Good Commentaries on the UK Terrorist Plots

"It's Hard to Prevent What's Hard to Imagine," more sarcasm from TheRegister, and an article from Slate. From the third:

More important, though, the London bombs failed because open, Western societies are more resilient than we sometimes think they are.

And this, from the Asia Times.

EDITED TO ADD (7/9): And this.

Posted on July 5, 2007 at 1:43 PM • 31 Comments


Car & DriverJuly 5, 2007 2:37 PM

Any predictions for the new Security Provisions and Regulations that will be put in place as a result of these clever folks and their outing at the airport? Block all highways approaching airports? Close parking buildings near airport terminals? Limit the sale and transport of nails to 10 or fewer?

not_KurtJuly 5, 2007 3:14 PM

Thanks for the articles, Bruce, they're better than most. The AT article especially mentions the budget ramifications of these so-called "terrorist threats". These supposed threats serve to justify policy [foreign and other] that would never stand up to public scrutiny without these types of events to keep people fearful and quick to obey their good-leaders.

Absurd London “Bomb Plot��? Inaugurates “Control Freak��? Brown

Numbskull “al-Qaeda��? Patsies Flub in Glasgow

Dumb “al-Qaeda��? Doctors


monopoleJuly 5, 2007 3:15 PM

Erm, short of the Register articles I'm not very impressed. The moment I heard that the villains had just left propane tanks and gasoline in a burning car. (and failed to feed the parking meter) I pretty much came to the obvious conclusion, that this was a massively incompetent attack.

Given that the rest of the articles were predicated on the death tolls running into the hundreds to thousands they seemed pretty moot.

Had the perpetrators done a competent ANFO bomb or even rigged a valve release/timer/igniter to attempt an FAE bomb I'd have classed this as a serious threat.

In actuality, an incompetent drunk managed to rack up a higher death toll at the happyland blaze with a can of gas, much less an incompetent roadie at the great white blaze.

Fred PJuly 5, 2007 3:30 PM

@Car & Driver-

I vote for banning the sale, distribution, or use of gasoline :-)

KlunkJuly 5, 2007 3:41 PM

@monopole: "Given that the rest of the articles were predicated on the death tolls running into the hundreds to thousands they seemed pretty moot."

Yes, that was the overall tone of the reporting within the UK initially, even from organisations which ought to know better, and was one reason I flagged up the Register article in the previous thread here - Page's comments seemed largely aimed at debunking, with facts, that particular vein of hysteria.

A shame, though, that Bruce has made the classic American's error of mistaking Page's typically British (and generally well-informed) irony for low sarcasm. I'd believed until then that he knew us Brits better than that. But hey, no one's perfect!

RonJuly 5, 2007 5:15 PM

Ironically Al Qaeda has been largely dismantled as a centralized organization, but the authorities don't dare trumpet that actual victory as they'd have fewer excuses to scream "terror! 9/11".

A-Q has been demoted to a brand name, which any franchise is welcome to pick up. And when headquarters doesn't monitor quality control, the individual franchisers cut corners and produce a shoddy product (in this case, incompetent plots that either won't work or have little impact).

The really fortunate thing is that the terrorist masterminds have massive egos that require huge symbolic impact, so more effective widespread attacks on, say, food supplies or basic transport infrastructure aren't popular with these megalomaniacs. If we ever develop some practical terrorists we've got real problems.

jimJuly 5, 2007 5:51 PM

There was a derailment on the Tube this morning - it looks as if some contractor working on the line didn't secure his equipment properly and something fell onto the track.

The contortions of the evening papers' headlines trying to find some excuse to tie it in to terrorism were nothing short of pathetic.

"Passengers thought it was another 7/7!" Well of course they did! Some moronic wannabes torch a couple of cars and all the papers are screaming "TERRORISTS ARE GOING TO KILL US ALL!" for the next week. Then they act all surprised when people start seeing terrorists under every rock.

I suppose the police will be demanding the power to detain people without trial for 90 days on suspicion of being a London Underground contractor, now.

At least they seemed to be having fun when I went through Bethnal Green this morning. Tearing up and down the road with their lights flashing and sirens going. Poor things - they must have been so disappointed when they found out it wasn't a bomb after all.

RonJuly 5, 2007 7:38 PM

The contractors are lucky none of them were wearing those "bulky" denim jackets at the wrong time of year, or, the time security got to them. That makes you eligible for an instant death penalty on the Tube, IIRC.

Or did they solve it by banning Brazilians?

billswiftJuly 5, 2007 10:46 PM

Although I think they meant it ironically,
this from the Asia Times is the best way of handling terrorism I've heard of yet:
"Take reasonable precautions, but otherwise simply shrug your shoulders and get on with your life."
Most of the article was an advertisement for more government, even though it also admitted (making their excuses in advance) that there would still be occasional terrorist attacks.

tsemajJuly 5, 2007 11:17 PM

I can't believe that ridiculous suggestion to ban sales of nails in amounts greater than 10.

We can be much more specific. AQ used doctors in their last attack, so let's jump on that bolted horse.

We need to ban doctors from buying nails, gas canisters, driving cars, approaching airports, and night clubs.

Much more cost effective to come down hard on a smaller group of people.

Lone GaffeJuly 6, 2007 12:53 AM

Nothing in the recent UK attacks was hard to imagine. I wrote a scenario for the recent Movie Plot Threat contest which used a very similar attack on a crowded Mall. In the end, I didn't submit it because it was just too practical. My version covered all the single-points-of-failure which seem to have caused failures in the real attempts.

Perhaps we need a Movie Plot Threat Buzz Phrase generator so people don't need to imagine threats; just spin the wheels and out pops a random attack :-)

MarkJuly 6, 2007 2:17 AM

As the register article pointed out.
1) A-Q is so weakened that all they can manage is setting fire to a car, so they are no longer a real threat.
2) They know the government will do the terrorising for them, so why bother with a real bomb when a little fire will work just as well.

In either case, the very wrong thing for the government and security forces to do is cause massive disruption.

It seems that nobody in power learnt anything from 30 years of IRA violence.

Also, the term terrorist is grossly overused. Much more accurate would be Politically motivated crime, or idealogical motivated crime, because that is what it is.

KristineJuly 6, 2007 5:41 AM

@Car and Driver: How about matches and lighters? Of course, spark plugs also ignite gasoline, so they would have to be prohibited as well. Thus only Diesel cars would still be allowed on the roads.

I say: Ban 'em all and let god sort 'em out!


bobJuly 6, 2007 7:02 AM

Bad news - I heard that a team of Al-Quaida operatives were planning on using a grand piano to blow up an airplane. Now we are all going to be strip-searched to look for grand pianos. And you will only be allowed to carry 3 piano keys (2 white 1 black) with you in a plastic bag.

JaredJuly 6, 2007 8:59 AM

As I keep saying, terrorism simply isn't a big enough threat to warrant living in fear. In the US, even including 9/11, terrorism has killed roughly the same number of people in the past half century as lightning strikes.

As the War Nerd points out, "The Brits chased the IRA for about 25 years, allowing time off for truces...and in 25 years of this war, there were only 3,200 KIA-about 130 deaths per year. There are intersections in Fresno that can claim more scalps over that length of time."

I literally have better chance dying in a car accident _today_ than from terrorism at any point in my life. On a larger scale, a country is simply too big for a handful of criminals to hurt in any meaningful way. The only way they can do it is when they're the ones in power.

BillOGoodsJuly 6, 2007 9:44 AM

We all sound pretty haughty about how WE are thinking now that the militant Islamics' plans have failed. We sound pretty disdainful of government's response.

But, the fact of the matter is that these guys "failed," but, in time, other guys are going to try and do the same thing and they ain't all stupid. The other guys will learn. As alluded to above, the IRA was pretty good at "finishing" their bombs. I have no reason to conclude that militant Islamics aren't as capable as your garden-variety IRA bomber.

I'm sure the posters here would perform far better than our terrorism experts at the CIA, FBI, and Scotland Yard---nothing is impossible to the man that doesn't have to do it. But the "West" is very much on the right track in its response---with my bias that it needs to do much more. If that creates "fear," don't blame the messenger, even if she is a smarmy politician.

Yes, odds and statistics suggest we, here, all understand that our next flight isn't going down over the Atlantic. What is very worthy of serious minded concern, however, is that the Islamic communities are not rooting or ratting out the evil within. Which reasonably suggests the Islamic communities have no interest in doing so. Which reasonably suggests Islam, itself, is flawed somehow.

As I said in another post, the "flaws," or grievances, or demands, whatever they may be, that these folks may have are irrelevant to us. They use death and mayhem to further their cause that . . . . Yea, well, . . . let's have a $1 million reward to the first person who can prove the sine qua non of Islamic terror so that, if theoretically, the demand is met, all would be calm and bright.

As one who is never late to be critical of government or any politician, I have to say that, in all, the response of governments and their explanations have been appropriate and measured. In fact, if George Bush wasn't such a horrible communicator, more people might better understand what is at stake if we don't respond with serious force against those that would use random death to harm innocent civilians for, at best, amorphous, duplicitous or fanciful aims.

If Al Gore can say there is a "present global emergency" and that the human species is "in the balance" for a fraud and a farce like "global warming," how can anyone seriously be critical of "the West's" response to militant Islam, other than it is far too tepid?

Brandioch ConnerJuly 6, 2007 10:08 AM

"In fact, if George Bush wasn't such a horrible communicator, more people might better understand what is at stake if we don't respond with serious force against those that would use random death to harm innocent civilians for, at best, amorphous, duplicitous or fanciful aims."

So go ahead and explain it to me.

I can explain it to you. In a word, "Nothing".

Far more people will die in car crashes.

Far more people will be killed by members of their own family.

Look at the statistics.

BillOGoodsJuly 6, 2007 11:02 AM

Conner, if my point was a fastball, you just whiffed. My family, fortunately, does not scare me. Automobile accidents caused by the careless do not scare me. Neither of them intend to strike fear in me for what I might say, do, or think or how I might vote. Almost all the time, an auto, train, bus, or plane accident is unrelated to an organized, voluntary effort by an identifiable group.

But, when it is and the identifiable group uses death, destruction, or mayhem for illusory or dubious purposes, that gets my attention. It should also get the attention of any government, the purpose of which (and, in no small measure, the reason I pay taxes) is to protect my life and property. The duty of government under the US Constitution, for example, isn't limited to statistically significant threats to life or property.

You will be the first one to wonder why the government didn't take action to protect its citizens and legitimate interests when the Islamic militants start exploding car bombs in Manhattan. What then?

Anon1July 6, 2007 12:08 PM

That slate article was some sad piece of self-celebrating junk.
1) "First, the London bombs failed because they were amateurish. [...]The car bombs were made of ordinary propane gas and rusty nails[...]covered in fingerprints and other forensic evidence[...]It's likely that the perpetrators will have been filmed by one of central London's multiple video cameras[...]"
conclusion ? "Western technology is still far superior to the tools available to would-be terrorists"

so these ones were dumbasses, thus our western technology is very superior, well thank you ! load of bollocks !

2) "More important, though, the London bombs failed because open, Western societies are more resilient than we sometimes think they are"
hmm promising intro isn't it ? let's see...
"The police found one of the Piccadilly car bombs because an ambulance crew, responding to an unrelated call, saw smoke seeping from its trunk and alerted the police.The other car was illegally parked, and London's supervigilant, much-hated traffic wardens towed it to a parking lot, where someone noticed that it smelled of gasoline and alerted the police. "
So it's just a random notice from an ambulance and another mistake of our wannabe terrorists, right ?
nooo, it's "That Britain has functional ambulance services and working traffic wardens, all of whom are civic-minded enough to call the police when they suspect something is amis[...]these are precisely the kinds of institutions that are missing in many places, among them Baghdad"
yeah, random luck suddenly turns into "efficient public institutions" preventing terrorism....

3)and the finishing blow "In Glasgow, Scotland, there was a similar story"
you're getting me excited there...
"The two men who drove their car into an airport door were stopped by police working together with pedestrians, one of whom wrestled the driver—who had just doused himself in gasoline—to the ground. "
"The authorities weren't successful by themselves, in other words: The authorities were successful in conjunction with a supportive public.Again, this particular form of cooperation isn't available in many countries, and certainly not in Iraq, where the authorities don't enjoy the public's trust at all."
Riiight. United we are strong... apart from all the cases when civism doesn't win the day and a woman is left bleeding to death on the pavement, a passerby even shooting a pic... Wasn't that one too in UK ?

But feel no fear "The London bombs are indeed an ominous reminder that the terrorist war on the West continues. They were also an excellent reminder that we—and our open societies and our liberal values—are still winning."

Remember : random events = win !
random events = we are superiors !
random events = we eat a boeing next morning because our intel' is full o' shit !
hey maybe not the last one...

Anyway terrorism prevention is based on good and specific intelligence collecting, not just random people spotting bombs by blind luck, not because we're western and open and free...

An article isn't good just because it doesn't give into the FUD trend.

Brandioch ConnerJuly 6, 2007 12:53 PM

"Conner, if my point was a fastball, you just whiffed."

Anonymous poster claims expertise on the Internet. Film at 11!

"My family, fortunately, does not scare me. Automobile accidents caused by the careless do not scare me."

That point has been covered here before. Many times before.

If you want to focus on what you are afraid of ... instead of what the statistics show to be threats, that is your option.

Just don't expect anyone who understands the statistics to be impressed by your claims of expertise.

The fact is that, statistically, your family is more of a threat to your life than terrorists are.

Whether you accept that fact or not, it is still a fact.

And your emotions are not based upon the facts.

BillOGoodsJuly 6, 2007 1:39 PM

Again, you miss the point.

As a society, we are, rightly, less concerned about the situation in which a pedestrian is accidentally killed by a careless motorist and more concerned when the pedestrian is killed because the car, filed with gas or propane or dynamite, is intentionally exploded with a cell phone. This is so, even though the exploding car occurs far less frequently.

If we don't agree on that, there isn't anything further to discuss. To suggest I should not be more concerned about the purposeful detonation of the car because it's less likely to occur is ridiculous to the extreme. But, assuming we do agree, the naked argument that we should only "fear" that which is most likely to occur becomes ludicrous.

We fear the intentional use of force, not only because it is lawless, but it threatens the core of our values and way of life. Does that need further explanation? Therefore, it requires a response from government that involves greater force to eliminate or deter the unwanted conduct.

Whether it's the IRA or Islamic militants, no society can---or should---tolerate the random execution of citizens because somebody thinks they will gain a political advantage. Now, the West's underlying currents of resentment to Islamic terror is an understanding, at some level, that intentions have nothing whatever to do with freedom, liberty, or capitalism and have everything to do with religious subjugation.

Most people get it. A prolonged period of low-grade terrorism of this sort can bring down a society and its values. Why should we let that happen? Again, what will you say when car bombs are exploded in downtown Manhattan or Los Angeles? Don't worry. The odds you will be killed are really low? That isn't the point.

Brandioch ConnerJuly 6, 2007 1:59 PM

"Again, you miss the point.

As a society, ... blah blah blah ... far less frequently.

If we don't agree on that, there isn't anything further to discuss."

Well, I have to agree with that last line. Until you learn statistics, there isn't anything to discuss.

You'll be focused on your emotions rather than the facts.

But I've already said that.

BillOGoodsJuly 6, 2007 3:19 PM

Just two things:

1. Read Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable; and

2. All actions have consequences. The long odds of an act occurring doesn't mean that it has no consequences---whether or not the act actually occurs.

AleJuly 6, 2007 4:12 PM

BillOGoods, I do not think that the "Black Swan" reference is applicable. Very improbable events are significant only when they are associated with a heavy-tailed probability distribution - which is why Taleb (and Mandelbrot) focus on this.

I do not think we have enough evidence to posit that terrorist attacks have this property.

Moreover, security tends to be more effective when it takes the practical aspects into account ( such as usability or economics) rather than focusing in value judgements.

Brandioch ConnerJuly 6, 2007 4:57 PM

"1. Read Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable; and"

What was that I had said?
Anonymous poster claims expertise on the Internet. Film at 11!

Meanwhile, the insurance industry makes how many billions of dollars a year by predicting risk and future loss based off of historical analysis?

But if you want to believe that the world does not operate in that fashion, that's your prerogative.

And somehow the insurance industry is an aberration that is repeatedly and consistently profitable. And it is based entirely upon statistics.

"2. All actions have consequences. The long odds of an act occurring doesn't mean that it has no consequences---whether or not the act actually occurs."

So an event has consequences ... I've never said otherwise.

And the even has consequences ... even if it never happens.

Yeah, right. Do you know how many events NEVER happen? No, you don't, do you? I'll help you out here.

There are an INFINITE number of events that NEVER happen. If an event's non-occurrence has consequences, then there are an INFINITE number of consequences affecting EVERY aspect of life.

Since an infinite number is, by definition, larger than a finite number, any thing is more impacted by the non-events than by the events.

I think your philosophy teacher is calling you. Something about failing that class.

Again, you can stick to your emotional decisions.

But don't try to claim that your emotional decisions have any basis in fact or reality. The statistics do not support you.

BillOGoodsJuly 6, 2007 5:24 PM

Thank you Ale, but Taleb is applicable to the discussion with Conner to emphasize that long shot or highly improbable events, which Conner, based only on statistics, would have us virtually ignore, can be highly significant if the event occurs. To that extent, the point of the book applies.

Additionally, Taleb is practical with certain knowledge. He wouldn't suggest that the sun coming up the next morning is in the balance every night. He would clearly act on the basis of past information, in that case.

Finally, I don't recall reading anything suggesting Taleb says the only "significant" improbable events are found in a long or heavy tailed distribution curve. I believe, instead, he is saying that outliers have a higher probability of occurring than the bell curve suggests, based on other information. If what you say is the case, the bell curve is still preducting a higher probability, although far away from the mean, that we can see and act on. That's not what Taleb is saying. He finds the bell curve useless for predictive purposes.

simongabrielJuly 11, 2007 11:21 AM

The reason those "highly improbable" events have such an impact is because folks like you place such emphasis on fearing these. What it seems you aren't getting is that fear != likely danger. Read some of Bruce's books if you still don't quite get that.

What we are all talking about is that your fear is misplaced. The 'terror' you fear is exactly what those promoting it want you to fear. What you _should_ be afraid of is the fact that no one cares about what actually is killing people in this country. So many, much like yourself, could care less about how many pedestrians are killed, how many die in traffic accidents, etc. yet you will go on and on about how 'dangerous' these so-called terror plots _could_ be. That's exactly the point.

But you know what? If you would prefer to run around in fear and terror that you might be blown up by a car bomb, and in the process happen to get run over by a drunk driver, I suppose the rest of us shouldn't make a point of it? By following your logic, that is. Just do us one favor. Don't get into politics, ok? Thanks.

guvn'rJuly 11, 2007 1:18 PM

@simongabriel "fear != danger" So true, bravo!

BillOGoods' reiteration that he's bought the bill of goods not the reality of the contents is based on his emotion (fear) not the facts (danger). Trying to reason objectively with a subjective position is futile. He'll continue to feel fearful as long as he wants to and can convince himself there's reason to.

Bill, to answer your questions about the car bomb in Manhattan, it won't phase me at all, and I won't feel government has failed me. I don't look to the government to solve all society's problems. And I don't expect certainty in life, sometimes s**t happens despite best actions by all the actors. In fact, I'm more concerned by potential observational or computational errors on 99942 Apophis than I am about car bombs in Manhattan.

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