Terrorists suck

"The Terrorism Delusion," a paper by John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart in this summer's issue of International Security, argues that terrorists basically suck at their jobs. They report that the best US intelligence puts the whole al Qaeda weapons of mass destruction R&D budget at US$4,000; that Americans who are "radicalized" and brought to terrorism training camps return disgusted and disillusioned and determined to put future recruits off (and then get arrested anyway); that Iraqis were so alienated from loony al Qaeda fighters that bin Laden proposed renaming the group; and that terrorists who are busted are basically dolts, fools, bumblers and delusional loonies.

But, as Mueller and Stewart write, the counter-terror forced continue to present terrorism as a grave risk brought about by super-criminal masterminds who threaten the safety of all of us, every day.

Terrorists have proven to be relentless, patient, opportunistic, and flexible, learning from experience and modifying tactics and targets to exploit perceived vulnerabilities and avoid observed strengths.”8

This description may apply to some terrorists somewhere, including at least a few of those involved in the September 11 attacks. Yet, it scarcely describes the vast majority of those individuals picked up on terrorism charges in the United States since those attacks. The inability of the DHS to consider this fact even parenthetically in its fleeting discussion is not only amazing but perhaps delusional in its single-minded preoccupation with the extreme.

In sharp contrast, the authors of the case studies, with remarkably few exceptions, describe their subjects with such words as incompetent, ineffective, unintelligent, idiotic, ignorant, inadequate, unorganized, misguided, muddled, amateurish, dopey, unrealistic, moronic, irrational, and foolish.9 And in nearly all of the cases where an operative from the police or from the Federal Bureau of Investigation was at work (almost half of the total), the most appropriate descriptor would be “gullible.”

In all, as Shikha Dalmia has put it, would-be terrorists need to be “radical- ized enough to die for their cause; Westernized enough to move around with- out raising red flags; ingenious enough to exploit loopholes in the security apparatus; meticulous enough to attend to the myriad logistical details that could torpedo the operation; self-sufficient enough to make all the preparations without enlisting outsiders who might give them away; disciplined enough to maintain complete secrecy; and—above all—psychologically tough enough to keep functioning at a high level without cracking in the face of their own impending death.”

The Terrorism Delusion (PDF) (Thanks, Nicolas!)


  1. If “willingness to don underpants made out of plastic explosives” isn’t an indicator of general intelligence and competence then I don’t know what is.

        1. Elevator Operator, I’m sorry sir this elevator is for members only.
          Groucho: It’s okay only one of us has to be a member.

          Serious note: One hears comments that a lot of terrorists are engineers and other technical people.  Not mentioned is universally, they’re failures.  They either couldn’t cut it in school, didn’t look for work, couldn’t get hired, or washed out.

      1. I can never remember what those things look like, so I google, go “oh yeah those things with the strappy collar, and then get cache-based ads for clothing stores I’d never shop at.

      2. I’d rather wear explosive underwear than a Members Only jacket.

        What if it’s a burgundy-colored jacket, hmm?  Wouldn’t that make you reconsider your stance?

    1.  Title, summary and article need a differentiation between Terrorists and Suicide Bombers/Attackers. Surely a successful Terrorist would be one who causes damage/death then escapes to do it again later? Certainly a proper Guerilla warrior would normally have this as a general goal, even if they’re willing to risk death more than your average Army trooper

  2. The link is broken. Hopefully this is an accident and not some DHS tax parasite afraid that his empire is at risk.

  3. There is too much money to be made by private firms under government contract, and too much unaccountability with respect to the dramatic post-9/11 increase in access to citizens’ private information and curtailment of their rights, for terrorists to be depicted by this country as anything but the new Red Menace.

  4. From the fed all the way down (including all the contracted players) there is a need to protect a lot of phony-baloney jobs. There hasn’t been a genuine threat to the US since WWII.

      1.  Not really. They weren’t logistically capable of invading, and  no more keen on starting a nuclear war than anyone else. That was a forty-five year phoney war.

  5. The feds are very good at scooping up some very stupid kids who post stupid things on the internet and who accept “bombs” from FBI informants.

    But that redneck Georgia militia spent $80,000 on real guns and real explosives and killed two people without getting any attention from the feds.

    1. Speaking of comics, this BB post made me think of “BEM” from the first ‘Love and Rockets’ book. I wouldn’t want to spoil it for those who’ve never read it. Interesting, though, what happens to the hero and the villain in that story.

  6. “Four Lions” is both a funny movie, and apparently a well-researched depiction of the general idiocy of terrorists. The interviews with British radicals in the special features on the disc are pretty chilling in terms revealing of just how imbecilic some of these people are.

  7. How hard could it possibly be? Go to a crowded place, scream “God is great,” and start shooting.

    Yet almost nobody has managed it in the US.

    1. Well, it’s happened a lot recently if you omit the “God is great” part.

      Is it only terrorism if it’s God-related?

      1. Yes, by definition it has to be done in an attempt to bring about political change.

        If you kill people because you think you’re The Joker, it doesn’t count as terrorism.

        1. Also, it isn’t terrorism if you’re not a Muslim.  It’s just a crazed lone gunman, nothing to see here, move along.  Again, and again, and again.

          1. All outside the US. Well actually, half the IRA was living in San Francisco for a while, but they weren’t carrying out any terrorist acts.

          2. I think I’ve mistaken what @boingboing-e2c5182d1b95fa116e841650b6b426cc:disqus was saying in relation to.

            I know you’re joking but what were half the IRA doing in San Fran?

          3. SF has a large Irish population. When their associates in Northern Ireland had to lay low for a while, they’d come stay in SF. I’m sure that there were other cities that had the same thing going on. I knew several Irish-run small businesses that always seem to have an endless supply of hinky “cousins” doing odd jobs for them.

          4. Yea, I was speaking only about America, and in particular attitudes of the American press.  Because only things that happen in America really matter.  Do you know how many of my countrymen have even heard of the IRA?

            We have this phenomenon here where right-wing hate radio will identify a target and spend weeks warning that this person is destroying the nation.  Then a “crazed loner” acts on that information, and Nobody Could Have Predicted, and it has Nothing to Do with the Media.  Again and again.

        2. Don’t you have those on one side who want to bring about change but are unable to define what that change may be except in the most general political, reigious, racist (purifying) terms, and on the other side those with a much clearer sense of what precise changes are necessary in any one society at any one point in time, viz. the ANC in South Africa?
          Freedom fighters rock.

    2. Columbine? Virginia Tech Massacre? What about the Oklahoma bombing? A van bomb sure, still it killed a lot of people. Heck, Even here in Oz, the Port Arthur Massacre. 

      1. The Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres were perpetrated without political motivation. I’m not familiar with the Port Arthur Massacre.

        The OKC bombing was one of the very rare successful attacks.

        How’s this for a hypothesis: the reason that so few terrorists are successful is because they overestimate their own competence. (This phenomenon has been discussed before here on Boing Boing.) This lack of self awareness may be exacerbated by vehement faith in their cause or belief in divine intervention. Nearly all sects and radical organizations teach that their followers are members of an elect, superior subset of humanity.

        Potential terrorists see really dangerous attacks like the OKC bombing and the 9/11 attacks and believe that they could commit an equally devastating crime. But, due to their incompetence, they don’t manage to get very far.

        Thus, they may have caused much more havoc and loss of life if they had gone the mass shooting route, but their warped self-perception means that they have to bite off more than they can chew.

        Paradoxically, this means that we can thank the really competent terrorists, like the Oklahoma bomber and the 9/11 planner, for the reduction in terrorist events.

        What do you think?

        1. Actually I was responding with successful mass killings with firearms + Timothy, not terrorism incidences.

      1. Anti-abortionists have a much more limited goal. Plus, killing an abortion doctor or burning down a clinic actually helps achieve that goal.

        1.  Is their goal to prove murder is wrong? /s

          In all seriousness, how can they not see the hypocrisy of their actions?

          I always hear the excuse its “justifiable” murder, funny guess I have a different interpretation of the 10 commandments, especially that don’t kill one.

          1. Of course, not long after receiving the 10 commandments, “The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died.” (Ex. 32:28) Oh, well.

  8. No bureaucracy ever expanded either its power or its budget by admitting that the problem it was created to handle basically doesn’t exist. How is the FBI to spy on you if you take away their warrantless wiretaps?

      1.  Which expand the power of the various secretaries of state who promote them in pursuit of a problem that only they can see evidence of. I must be misunderstanding how you meant this.

        1. The laws are “solving” a problem that does not exist – voter fraud – while only “coincidentally” disenfranchising millions of black, Latino, and young voters.

          EDIT: Woops! I misread your original comment. No, they are not admitting the problem isn’t real, you’re right. When confronted with the evidence there isn’t even a counterargument. They just bull their way forward.

  9. I’ve been saying for years that the proper response to 9/11 was to secure the cockpit doors and work to seize bin Laden and co-conspirators, diplomatically at first (and we don’t know if that could have worked because we didn’t even try it), and then done. The counter-terrorism boondoggle has been destructive of lives and budgets. 

    1. It’s all Big Government’s fault; if we privatized the terrorism biz they’d be taller and more effective.  Ayn Rand told me so.

      1. I don’t know man, Bin Laden was a pretty tall guy.  Between 6’4″ and 6’6″.  How much taller would be practical?

  10. I’ve always suspected that the vast majority of terrorists were more Dirk Armstrong and less Lex Luthor.

    Shit, if anything, the Lex Luthors are the ones sitting behind oak panelled doors, pocketing truckloads of tax dollars while pimping the “threat” of terrorist geniuses hiding under every bed and in every mosque.

  11. First: It is never wise to characterize any movement by the 90% that make up the bulk.
    Second: regarding low budgets, I remember a certain incident where a few airplane tickets and box knives were turned into billions of dollars of weaponry, judo-like.

    1. Most of their budget didn’t go toward the tickets and weapons (I think the verdict is still out on whether they really used “box cutters” or some other kind of blade, but I digress). Most of their budget went toward recruiting, positioning and training the attackers. Visas, living expenses, flight training, that kind of thing. Certainly more than 4 grand all together.

      1. Yes, the FBI has a huge budget that is devoted toward recruiting, positioning, and training agent provocateurs where none exist.  

    2. A subject that’s been written about by both sides, ever since we seized the al Qaeda email servers in Kandahar when we first rolled into the city. Depending on how much of the overhead back in Kandahar you charge against the operation, the actual cost of 9/11 was between $200,000 and $400,000. When you’re raising money from poor, oppressed people, that’s a LOT of money. People focus in on the cheap knives and the plane tickets, but ignore the cost of maintaining 19 people in a US middle-class standard of living for a year, plus the cost of the flying lessons, plus the fund raising expenses, plus the money laundering fees – and that’s before you factor in office space back in Kandahar, the overhead on the equipment there, and the fact that most of the people in that office were on salary. By terrorism standards, 9/11 was the most expensive attack ever.

      And, from the viewpoint of the people financing it, it was a failure. Bin Laden spent years trying to spin it “spending $200k to make the US spend $2 trillion” as a victory, but his own followers were pointing out to him, some of them quite publicly, that when he asked for all that money, bin Laden promised them three things: the US out of the middle east, Israel out of Palestine, and a reunification of the Califate. Not only did it not achieve those goals, it cost them the Islamic Caliphate of Afghanistan.

      The Bush the Younger administration did achieve one noticeable success that hasn’t been mentioned yet, in this discussion: forcing the ha-wallah Islamic banking network into something like the same anti-money-laundering regime that the rest of the banking system (at least in theory) has to work with. Even if terrorists could raise enough money for another 9/11, they’d have one heck of a time getting that money into the country.

      It’s appalling to me how few Americans are willing to admit the truth: we actually won the war on terror less than three months after 9/11. But we keep thinking that these are super-villains with super-powers and vastly superior intelligence and perfect coordination, so we keep spending tens of billions of dollars a year looking for them. And the fact that we keep not finding them is taken, not as proof of our success, but as proof of their super-villainy.

    3. 9/11 certainly did a fuck ton of damage.  After we took a mosquito bite on the finger tip, the president got up on television and publicly pissed himself.  Instead of showing an ounce of courage or integrity, he threw up his hands and said “OMFG WE ARE DOOMED!!!11!!! QUICK! TAKE OUR LIBERTY AS FAST AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE!!!111!! BURN ALL MONEY!!!!!”  The cowards response resulted in pissing away many billions of dollars in REAL damage, not to mention the cost of liberty and reputation.  To make matters worse, we codified our stupid so that it is the sort of stupid that will plague us for generations.
      Here is how we should have responded.  Put on better cockpit doors, and codify what we had already learned.  Namely, if someone tries to hijack and airplane, beat the piss out of them.  Do that, and then boldly declare that we are pretty much done because this is mother fuckin’ America, and we won’t surrender our liberty and wallets to anyone just because a few assholes got lucky.  Game over, the damage is done.  Lets go back to killing ourselves with Big Macs.  

      Instead of taking the paltry loss of a couple of buildings and few thousand lives, something the US does basically on a regular basis between McDonalds and boring old weather related damage without flinching, we chopped our own arm off and decided to see how much damage we could REALLY do.  We fucked the airline industry, tourism, and pretty much all companies that rely on a steady supply of foreign labor.  We pissed away hundreds of billions on a shitty new bureaucracy that has the singular goal of doing as much economic damage as possible by screaming at the top of their lungs about how scary some goat herders are while shoveling money into the waste furnaces of the “security” industry.  We fucked whatever reputation we had, and stripped away liberties that we had had the balls to keep during the entire fucking Cold War against a REAL existential threat.  

      We acted like a bunch of fucking cowards.  We pissed ourselves and did as much self inflicted damage as humanly possible.  Our cowards response inflicted multiple orders of magnitude more damaging on ourselves than anything the “scary” terrorist did.

      There wasn’t any fucking judo.  A mosquito landed on our finger tip and we chopped the entire arm off.  The mosquito didn’t perform judo.  We just acted like dumb ass cowards.

      1. I was thinking the other day about how the US space program, when evaluated in terms of history, is remarkably limited in its impact on the world. And how 9/11, conversely, has pervaded every aspect of our lives. It would seem that we as a species like to obsess on the horrible rather than the wonderful.

  12. Which group of terrorists where they studying again?  The ones working in the federal government or Al Queda?  Most days I have a hard time telling them apart:  “…incompetent, ineffective, unintelligent, idiotic, ignorant, inadequate, unorganized, misguided, muddled, amateurish, dopey, unrealistic, moronic, irrational, and foolish.”  They’re both stirring up terror, one to recruit dollars, the other to recruit members.  

  13. We give them too much credit by calling them “terrorists.”  It acknowledges their motives in a way that unfortunately gives them credit.  They’re just murderers.  Under different circumstances, they would adopt different motives but attempt to commit similar crimes.  Let’s try them all for murder and get on with it.  They can rot in general population with all the other killers.  Instead we treat them like supervillains, which must be pretty appealing to wide swaths of the poverty-stricken world.

    1. We give them too much credit by calling them “terrorists.” It acknowledges their motives in a way that unfortunately gives them credit. They’re just murderers.

      So….just like soldiers?

      1. Oh, zing, you got me.  That’s what you want to hear, right?

        I’m not here to defend one type of killing over another.  I can’t really point to a war that improved the human situation in my lifetime.

        1. That’s what you want to hear, right?

          Just an acknowledgement that state-sponsored murder and regular murder aren’t really much different.

    2. Republicans have long slammed Democrats for “taking a law enforcement approach to terrorism” instead of a more robust military or systemic approach, but honestly, no more of it than there is, and no more than it contributes to the global homicide rate, that is all it deserves. It also has the advantage of being what works.

  14. The whole point of this article fails, simply because the definition of “terrorism” is highly subjective. Thus, scientific assessment of terrorism is meaningless and all use of the word is politically motivated.

  15. And with that little budget they managed to turn Washington and Jefferson’s country into a human-rights-disrespecting, extraordinary-rendering, torturing, indefinite-detenting, kangaroo-courting, missile-droning force hated by the majority of the world. Or maybe that nation was already so, but at least now everyone knows about it.

    I think they’re winning, effectively.

  16. Pretty much by definition the ones you find are going to be kinda weird and stupid — the same way that most ordinary criminals are kinda weird and stupid. Neither terrorism nor ordinary crime is on average a good proposition for people who can reach most of their goals by more law-abiding means. See, for example, the neocons.

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