The Rise of the Stupid Terrorist
Sun, May 14, 2017 - Daniel Von Fange
Modern terrorism got going in 1972 with dozens of hijackings and bombings. Out of all the attacks, in only four of them was even a single terrorist killed.
Those terrorist organizations survived, the operatives survived, and the competent ones grew even more deadly.
Terrorist could simply travel home after an attack. Even with a failed act, the terrorists could simply trade a few hostages for safe passage home and millions in ransom.
The first age
Carlos the Jackal most epitomized this golden age of terrorism. Born in Venezuela, he was a professional working for hire for Arab states and the USSR directly. In only five five years, Carlos personally killed Jews, personally planted car bombs, personally threw grenades in restaurants across Europe, personally shot rockets at airplanes, personally killed a entire team of French police sent to arrest him, and personaly led the biggest attacks of the decade.
Then, after angering his Arab backers by keeping millions of ransom from the OPEC raid, one of the flashiest terrorist actions of all time, Carlos was hired by the USSR to organize attacks. Supported and given a staff of 75 people by Moscow, his teams bombed targets all over Europe, including high speed trains, a newspaper, and even an attack on the Superphenix French nuclear power station in 1982.
From a strategic perspective, the most important thing about Carlos the Jackel is that he lived after each attack. After each attack, he was smarter. After each attack, he was harder to catch. After each attack he knew how to play the public better and had even more contacts he could call on.
Importantly, too, the backing organizations lived on too. Whole bureaucracies developed. They knew what plans worked, which one’s didn’t. Over time they could build up specialists in safe countries, safe houses in hostile countries, recruiting pipelines in colleges, and handle the paperwork.
The first Western response to the dawn of mass terrorism was to build specialized counter-terrorism units intended to win high profile hostage attacks.
This succeeded at solving one slice of the problem. At the end of the huge media event that was a terrorist hostage situation, the terrorist attackers would be dead, and the government would be look good on TV. (see the Iran embassy seige in the UK, Air France Flight 8969, and the Achille Lauro)
But the bombings continued at an ever increasing pace. In just the first four months of 1986, 400 people were killed or injured by Libyan sponsored bombing attacks alone.
Then American bombs came crashing through Gaddafi’s residence in Libyan in April, 1986. Overt state sponsoring of terrorism came to an end, worldwide.
It was no longer safe to brag about attacks, nor safe to use government money to sponsor attacks, nor use government personel to assist attacks, nor indeed to have anything that could to be traced back to a nation.
The big terrorist nations stopped funding. The secondary front organisations slowly faded into obscurity. Carlos the Jackal was sent into retirement.
But the peace was short lived.
The second age
Someone, somewhere, had an insight. If every armed attacker would be killed, why not plan for them to be killed? Then missions could be one way. Easier to plan, far more deadly, and when the attackers were killed, they could be hailed as martyrs, thus further increasing the attacking organization’s prestige.
And rather than funding directly from governments, funding could come through wealthy donors, or powerful government officials acting off the record, or drug money. Many of these funds could be routed through charitable organizations for deniability.
Terrorism entered it’s NGO phase, and its silver age. Individual terrorist attackers would die, but the organisations would live and grow after each attack.
Al-Qaeda’s first attack was simultaneous car bombs at two different hotels in Africa. The targets were choosen because American solders were staying at them on their way to Somalia for humanitarian relief. The bombs went off. People were killed. But Al-Qaeda had picked the wrong hotels - the American soliders were instead at a third hotel. However, Al-Qaeda survived to learn its lessons.
For nine plus years, Al-Qaeda grew without hindrance, and carried out bigger and bigger attacks. Attacks on US embassies with a death toll of 200 people, an attack that almost sank a US warship, and finally 9-11 and attacks on the largest skyscrapers in the US, a hole in the side of the Pentagon itself, and the biggest death count of any terrorist attack in history.
This NGO style of terrorism was far more deadly than the previous era. Instead of a attacks planned to meet the political objectives of a few nations, hundreds of terrorist organizations sprang into existence, competing with dead bodies for donor money. There were more attacks, and more deaths per month, in 2004 then the entirety of the year 1972.
The west responded by massive surveillance of financial networks, mass electronic surveillance to find the organizations, and drone attacks to kill their leaders.
It became harder to move money, people, and to communicate. Attacks tended to move to countries where the money and people already were, and out of the west. Organizations could still make an attack in the west, but after an attack, the organization would be rolled up relentlessly, member by member. A genius bomb maker would be gone. People who could make organize well would be gone.
The third age
And so now the third age has dawned. The age of the stupid terrorist.
The first obvious attack of this new era was in 2007, in Scotland. Two Muslim men loaded propane tanks into their Jeep, drove to the Glasgow Airport, poured gasoline over themselves, then smashed into the concrete barrier outside the terminal, dropped a match in their laps, and began screaming “Allah”,
Any country kid who has played with fires and gasoline can tell you that these actions will not blow up an airport. Instead, these terrorists lit their croches on fire and were beaten up by nearby Scottish luggage handers.
Nobody, in these mens’ circle of acquaintances knew how to plan or carry out a terrorist attack. The men decided to kill people for Allah, and then set off to do it.
The recent (2017) knife attacks in Palestine are currently the most popular form of stupid terrorism - Teen age girls trying to kill a 70 old with scissors (and he was actually Palestinian). Men who pull out their knives hundreds of feet away from their intentended victims, yell “Allah”, and charge, in plain site of every pistol carring citizen around. Or teenagers who rush down a long line of cars towards the machineguns of a checkpoint with their knives out.
These attackers are doing something difficult, without training, support, thought, common sense, experience or ability. I did the math a little while ago, and the death score stood at one Israeli killed for every four Palestinian attackers killed.
At the targeting from a PR point of view is horrible. Two men managed to knife to death a 13 year old kid on his bicycle - that will conveince everyone of the rightness of your cause.
The recent San Bernardino attacks in the US are more of the same thing. Two people decide it is their duty to die killing infidels, concoct a bad plan, and go off to do it. The two Columbine teenagers killed more people than the San Bernardino attackers did.
Can you image if after 9-11, someone announced that the next major Islamic terror attack against a civilian target in America would strike an employee Christmas party at school for retarded people? And yet that is what happened.
The new trend of driving cars into people is more of the same. For every one Marseille truck driver, there are a dozen that ineffectually hit a bus stop and kill no one.
How serious is this new type of threat?
For one thing, it’s a better problem to have. It’s better to have a toddler trying to kill you than to have the a drug cartel trying to kill you.
A lot of the things we’ve learned in the US about responding to mass shooters and second era terrorists apply to responding to stupid terrorists. Response needs to be hyperlocal, and immediate. In Beslan there was no initial response - 400 dead. In the Paris theater, it took two hours from the start of shooting until the first police entered the theater building - 90 dead. In the US, in San Bernardino, it took only four minutes from the 911 call to the first two officers to entering the building - 14 dead.
America and Israel are better than the rest of the world at moving rapidly to gunfire and using aggressive individual initiative in the face of chaos, and so are likely to be less affected.
This kind of stupid terrorism is also a reduced threat in America, because we have a much smaller and a much less militant Muslim population than Europe or the Middle east.
The biggest danger
The biggest dangers in the era of stupid terrorists come from the attack’s viral nature. Unlike centrally planned attacks, these attacks spread mostly through media. Someone watches a video and thinks, “That will give my life meaning. I could do that.”
Although there are now three genre conventions - wearing black and using AR-15s, knifing strangers, or driving cars on the sidewalk, perhaps one day someone will come up with another plan, and it will quickly spread.
There’s an inherently evolutionary improvement that happens in this kind of media carried spread. The more successful the attack, the more the attack is reported, and the more it’s copied by others. Unsuccessful attack styles don’t spread.
Secondly, successful attacks can be copied overnight. One week there were no knife attacks in Israel, and two weeks later, there were multiple attacks per day, as it became the popular new thing.