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.)