The Continuing Incompetence of Terrorists

The Atlantic on stupid terrorists:

Nowhere is the gap between sinister stereotype and ridiculous reality more apparent than in Afghanistan, where it’s fair to say that the Taliban employ the world’s worst suicide bombers: one in two manages to kill only himself. And this success rate hasn’t improved at all in the five years they’ve been using suicide bombers, despite the experience of hundreds of attacks—or attempted attacks. In Afghanistan, as in many cultures, a manly embrace is a time-honored tradition for warriors before they go off to face death. Thus, many suicide bombers never even make it out of their training camp or safe house, as the pressure from these group hugs triggers the explosives in suicide vests. According to several sources at the United Nations, as many as six would-be suicide bombers died last July after one such embrace in Paktika.

Many Taliban operatives are just as clumsy when suicide is not part of the plan. In November 2009, several Talibs transporting an improvised explosive device were killed when it went off unexpectedly. The blast also took out the insurgents’ shadow governor in the province of Balkh.

When terrorists do execute an attack, or come close, they often have security failures to thank, rather than their own expertise. Consider Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab—the Nigerian “Jockstrap Jihadist” who boarded a Detroit-bound jet in Amsterdam with a suicidal plan in his head and some explosives in his underwear. Although the media colored the incident as a sophisticated al-Qaeda plot, Abdulmutallab showed no great skill or cunning, and simple safeguards should have kept him off the plane in the first place. He was, after all, traveling without luggage, on a one-way ticket that he purchased with cash. All of this while being on a U.S. government watch list.

Fortunately, Abdulmutallab, a college-educated engineer, failed to detonate his underpants. A few months later another college grad, Faisal Shahzad, is alleged to have crudely rigged an SUV to blow up in Times Square. That plan fizzled and he was quickly captured, despite the fact that he was reportedly trained in a terrorist boot camp in Pakistan. Indeed, though many of the terrorists who strike in the West are well educated, their plots fail because they lack operational know-how. On June 30, 2007, two men—one a medical doctor, the other studying for his Ph.D.—attempted a brazen attack on Glasgow Airport. Their education did them little good. Planning to crash their propane-and-petrol-laden Jeep Cherokee into an airport terminal, the men instead steered the SUV, with flames spurting out its windows, into a security barrier. The fiery crash destroyed only the Jeep, and both men were easily apprehended; the driver later died from his injuries. (The day before, the same men had rigged two cars to blow up near a London nightclub. That plan was thwarted when one car was spotted by paramedics and the other, parked illegally, was removed by a tow truck. As a bonus for investigators, the would-be bombers’ cell phones, loaded with the phone numbers of possible accomplices, were salvaged from the cars.)

Reminds me of my own “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot.”

Posted on June 18, 2010 at 5:49 AM43 Comments


Winter June 18, 2010 6:07 AM

It is not as if suicide bombers learn from their mistakes.

Sorry, I had to make this lame joke.

But seriously, the real good bomb makers seem to be located in the Palestine territories around Israel. And I consider them more as a standing army at war.

As for the Taliban, they destroyed what was left of Afghanistan’s educational system. Not helpful if you want to train engineers for making bombs. (the Palestines do try to keep a running educational system).

As for the “intelligent” fools discussed. Somehow I have the feeling that that people in the west who are attracted to a career as suicide bombers very often lack the seriousness and insight needed to successfully plan and execute such attacks.

The subway and train bombings in Madrid and London showed that this does not HAVE to be the case, though.


evilteq June 18, 2010 6:10 AM

I watched the movie “Iron man” and I was surprised to see how awfully stupid the terrorist were. That image is being repeated everywhere.

Marq June 18, 2010 6:38 AM

“despite the experience of hundreds of attacks — or attempted attack”
Wow! They must be immortal, or not actually trigger their bombs. 🙂

Andy June 18, 2010 6:49 AM

“Abdulmutallab, a college-educated engineer”

Such colleges should not be allowed to call such stupid people engineers, non of the engineers who graduated from my college would have failed to make a working device…

dg42gb June 18, 2010 6:52 AM

Tell all this to the families of troops killed or seriously wounded by these ‘idiots’.

Andrew Gumbrell June 18, 2010 6:53 AM

I guess anyone who believes that all necessary knowledge can be found in a book written many hundreds of years of years ago is not going to be well versed in the latest technology.

Winter June 18, 2010 7:16 AM

“Tell all this to the families of troops killed or seriously wounded by these ‘idiots’.”

At least they learned how to make road bombs from the Americans. That also shows that you need proper teachers to learn how to make such technically complex devices.

uk visa June 18, 2010 7:23 AM

Whilst there are undoubtedly terrorists who aren’t clever; it’s a terrible mistake to underestimate your enemy.
Taliban, formerly known as Mujahidin, have a history of being very effective at combating larger, stronger foes – by all accounts of Russian, American and British soldiers who have personal experience they regard them with respect.
I listen to their opinions before those of The Atlantic and I think it’s somewhat disrespectful to the many British and American soldiers to have fallen to assume they were the victims of ‘Nitwits’.

Andrew Suffield June 18, 2010 7:27 AM

“Tell all this to the families of troops killed or seriously wounded by these ‘idiots’.”

The leading source of death-by-incompetence is the US forces though – both their own troops, and innocent civilians. It’s not malicious, they’re just trigger-happy and notoriously bad at identifying targets before shooting.

The article does get a bit credulous in places:

“One video, captured recently by the thermal-imagery technology housed in a sniper rifle, shows two Talibs in southern Afghanistan engaged in intimate relations with a donkey. Similar videos abound, including ground-surveillance footage that records a Talib fighter gratifying himself with a cow.”

Does anybody really think those aren’t fakes made by the US psyops people? Not that there’s any specific evidence, but we know that the US psyops people work by creating faked videos and stories of this sort of thing, so it’s far more likely to be one of their creations than it is to be genuine.

Grey Squirrel June 18, 2010 8:16 AM

“He was, after all, traveling without luggage, on a one-way ticket that he purchased with cash. All of this while being on a U.S. government watch list.”

But none of those things are actual indications he was a terrorist. He could have been a businessman with no luggage as Bruce has pointed out in the past. It is my understanding that cash transactions are the norm for flights from Africa as a lot of people in Africa do not have credit cards. As for the one-way ticket, none of the 9/11 hijackers had one-way tickets purchased with cash. And finally I think anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows what credibility to put in any of the government watch lists.

Skippern June 18, 2010 8:29 AM

“The United States has spent billions on port security since 9/11, even though terrorists have shown little interest in ports as targets and even less ability to actually strike them.”

They actually have a point here, ports (as in harbours) in the US are so secure that even the people working there and the people working in shipping have problems entering. This is not only a US phenomenon, after the ISPS regulation, this have increasingly become an international problem. In some ports I have been working there have also been a problem getting cargo in and out.

Good port security: nothing get in or out, so no terrorist activity can happen.

Tim Kirk June 18, 2010 8:29 AM

Abdulmutallab did not buy a one-way ticket. That has been pretty thoroughly debunked in various places.

That said laughing at terrorists is the best social defense against terror I can think of, so I hope the rest of the story is more accurate.

Clive Robinson June 18, 2010 8:40 AM


“Educated idiots”

I would prefer “uneducated zealots” it is way way nearer the mark.

There is the cartoon myth you put a fuse into a barrel of explosive light it and run for cover.

The truth is way way different. A study of the history of such things as dynamite would give most people pause for thought.

The simple fact is explosives are either stable or unstable and you use the unstable ones to provide sufficient energy for the stable ones to get over the signnificant entropy hump and do their thing.

In fact for a large bomb that you might find on an aircraft there is a succession of different explosives from “the pistol” to the “main charge” in an arangment known as an explosive chain.

Part of this chain is a cut out incase the pistol goes off before it should do. A large number of exploded munitions still have the cut out in place even though the pistol has fired.

When the zealots get the right information and do become educated then our troops realy will have problems that we cannot currently imagine from the comfort of our homes and workplaces.

Clive Robinson June 18, 2010 8:48 AM


Minor typo major change in meaning in my above posting,

“A large number of exploded munitions…”

Should be

“A large number of UNexploded munitions…”

Also the bombs on aircraft I refer to are those conventional military devices not those home made items.

Clive Robinson June 18, 2010 8:55 AM

@ Tim Kirk,

“That said laughing at terrorists is the best socia defense against terror I can think of”

Laughter is a cure for many ills that beset us.

And something I have suggested in the past is the cure not just for terrorists but also the political fear mongers that ride on them.

Noname Really June 18, 2010 8:59 AM

On the other side, if the Afghanistan fighters are of a such bad level, an interesting question is why NATO has been failing for years at seriously controlling any part of the territory.

karrde June 18, 2010 9:09 AM

This article may be a mix of cherry-picking and noticing the effects of attrition.

That is, they don’t provide an exhaustive list of terrorist attacks, and note that the majority of them are unsuccessful. They do, however, provide a list of the most noticeable failures.

Someone up-thread noted that a large number of apparently successful attacks had occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan.

(In Iraq, were they referring to the pre-Surge phase, the Surge phase, or the current/post-Surge phase? To my eyes, attacks were regularly successful during pre-Surge, more often but of decreasing success during the Surge, and dropped to sporadic and unsuccessful in the post-Surge phase…but that’s just my read of the situation.)

At any rate, there may have been a draining of the pool of successful attack-planners in the attrition in Iraq and Afghanistan. The attack-planners are the people who recruit, train, and provide material for the suicide bombers, and the troops who would like to charge military Operating Bases with AK’s/mortars/RPG’s. If these people were targeted (either accidentally or deliberately) during counter-insurgency operations, the long-term effect was to drain the “pool of knowledge” for planning successful attacks.

Re: “educated idiots”. This appears to be accurate. It is worth noting that a large number of college-educated people take part in terrorism against the West. However, not all of these educated people are unsuccessful. (Bin Laden has an engineering degree, correct?)

However, college education rarely prepares people for either combat or insurgency/terrorist operations. Thus, these people need support from experienced, successful terrorists who are good at planning/training/supplying for terrorist attacks.

Once again, I run into the idea that the ranks of such experienced people might have suffered heavy attrition heavily during American/Allied actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

anon June 18, 2010 9:13 AM

@uk visa

“Taliban, formerly known as Mujahidin, have a history of being very effective at combating larger, stronger foes – by all accounts of Russian, American and British soldiers who have personal experience they regard them with respect. ”

Taliban and Mujaheddin are not synonymous. The mujaheddin are basically everyone who took up arms against the Russians. Religion was at best a peripheral issue to the mujaheddin. That makes them a broad group encompassing, some Taliban most of the Northern Alliance, and most of the current government. The Taliban is a much smaller group formed after the Russian withdrawal, interested mostly in terrorizing native Afghans, and defined almost entirely their religious ideology.

Second, the not to take anything away from the mujaheddin, but they weren’t exactly successful until after the CIA, the ISI (Pakistani Intelligence), and the Saudi royal family started throwing hundreds of millions of dollars, advanced military weaponry, and training their way. You might be able to make the case that the Saudis and Pakistanis never stopped supporting the Taliban, but it’s clear that at the very least the support is on a much diminished scale.

Finally, it doesn’t take a genius to plant the bomb someone else gave you. It doesn’t take anything away from those who gave their lives if the killer was an idiot. We don’t disparage the dead on Cemetery Ridge because Pickett’s charge was sheer folly. (sheer folly ordered by the greatest military mind in the American civil war … but I digress). More people have probably been killed by nitwits in the last 3 months than those killed by geniuses in all of recorded history.

Andrew June 18, 2010 9:16 AM

The stupidity is irrelevant, and pales into comparison with the stupidity of a nation that declared ‘war on terrorism’.

Look at the CBA –

them: $10 for a pair of underpants
US: millions of man hours, useless technology to combat phantoms, millions spent on weapons, gaining enemies faster than they can be killed, etc, etc.

This is superb jujitsu.

Robert June 18, 2010 9:32 AM

Seems like you guys have no experience with TATP or “Mother of Satan” as it is better known. Made properly it is reasonable stable however it is easy to make it wrong and you get DADP, which is about as stable as my high school girl friend….

It is a pity so many see the need to open our eyes to the worlds injustice in such violent way, I guess “going out with a bang” is all that is left for some people…

spaceman spiff June 18, 2010 9:33 AM

I think this describes the TSA in particular and the DHS in general, that one sets a thief to catch a thief, or in this case one sets an idiot to catch an idiot…

Carlo Graziani June 18, 2010 9:59 AM

I think “stupidity” is the wrong category to use here, although it makes for more entertaining reading.

These observations are in fact the answer to the charge that “decapitation” campaigns against terrorist organizations are ineffective. In my opinion, the incompetence of so many attempts in the past decade is directly traceable to the efforts to prevent these organizations from benefiting from stable leadership, means of training, money, and communications.

Terrorism is an organized activity, and like any organized activity, it requires good management and good planning and good leadership and access to good resources in order not to turn into a succession of pratfalls. The coordinated attacks on radical Islamist finance, the hampering of their communications, and the drone attacks on any gathering of more than 3 of them at a time, are all disrupting their ability to act effectively. They’d have to be really lucky (like letting that cretin with the underwear on a plane and having him not be a cretin) to score.

Olaf June 18, 2010 10:36 AM

Might be a film for Bruce

Four Lions

“Four Lions tells the story of a group of British jihadists who push their abstract dreams of glory to the breaking point. As the wheels fly off, and their competing ideologies clash, what emerges is an emotionally engaging (and entirely plausible) farce. In a storm of razor-sharp verbal jousting and large-scale set pieces, Four Lions is a comic tour de force; it shows that-while terrorism is about ideology-it can also be about idiots. Written by Sundance Film Festival “

BF Skinner June 18, 2010 10:55 AM

@Winter “It is not as if suicide bombers learn from their mistakes.”

The bombers themselves can probably be more usefully considered as a process output or product.

I used to worry about stepping on ants until I learned that no one, least of all the individual ant, cared about their lives. (Don’t you believe those lying Pixar/Disney cartoons!) The unit of organism for an ant or bee is the hive.

@Andrew Suffield “not malicious, they’re just trigger-happy and notoriously bad at identifying targets before shooting.”

This may not be the entire dynamic. In Vietnam our troops were under orders not to burn houses and villages. (Counter productive) But since most of our troops never saw the enemy (shot at sure, blown up, booby trapped; but never saw the face of their advesaries they got frustrated. The paddies screened all contacts. Did they kill their enemy or not? Troops would burn even friendlies huts just to feel they were making some progress in the fight.

@Tim Kirk “That has been pretty thoroughly debunked”
and is going to have to be said over and over again because people, malicious and unwitting are going to repeat it.

Mark June 18, 2010 11:54 AM

“But seriously, the real good bomb makers seem to be located in the Palestine territories around Israel. And I consider them more as a standing army at war.”

The best appear to be from the UK/Eire. Several large car bombs having been recently used in Northern Ireland. Including a 300lbs bomb in a van left outside Aughnacloy police station last night.

mcb June 18, 2010 12:07 PM

Don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ll take “Chaotic Evil” over “Lawful Evil” any day…

Trogdor June 18, 2010 12:19 PM

“Jockstrap Jihadist” is a new one on me. I prefer the nickname “Fuit-of-Kaboom” though. And that plot was nothing more than a rehash of the shoe-bomber from ’02. Doesn’t take much brains to try that …

Go on with your business June 18, 2010 12:19 PM

Terminology check: If they don’t cause terror, they are not “terrorists.”

The Other Andrew June 18, 2010 12:57 PM

Whether or not terrorists are idiots, they should be portrayed as such early and often to deny them legitimacy, sympathy, and/or the ability to cause fear.

That they are often in fact moronic is a delightful bonus.

Treating them as uncommon and very stupid criminals is helpful as well. Refuse to be terrorized.

Harry June 18, 2010 1:14 PM

@anon at June 18, 2010 9:13 AM

Thank you – you said almost exactly what I would have, had you not beat me to it. With one exception: the Taliban are native Afghans, of the Pashtun variety.

As for whether Afghans and muj were successful against the Soviets before outsiders started the massive ordinance supply train,… Hard to say. The Afghan strategy (deliberate or otherwise) is to pull back in the face of an invasion, then wage guerilla war till the invaders withdraw.

Wes P June 18, 2010 2:29 PM

How many people they’ve killed really isn’t the point of this article. How many people they HAVEN’T is really what’s being pointed at. No one’s arguing that terrorists (foreign or domestic) can/’t succeed in their plots. What is being pointed out here, though, is that quite often they don’t succeed. And it’s not because they became victims of our “marvelous” airport security or border checks or any of the increasingly inane security layers we have to go through. More often than not, they’re victims of themselves.

I June 18, 2010 4:19 PM

This makes me think that someone should translate the Anarchist’s Cookbook into their language.

It’s filled with so much bad advice already that if you add a few bits of bad translation and give them widespread access to it, they’ll do us all a favor and use it to kill themselves.

Gweihir June 18, 2010 9:55 PM

Most people do not have the experience and knowledge to get complicated things right the first time. That means that effective suicide bombing is hard to do.

On the other hand, the media is now doing 99% of the terrorists work for them, so even a remote hint at the possibility to maybe having be able to blow up something is enough to cause the fear that is the real target. Unfortunately that means we are doing the terrorist damage to ourselves and the role of the actual terrorists is pretty minor. That says things about current western society that I find pretty scary.

Tom T. June 18, 2010 10:43 PM

It’s a simple ROI issue: How much money and time can the organization invest in the training of someone whose services can be used only once?

fusion June 19, 2010 1:33 AM

While the Afghan opposition is charged with ignorance and incompetence its superpower opponent is bankrupting itself trying to cope…

and who will make the case that anything in the US tactical and strategic record – with main battle tanks and drones – is more effective than the campaign of riflemen with AK47s and hand grenades…

Bill June 19, 2010 4:27 AM

There seems to be an assumption by the author that everyone fighting with the Taliban (as opposed to al-Qaeda) is an Islamic extremist. Although this simplistic notion is quite attractive, it’s far from accurate. It’s important to understand your enemy and while it’s probably true to say that the vast majority of the people fighting with the Taliban are poorly educated, don’t assume that they’re fighting because they’re religious fundamentalists.

James June 19, 2010 6:16 AM

Maybe these terrorists are idiots, or maybe our secret services are killing potential terrorists and making it LOOK like they’ve done it to themselves. It’s straight out of the CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception – it makes the enemy look incompetent and means they have no idea whether they are being targeted.

Jakub Syta June 21, 2010 10:24 AM

Living rather far away from terrorist threat I have some doubts regarding the overall message coming from this article. What The Atlantic wants to achieve by such an article?
Ridicule families of all killed soldiers or motivate terrorists to kill with much greater effectiveness?

I would rather sit quiet an be happy of the fact that there aren’t even more victims

HJohn June 21, 2010 11:23 AM

Jakub Syta: “Living rather far away from terrorist threat I have some doubts regarding the overall message coming from this article. What The Atlantic wants to achieve by such an article?
Ridicule families of all killed soldiers or motivate terrorists to kill with much greater effectiveness? I would rather sit quiet an be happy of the fact that there aren’t even more victims”

While I disagree with much of the article and many of the comments, I don’t think anything was intended to insult soldiers. For a soldier to be killed by a moron isn’t an insult to the capability or intelligence of the soldiers… even the biggest idiot who ever lived is more than capable of killing even the smartest of people with guns and bombs.

I personally think many terrorists are idiots, but terrorist leaders aren’t idiots. It’s the very smart ones that send the stupid ones to be martyrs. Osama hasn’t blow himself up, and neither did 9/11 mastermind Kahlid Sheikh Mumammed. They send others.

The 9/11 terrorists weren’t idiots, but they weren’t leaders or masterminds either. Terrorist leaders don’t tell idiots who follow them they are too dumb to participate–they tell them to blow themselves up and if they take others with them, great, if not, no big loss.

But no, while I don’t think the entire movement is controlled by dimwits, I also don’t think it is intended to be (or inreality is) an insult to a soldier to have been killed by a terrorist that isn’t too bright. You don’t have to be an Einstein to kill someone smarter than you are.

Best, John

Gordonjcp June 25, 2010 8:21 AM

Don’t forget that the Glasgow Airport “terrorists” managed to pick the only target in the Greater Glasgow area – indeed, the whole Strathclyde region – with blanket CCTV coverage, advanced fire suppression systems and armed police. Not only that, people crashing stolen vehicles into things and setting them on fire isn’t exactly uncommon in that neighbourhood. Neither is getting a severe kicking from irate locals.

As one Scottish comedian said, you’ve got to admire their naivety, trying to bring a religious war to Glasgow…

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