently a large part of the rail network in South East London was closed down simply due to a fire in a garage close to the railway that was thought to have gas cylinders in it. This might well have given somebody the idea.

Gas cylinders are very very easy to get hold of are virtually untraceable (steal them from a building site buy second/third/fourth hand etc). Likewise oxygen cylinders.

How long before somebody puts a little thought into the process and lets out some of the LPG and puts back oxygen from another compressed cylinder just to up the effect of a bleve and effectivly turn it into a fuel air explosive?

As for those people at Glasgow Airport I am not sure if their vehical was designed to explode or not. However they certainly got the airport closed down for some considerable period of time.

Clive Robinson July 1, 2007 10:24 AM

For those interested in “Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosions” BLEVEs and the destructive forces of other types of explosion but who do not want to pay or only want an overview try the following link,


It also mentiones about the second most important thing which is yield which can be quite low on Fuel Air Explosions.

Anonymous July 1, 2007 10:29 AM

@Clive Robinson

“No I don’t agree with you …”

Yes, there were lots of things they could have done better but they did not. I am sure that you could have done a much better job (I seem to recall something about a military background in earlier posts by you) but they failed terribly.

Next time may well be more serious but let’s not pass up the chance to laugh at Al Qaeda’s expense. Don’t underestimate the potential damage to Al Qaeda’s image. There are loads of propaganda videos made by terrorists about attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why do the terrorist go to the bother of making these videos? Because they value propaganada.

A triple failure at terrorist attack is deeply humiliating for the terrorists and we should make the most of it.

@Al Quaeda


X July 25, 2008 12:20 PM

You are right, damnably right. Anyone with any real knowledge of the infrastructure common in most of America’s large cities (and Europe) can tell you that as few as three small, simple, sequential acts of terrorism can bring a population to apoplexy in less than three hours.

Lets pick Chi-town. A small cesna aircraft crashes into a business district and explodes like a bomb…. taking out part of the power grid. While rescue efforts are under way, there is an explosion that derails a train full of commuters on the L, also taking out 14+ fiber cables for telecommunications in the city. Start a fire in a business district on the north side and all hell breaks loose. While they are trying to figure out how to declare martial law, the water system is poisoned. Within days 250,000 people are dead or dying.

Instead, we find terrorists that want to play superman or think their fantastic plots will carve them out a place in heaven. sigh, they ARE morons. A simple series of loosely orchestrated ‘accidents’ can do more damage than anyone can believe. That is the easiest way to breech security also. No planes involved, try using a tanker truck instead of the small plane in that sequence. A little intel, a bit of money, and you can bring any metropolitan area to it’s knees in just hours. The only weapon I mentioned was poison, and that’s not that hard to get hold of. Nothing more than dynamite would be needed for the rest if you know what you are doing.

The only way to prepare ourselves against attack is to know how to respond to multiple emergencies, to be watchful of oddities, and to NOT panic or live in fear. Disaster recovery planning is paramount. If we all know what to do in an emergency, recovery is much easier, damage is limited or minimized, and the terrorists do not win. Those people that worry about terrorists probably don’t know how they are going to get out of their homes if a fire breaks out. Some probably don’t know how to change a flat tire.

On second thinking, I’m not sure who the morons are; The terrorists or those that are afraid of them instead of everything else they are more likely to die of?

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