Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Would-be terrorists usually incompetent

Tsarnaev brothers fit 'lone wolf' pattern with exception that they built a workable bomb

  • Print

Between Sept. 12, 2001, and April 15 in Boston, some 52 cases came to light in which the United States itself had been, or apparently had been, targeted for terrorism by Islamist extremists, whether based in the United States or abroad.

By far the most striking difference between the Boston Marathon killings and these earlier cases is that, for the first time, terrorists actually were able to assemble and detonate bombs. Many previous plotters harboured visions of carrying out bombings, and in 10 of the cases, they were supplied with fantasy-fulfilling, if bogus, bombs by obliging FBI informants.

But until Boston, no would-be terrorists had been able to make and set one off on their own. And, except for four bombs detonated on the London transport system in 2005, nor has any terrorist in the United Kingdom. This is surprising in part because in the 1970s there were hundreds of terrorist incidents on U.S. soil, most of them bombings, killing 72 people.

In many other respects, however, the Boston Marathon bombing is quite similar to the other 52 cases. For example, the Boston perpetrators were clearly not suicidal, which is the standard in American cases. In only six of the earlier plots, the perpetrators were clearly willing to die in their terrorist effort.

And except for their ability to fabricate and detonate bombs, the Boston terrorists do not seem to have been any more competent than most of their predecessors. The Department of Homeland Security, in assessing what it ominously calls "the nature of the terrorist adversary," is fond of stressing their determination, persistence, relentlessness, patience and flexibility.

This may apply to some terrorists somewhere, including at least a few of those involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. But it scarcely describes the vast majority of those individuals picked up on terrorism charges in the United States since those attacks.

In describing the "adversary," the case studies far more commonly use words like incompetent, ineffective, unintelligent, idiotic, ignorant, inadequate, unorganized, misguided, muddled, amateurish, dopey, unrealistic, moronic, irrational, foolish and gullible. Many of the cases suggest there is little exaggeration in the 2010 film, Four Lions, the impressive dark comedy about a band of hapless homegrown British terrorists.

Amazingly, the Boston perpetrators apparently thought they could somehow get away with their deed even though they chose to set their bombs off at the most-photographed spot on the planet at the time.

Moreover, although they were not prepared to die with their bombs, they do not seem to have had anything that could be considered a coherent plan of escape. This rather bizarre inability to think about the aftermath of the planned deed is quite typical in the case studies. (Also commonly found: an inability to explain how killing a few random people would advance their cause.)

The Boston perpetrators seem to have never ventured more than a few kilometres from the bombing location and they appear to have had no reliable means of transport and no money. Then, when the police published their photographs, they mindlessly blew whatever cover they had by killing a campus cop, hijacking a car, stealing money, trying to run a police blockade and engaging in a brief Hollywood-style car chase and shootout.

Surveillance imagery played an important role in identifying the terrorists (as it did in terrorist events in London in 2005), but the key breakthrough appears to have come when the culprits decided to leave their lair, after which the police applied standard killer-on-the-loose methodology.

And while the scope of the tragedy in Boston should not be minimized, it should also be noted that, if the terrorists' aim was to kill a large number of people, their bombs failed miserably. As recent cases in Colorado and Connecticut sadly demonstrate, far more fatalities have been inflicted by gunmen.

Boston appears to be a lone-wolf attack -- albeit with two wolves -- in the sense that no one besides the bombers seems to have been aware of it. Attacks in which only the perpetrator knows about the plans are obviously more difficult to avert than ones involving a great number of talkative people. (In some cases, would-be terrorists have advertised for support or collaborators on Facebook and in Internet chat rooms.) Before Boston, some 16 people had been killed by Islamist terrorists in the United States in the years since 2001 (13 of them at Fort Hood, Texas) and all of these were murdered by people who were essentially acting alone.

Concern about "lone wolf" attacks has grown in recent years and a 2011 Homeland Security assessment concluded "lone offenders currently present the greatest threat." This is a reasonable observation, but those concerned should keep in mind that, as Max Abrahms has noted, while lone wolves may be difficult to police, they have carried out only two of the 1,900 most deadly terrorist attacks over the last four decades. They may be harder to stop, but they are also less lethal. (It should be kept in mind that an American's chance of being killed by any kind of terrorist, even with 9/11 included in the count, remains about one in three million or four million per year.)

It is still unclear what motivated the Boston bombers. We are hearing a lot about "radicalization," a concept that is not only vague but also questionably suggests, as Arun Kundnani has pointed out on, that violence is inherent or implied in Muslims who become deeply religious.

Evidence from the 52 cases strongly indicates assuming an ideological motivation for terrorism is not useful. In almost all the cases, the overwhelming driving force was not something that could be called ideology, but rather a simmering, and more commonly boiling, outrage at U.S. foreign policy -- the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular, and the country's support for Israel in the Palestinian conflict. Religion was a part of the consideration for most, but not because they wished to spread Sharia law or to establish caliphates (few of the culprits would be able to spell either word). Rather they wanted to protect their co-religionists against what was commonly seen to be a concentrated war upon them in the Middle East by the U.S. government.

Rather remarkably, none of the 52 cases after 9/11 has inspired much in the way of continued interest from the public and the media. After some days of coverage -- or weeks in a very few instances -- they largely faded from attention. This is impressive because some were actually rather threatening and many were populated by colourful characters and involve interesting law-and-order issues. Books have been written about only two of the cases and neither appears to have sold very well. Whether the Boston Marathon case will prove to be an exception -- perhaps because of its venue and the manhunt -- is yet to be seen, of course.

Boston might trigger some panicky and costly security measures, just as past terrorist efforts have inspired wars on shoes, liquids and underwear at airports. In this case, the surveillance-camera market is likely to experience a windfall and we can expect a fair amount of heightened security at sporting events and a whole lot of hand-wringing about the immigration system. But, given budget difficulties, there is a distinct prospect the new measures will be limited.

John Mueller is a political scientist at Ohio State and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington. Mark G. Stewart is a civil engineer at the University of Newcastle in Australia and a visiting fellow at Cato. They are the authors of Terror, Security and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2013 J6

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Andrew Ladd talks about his injury

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A Canada Goose cools off in a water pond Monday afternoon at Brookside Cemetary- See Bryksa’s Goose a day Challenge– Day 27-June 25, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • A one day old piglet glances up from his morning feeding at Cedar Lane Farm near Altona.    Standup photo Ruth Bonneville Winnipeg Free Press

View More Gallery Photos


Are you concerned about the number of homicides so far this year?

View Results

Ads by Google