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Either there are no terrorists, or they are incredibly incompetent

June 14, 2013 by max

Think for a moment about how easy it is to make a terror attack. You can make incredibly poisonous gas and release it in the subway for less than $1000, you can set off huge forest fires in California by driving around with a few cans of gasoline on a hot and windy day, or you can simply buy a semi automatic weapon and start shooting people on Times Square. These are all obvious and easy DIY terror attacks. If you have a sliver of intelligence you can fairly easily come up with attacks that are much more devastating and equally easy to deploy (I won’t mention any, I really don’t want to give anyone good ideas even though I highly doubt that potential terrorists are reading this blog)

There are examples of people without significant funding having successfully carried out attacks. The boston bombers and Anders Breivik come to mind. So we know terrorism can be done by individuals with limited funding and contacts.

We hear about the dire threat from large well funded terrorist organisations on a daily basis, so the obvious question is: If it’s so easy to do, why aren’t there more terror attacks?

I see three potential answers:

  1. There are no terrorists, or at least very few.
  2. The terrorists are incredibly incompetent.
  3. The NSA, CIA, FBI and other agencies are doing a stellar job of stopping terrorism.

Let’s assume the three letter agencies are incredibly effective and thwart potential terror attacks all the time. How would we know? They operate in a veil of secrecy so it’s hard to know for sure. However, sometimes they testify in congressional hearings so that our elected representatives have a chance to find out whether the billions they receive is well spent. In this C-span clip NSA director Keith Alexander is asked whether the NSA has thwarted any terror attacks. His answer is “dozens”, yet he is unable to mention even a single concrete example, or point to even a single arrest. It seems to me that if you testify before congress, which is the NSA’s source of funding, and you have a shining example of why you’re worth your money you would mention it. But there isn’t one.  In an interview director of national intelligence James R. Clapper is asked whether he can give examples of terror plots that have been prevented. He mentions two episodes, both from 2009. The first is an attempted bombing of the New York subway. The second is the apprehension of David Headley who was involved in the Mumbai bombing (they didn’t catch him before the bombings took place) and the planned attack on the Danish Newspaper Jyllandsposten. But David Headley’s case could easily have been unfolded without the NSA. His two(!) wifes both notified the US authorities about his terror involvement in 2005 and 2007 to no avail.

So we have two examples, where at least one is very dubious and the suspect could have been apprehended by other means. That’s not exactly a good track record. It seems to me that not that many terrorist attacks have been averted, if any.

That leaves me with the conclusion that either there aren’t any terrorists or else they’re incredibly incompetent.

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