Terrorists Placing Fake Bombs in Public Places

Supposedly, the latest terrorist tactic is to place fake bombs—suspicious looking bags, backpacks, boxes, and coolers—in public places in an effort to paralyze the city and probe our defenses. The article doesn’t say whether or not this has actually ever happened, only that the FBI is warning of the tactic.

Citing an FBI informational document, ABC News reports a so called “battle of suspicious bags” is being encouraged on a jihadist website.

I have no doubt that this may happen, but I’m sure these are not actual terrorists doing the planting. We’re so easy to terrorize that anyone can play; this is the equivalent of hacking in the real world. One solution is to continue to overreact, and spend even more money on these fake threats. The other is to refuse to be terrorized.

Posted on June 9, 2010 at 6:24 AM46 Comments


yt June 9, 2010 6:51 AM

When I first read this article, I had to double check whether I was reading The Onion. Sadly, I wasn’t.

Mr. Paul June 9, 2010 7:00 AM

So, if these fake bombs are a serious concern, should we start calling them in? I’m confused as to how this warning works.

BF Skinner June 9, 2010 7:34 AM

@Mr Paul “…should we start calling them in?”
Yes to the fake bomb hotline.

“more suspicious, more vigilant ” That’s the same as increasing sensor sensitivity resulting in more Type I errors isn’t it?

We should be able to calculate costs for X amount of false alarms since calling in bomb threats is a time honored high school practice.

Of course to my mind the under lying premise is “The terrorist is everywhere, always watching, in your streets, in your homes.”

Otherwise how could

‘The potential terrorists … be watching the response. “How they evacuate. The standoff distances. How long it takes …,” Barry said.’

They would have to have people on scene measuring response. Since there aren’t that many terrorists and even fewer in the US this would appear to be a low threat. But even if it were true what are the police supposed to do? For EVERY lost or misplaced bag reported:

A. Don’t respond. It only gives OPSEC data to “the terrorist”

B. Respond to EVERY report.
b2. Once the non-threat of the package is established arrest every onlooker and interrogate them as potential terrorists.
I’m sure no indiscriminate racial profiling would occur and only people that looked like terrorists would be tortured.
b3. Cable records would also have to be ransacked to identify anyone who also was watching news coverage at the time.
b4. News crews and anyone buying a video camera or stop watch should be required to submit to background screens to make sure they aren’t dangerous.

Thanks to Senator Liebermans bill they’d even be able to do away with those pesky reasonable suspicion and habeas protections we give US citizens.

Hey Feebies! how about giving us information that is useful? Law enforcement can’t modify their behavior based on your “analysis”. They can’t fail to respond and, for the moment, they can’t arrest anyone for just standing around.

Tanuki June 9, 2010 7:41 AM

Truth is, there’s no need to even place the fake bag-bombs: as the IRA demonstrated in the UK a few decades back by phoning in hoax bomb-warnings.

OK, so you occasionally do need to plant an actual bomb – to ensure that the authorities continue to take your ongoing disruption-multiplier hoax calls sufficiently seriously.

moo June 9, 2010 8:04 AM

[Big Brother] “is everywhere, always watching, in your streets, in your homes.”

Fixed that for you.

Dinah June 9, 2010 8:27 AM

I’m no terrorist nor have I gone through with anything like this but I’ve definitely considered doing this before. Like you said: it’s so easy, anyone can play. I imagine I’m like most of your core audience: sick of over-reaction to the slightest glint of what may be terrorism. It’s hard to not want to screw with the powers that be and the co-workers who can’t wait to tell you about the latest thing that daytime TV told them to fear. Whether the terrorists intended to win this way or not: they have. We collectively have not refused to be terrorized. In fact, we’ve insisted on it.

Guy June 9, 2010 9:11 AM


I must say that the idea of closing an airport with an empty suitcase has tempted me on occasion as well. As you say, it is just about too easy to ignore.

IntelVet June 9, 2010 9:15 AM

I am starting to believe that the best way to terrorize westerners is the have a series of fake bombs including the crotch and shoe bombers.

It makes people run around setting their hair on fire, the very definition of terrorism while not killing a soul, great PR.

bin Laden has trained westerners well.

Joe June 9, 2010 9:24 AM

It is absurd that our national emblem is the eagle. It should be Chicken Little.

Jamougha June 9, 2010 9:33 AM

So now ‘terrorism’ is indistinguishable from forgetting your bag. Tremble in terror.

Andrew June 9, 2010 9:43 AM

The game continues. The Bad Guys (TM) attempt to observe targets, gather intelligence, provoke responses and ultimately carry out a Dastardly Plan attempting to leverage their pathetic weakness and general incompetence into an actual attack.

“A terrorist is so very weak that he must be a monster to accomplish anything at all.” — Spider Robinson.

The Good Guys (TM) have their “numerous ways” to respond to those incidents of which they actually become aware.

My favored strategy involves media portrayals in which we point and laugh at terrorist absurdities. (I mean, shoes and underwear, what’s next, hairpieces? Long beards? Why not breast implants? Or beer bellies? http://www.bannedinhollywood.com/top-products-for-smuggling-alcohol-into-venues-youre-not-supposed-to/ )

Of course, responding to hundreds of harmless but suspicious packages is a good way to raise not only awareness, but argue for more money for overtime and special equipment.

Also, if one had actionable intelligence of a terrorist plot about to occur, a convenient ‘suspicious package’ placed by an agent might be a useful way to infiltrate police resources into strike position without revealing the pre-knowledge. However, this ’24’ style scenario is very rare in real life.

When does a ‘prankster’ become a terrorist? If we’re going to treat terrorists as subhumans and deny them the rights of criminal suspects, we’re going to need a brighter line between “conspiracy to commit mass murder” and “unauthorized publicity stunt.”

Dean June 9, 2010 10:13 AM

The terrorists have won. They have succeeded in turning the world’s pre-eminent superpower into a paranoid mess, seeing phantoms everywhere it looks, and embroiled in a perpetual and unwinnable war.

sehlat June 9, 2010 10:26 AM

Life imitates art. For details, see Eric Frank Russell’s classic novel “Wasp” (1957), which really should have served as a warning, and not an operations manual.

Also@Andrew 9:43, see Dean Ing’s novel “Soft Targets” (1979) which should have served as an operations manual, and not a warning.

Mailman June 9, 2010 10:40 AM

Sadly, I think the tactic makes perfect sense. As long as some real bombs are planted in abandoned bags every now and then, then the fake bomb threat could be a very efficient tactic. It terrorizes everybody, it paralyzes several blocks in a city for several hours, and it allows terrorists to observe the authorities’ response plans. All for the price of a bag.

Plus, what’s the worst that can happen to them? You can’t arrest someone for forgetting a bag in a public place.

I like that the news is even reporting this. Instead of “refuse to be terrorized,” their motto is more like, “prepare to be terrorized.”

When the thought of empty bags being possibly abandoned by bad guys causes panic, the terrorists have really, really won.

Mailman June 9, 2010 10:43 AM

It’s actually gotten to the point where anything a terrorist does can cause panic. Al Qaeda could create an account on eBay and arrange for American authorities to track that account’s activities.
Then, they could sell a dozen MP3 players or gaming consoles and the news would all report that as “Terrorists are targeting our children!”

Now that I think of it, can I use this as my entry for the next movie-plot scenario contest?

Mark R June 9, 2010 10:46 AM

They’re warning us… that terrorists might leave bags lying around… WITHOUT bombs in them?

Yeah, sure, I’ll be on the lookout for those harmless bags. Thanks.

I would think that a terrorist who actually had a viable bomb would be better off using it right away than attempting to gain “intel” by leaving a harmless bag around first and observing the response… what if somebody actually does see something and say something on his “dry run?”

Clive Robinson June 9, 2010 11:02 AM

@ Tanuki

“OK, so you occasionally do need to plant an actual bomb – to ensure that the authorities continue to take your ongoing disruption multiplier hoax calls sufficiently seriously”

Taken seriously by whom?

A slightly funny but true story about an IRA bomb a thief and the resulting chaos…

Many years ago I used to frequent the odd music festival or five each summer.

One of which was WOMAD in Reading UK. Reading has a largish railway station with lots and lots of student types going through and probably three or four lost bag incidents a day in the summer.

So a glorious oportunity not just for the Terrorist IRA but bag thievs as well…

Well the IRA placed their bomb and phoned in their warning and the station was closed down.

A rigourous search was carried out but of the bomb there was no sign.

Reading Police station got a call to say there was a bag with what looked like a bomb in it at the Hexagon center.

It turns out the IRA’s bomb got stolen by a bag thief who went somewhere quite to examin his booty to discover a nasty surprise so shocked was he that he forgot to remove his fingerprints etc before calling it in.

The result he got nicked….

As for the IRA it was a bit of an anticlimax for them, and thankfully they decided somewhere else next time.

HJohn June 9, 2010 11:19 AM

I could see where a fake bomb could make a real bomb more effective.

Plant a fake one, everyone panics and an area is evacuated.

Repeat until people are so used to the hoax that they quit panicking and don’t evacuate.

Then, plant a real bomb. No one is evacuated because it is always fake. Kaboom.

I’ve got a plot in my head, page Jerry Bruckheimer. 🙂

bob (the original bob) June 9, 2010 11:29 AM

Several posters have commented that the “terrorists” should plant real bombs (or at least real fake bombs…) every now and then to keep the system flowing; kind of like a saline drip keeping an IV line open.

Thats not really the case. The system pats itself on the back every time it REACTS to something, regardless of how infantile – no feedback at all from success or accomplishment (or lack thereof).

This is similar to a dog locked in a car in a parking lot barking at all the people walking out to their own cars – he considers himself a success anytime one of the “intruders” keeps walking by without breaking into HIS car.

Plus if we do stop self-terrorizing, terrorists may have to start making REAL attacks to keep our fear level up. This way they will leave us alone (possibly because they are immobilized by doubling over in laughter).

RH June 9, 2010 11:51 AM

I don’t know about “terrorists,” but there was a really impressive heist in Europe where the police helicopters were frozen because someone had put a cardboard box in the hangar labeled “BOMB.”

GreenSquirrel June 9, 2010 11:58 AM

Sadly, I have to agree with bob (the original bob) (not because its bob, but because what he says is sad).

This whole thing is comedy.

First off, no terrorist group that is able* to deploy real explosives would bother planting a fake bomb. (*) If the BADPEOPLE are having to go down this route they have been effectively defeated and are unable to mount an attack more effective than a teenage school kid can.

This is, in effect, a declaration that the GOODGUYS have won.

Secondly, from a protective security point this is genuinely down the route of madness. There is no way this kind of “attack” can be defended against and now, we have a situation where innocent people (“Sorry officer, I dropped my bag and didnt realise”) are going to be treated as terrorists.

In the war of attrition, we still lose. Massively. The is the famous 10p terrorism writ large. To a large extent the terrorists dont even need to mount attacks now – we will be forced to spend significant resources countering those evil people who lose luggage.

As bob says, the feedback loop broken and every evacuation will be hailed as a success. Every bomb squad detonation of sandwich boxes will be a success.

The amazing thing about this is that we have hit a situation (**) where the terrorists have basially lost, but in our desire to win the war we have won, we will force ourselves to lose.


Fortunately for my sanity, most “Jihadist Websites” tend to be run by socially inept teenagers and we have no way of knowing if this is from a majority site or a minority one. To keep sane, I will assume this is from a “normal” crackpot jihadist site and is simply a teenager who really needs to get laid but has found teh intarwebs instead.

* I appreciate there is a valid attack situation where the group has limited explosives. By calling in a fake device they can cause an evacuation, and personnel bottleneck, possibly rendering the real device more effective. But its even more effective if they use two devices…

** assuming this is all real and is supported by intellience from genuine terrorist sources, reflecting genuine terrorist group intentions. Rather than being complete nonsense someone has told someone else who has let slip to someone who has a mate who works for the FBI……..

Not That Boy June 9, 2010 12:25 PM

Maybe we should familiarize the terrorists with the story about the boy who cried wolf. If they are patient, eventually the US authorities will get tired of all the citizen reports of “suspicious things”, and start ignoring them.

b0b June 9, 2010 12:42 PM

Since the scope of terrorists is to terrorize I think this is logic. I mean, it would have been logic if “terrorists” really existed. I ve always wondered why if terrorism was a real threat they simply didn’t start calling airports, every day, telling there was a bomb. It would have paralized the country. And it would have been pretty cheap and safe.

But it didn’t happen, guess why?

jacob June 9, 2010 12:43 PM

My first thought matched others above.
Probing defenses, throwing people off, and diversion. Then, I wondered..What if they wanted to play a game of duck, duck, goose? 2/10 are real bombs. That would really mess things up. Just gym bags with 10 m80s? scatter 100 of them around a major city. Just a weird thought. That would make people less likely to open one of these bags. It would be a lot cheaper and easier than a real big bomb…….

EH June 9, 2010 12:46 PM

Am I the only one who sees this more as a strategy to lay a foundation to charge pranksters with terrorism?

jlc3 June 9, 2010 1:25 PM

Actually – I’ve written war game scenarios that effectively take advantage of this, only on a large scale. So have some others I’ve worked with, like the NSA Red Team. That they were gamed is unlikely (I know my scenarios were tossed out as being ‘too realistic’). Actual shutdown of Washington was not an option. How hard? very easy actually – a couple of well timed phone calls, some redirection of some resources. Effort was nearly nil, and the overall effectiveness was immense.

We are, as you put it Bruce, easy to terrorize. As with just about any other aspect of security, nothing gets done until it hurts, and then the efforts fade as quickly as the pain.

DayOwl June 9, 2010 3:29 PM

Gunfire in my city no longer elicits a law enforcement response. However, it gets pretty fun downtown when someone finds a backpack in a parking garage.

When it’s no longer interesting to the authorities, they’ll have to come up with something else.

Jack Sprat June 9, 2010 4:51 PM

@DayOwl “Gunfire in my city no longer elicits a law enforcement response.”

@NotThatBoy “the boy who cried wolf. If they are patient, eventually the US authorities will get tired of all the citizen reports of “suspicious things”, and start ignoring them.”

Reminds me of two stories. First was during high school when we had come into a large supply of fireworks including M-100s. So we went out to the country to blow them up in peace. They were LOUD. We knew that someone would call the sherrif so we got out of there. Where to go? My buddy said “Go to my neighborhood X.” “But that’s the city.” “Dude. It’s an all black neighborhood in Cleveland. You think the police ever go there?”

We spent hours making things go boom,
fly and sparkle. No cops.

Second story

Burglars want to rob a warehouse. Identify the window they want to eggres but it’s alarmed. So they shoot it with a tic-tac and an air gun. Alarm goes off. Guards come to inspect. Everything tight. Guards go away. Burglars do this over and over.
Guards conclude it’s a malfunctioning alarm and disable it. Burglar shoots the window, no alarm. Break in and clean out the warehouse.

IntelVet June 9, 2010 5:02 PM

If even one fake bomb succeeds in disrupting the American flow of business, then the terrorists have won.

Why use a real bomb where they suffer from really bad PR when a fake works almost as well, it even denies the target society “victim” status and most certainly enhances the terrorist brand, whatever it may be, IRA, al Queda, KKK. Whatever.

alreadyonthelist June 9, 2010 7:19 PM

Worse yet, someone is given the authority of our government to keep inaccurate terror watch lists, placing obvious non terrorists like nuns, peace activists, or eight year old kids with the same names as dead terrorists…when is this ever going to stop? I want my country back.

Mr. Paul June 9, 2010 10:11 PM

Actually, I suspect they would argue that the list contains obvious terrorists with the same names as nuns, peace activists and eight year old kids. Not saying I agree with the list and all that, just saying the argument goes the other way just as easily.

Clive Robinson June 10, 2010 3:49 AM

@ GreenSquirl,

I think you mean “piric victory”.

@ HJohn,

Sadly the. P/R IRA where a bit more unplesant than your senario.

what they did was observe the evacuation from a bomb worked out where everybody went when a bomb alert was in progress. They then put a large bomb there timed to go off just a few minutes after the first bomb. They called the first bomb in but still killed and injured a lot of inocent people including Catholics.

It was an atrocity that everybody turned against and was perhaps. the first step on the road to peace. Unfortunatly it is now almost forgoton which means it will be re-invented again and again.

Craig June 10, 2010 5:25 AM

Unfortunately this will happen, hopefully though if they repeat this hoax enough a trail is left and they are arrested.

BF Skinner June 10, 2010 6:29 AM

@Clive “P/R IRA where a bit more unplesant … what they did was observe the evacuation …”

This is my point. The Provos were indigenous, ubiquitious in NI. Couldn’t tell them apart from “real people” so travel from NI to England was easier.

Since we don’t have, yet, that level of Al Quieda, or other terrorist, infiltration in the U.S. this is a meaningless thing for the Feebies to say. Now if our population gets really disaffected, yeah, this would be a way of causing havoc and become more probable. But the only likely insurgent group at the moment seems satisfied to destroy the Republican party from within through the political process.

How would a fake bomb incident surveillent be identified?

While I strongly object to the police filming crowd scenes I can see an argument where it’s permissible under the consititution.

kingsnake June 10, 2010 8:36 AM

It was my thought that probing the defenses was probably the point of the attempted Times Square bombing. Get some low-level goofball to do the operation, rather than a more valuable asset. If he succeeds, great. If (probably) not, you gather valuable intelligence about the enemy’s assets and abilities that your more competent operatives can later exploit.

Tom June 10, 2010 9:01 AM

I’m reminded of Corey Doctrow’s “Little Brother”. He came up with the idea of “Jamming” which generated excessive false positives on innocents.

I’m also reminded of “The wall of India” in one of the Ender books by Orson Scott Card. People would drop a pebble on a road every time they walked past. Eventually there was a large mass of pebbles blocking the road.

MIchael Richardson June 10, 2010 9:28 AM

Fake bombs are way cheaper and have way less risk to actual terrorist, and if they have the same effect (of terrorising us), it’s a win.
They are also a win for the “defense” agency (whether TSA, FBI, RCMP, etc.) because it consumes dollars, and creates bigger empires.

GreenSquirrel June 11, 2010 8:43 AM

Any Jihadist group that needs to save money by deploying fake bombs is not a threat.

They dont have less risk, the same resources will be deployed to break the cell as if they had killed people.

They have a similar effect (terrorising us, sadly) but are significantly less effective at bringing in recruits to the cause or funding.

IMHO any Jihadist group that goes down this route is ineffective and will always be.

Lee June 15, 2010 3:01 AM

A late addition but I can tell you that, more than once, I’ve fallen victim of some kid getting new shoes who left the box in a London tube station.

It works.

Maybe too well. It gets us and the authorities working with the “terrorists” to ensure our lives are disrupted.

On the bright side, London was for many years a complete dump as there were no bins on the street 🙂

bob (the original bob) June 15, 2010 12:02 PM

@js: Final layer: fake bombs that inadvertently explode due to poor design, generating lawsuits.

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