The Incompetent Terrorist

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The characteristics that allowed Pakistani-born American citizen Faisal Shahzad to load a car with explosives, drive it into Times Square, and walk away without being caught are also what kept his bomb from going off: an adult life spent mostly in the U.S. and away from the violence of his home country, an absence of incriminating connections to terror organizations, and, perhaps most important of all, incompetence. It's no secret that U.S. citizens and permanent residents (Shahzad first arrived in 1999 on a student visa) are given less scrutiny than foreign visitors. Nor is it surprising that, given Shahzad's apparently scant or non-existent terrorist connections, he was able to pass repeated background checks, including a May 2004 Joint Terrorism Task Force investigation. But the would-be terrorist's surprise asset, in evading detection as he planned and executing his plot, appears to have been his own incompetence. In the past 20 years, the U.S. has confronted, among others, the reclusive loner , the Islamic jihadist group, the militia extremist, the rogue-state-backed international Islamic jihadist network, and the Christian separatist group. But over time, could the simple law of averages mean that incompetent terrorists will, in aggregate, be the greater threat?

Preventative U.S. counterterrorism sniffs out attackers by looking for warning flags. Airport screeners watch passengers for nervous behavior. Intelligence agencies monitor large sales of materials the could be used in a bomb. Police maintain informants who can infiltrate communities where potential terrorists might lurk. The controversial Patriot Act even gives law enforcement the ability to monitor financial records and phone calls in search of warning signs. But all of these trip alarms rest on the underlying assumption that terrorist behavior can be predicted. While that's usually the case--after all, terrorists need weapons and training, both of which are difficult to get without doing something likely to tip off authorities--it holds less true for potential terrorists who are, to put it bluntly, not very intelligent. For example, Shahzad's incompetence led him to pack his car bomb with non-explosive fertilizer. Had he been smarter and used a combustible type of fertilizer, he would have produced a better bomb. But he also would have been more likely to alert counterterrorism officials on the watch for such purchases. Paradoxically, it was Shahzad's ineptitude that made him so difficult to spot.

Very few people in the U.S. have the necessary training to launch a successful domestic terror attack. But in principle, anyone can decide to become a terrorist. When they do, there's a limited number of predictable processes they go through: researching bomb-making on the Internet, reaching out to extremist religious leaders, and stockpiling materials. Counterterrorism officials are highly skilled at spotting people who've begun such steps. But the more novice and inept would-be terrorists are, the less they will hew to expected archetypes, and the harder it will be to spot them. It's tough enough to discover when someone is assembling the materials for a bomb. But it's nearly impossible when that person is collecting the wrong materials. Fortunately, as Shahzad's failed plot demonstrates,incompetent terrorists are very likely to fail. Even Flight 253 attacker Farouk Abdulmutallab, who had been trained by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was thwarted by his own incompetence. He was able to board the plane at all due to a gap in our no-fly list execution, which has since been fixed. But the probability remains that people will stumble their way past our system of warning flags, and not all of their bombs will fizzle. After two decades of defending against well trained, highly networked terrorists, we may have to start learning to defend against poorly connected idiots, as well.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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