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Terrorists Are Stupid

im-with-stupidJosh Marshall voices a question that I’ve had in my head for awhile, too:

I tend to agree that if a young person gets on an international flight, not only with no checked luggage but no carry ons that suggest he plans on ever getting off the plane, that is sort of a tip off. But in these cases, I always wonder: Isn’t it or why isn’t it part of terrorist best practices to just bring some phony luggage? With all the trouble and subterfuge terrorists have to go to get stuff on planes, this seems fairly straightforward. This isn’t a criticism of the policies. And obviously Abdulmutallab didn’t do this. But in cases like this, I always do wonder: why?

Anyone who even remotely keeps up with the news knows that one-way tickets and a lack of luggage are going to raise eyebrows.  So, why wouldn’t terrorists — let alone those sent by the well-financed al Qaeda to pull of major jobs — avoid these traps?  Surely, Osama can afford to spring for a suitcase — into which the suicide bomber can put his actual crap, since he won’t be needing it, anyway — and a return ticket?

Robert Mackey has a theory: “These guys…are idiots.”

His example is the al Qaeda moron who infiltrated the CIA and then blew up seven low-level agents rather than actually gaining complex intelligence or at least waiting for a higher-profile target.  But the examples are legion.  Recall that the 1993 World Trade Center terrorists were caught so easily because they went to get the deposit back on their rental van.  Or the ineptitude of the shoe bomber and underwear bomber.

To be sure, this is not a new idea.  Daniel Pipes has been pushing the “stupid terrorists” meme for years.

Like most other criminals, terrorists just aren’t very smart.  Given how lousy we are at catching them, that’s a good thing.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Kevin says:

    You mean Daniel Pipes.

    I do! Fixed. – jhj

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  2. Trevor Carlee says:

    I think it’s more so the terrorists who get caught are stupid. I wouldn’t hesitate to believe that the “smart” terrorists are caught or at least watched on a daily basis and the stupid ones are getting through the cracks because our government doesn’t think terrorists could be that stupid. That’s how they slip by.

    So the ones getting caught in public are the stupid ones and the only ones we know about. The ones that are “smart” are either prevented or caught without our knowledge and tortured for more information. This way we can’t complain about our government torturing terrorists if we don’t know that they’ve caught them.

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  3. Jeff says:

    its always been striking at how many of the crafty terrorists manage to not volunteer for suicide missions. The guys that do are bullets not missiles. Even the educated ones are actually relatively dim bulbs. Many of the “insurgents” in Iraq and Afghan are simply hired guns with no interest in ascending to heaven sooner rather than later.
    What I don’t understand is how the airline reservation records and systems aren’t being used to ID potential threats sooner rather than later. As soon as you make a reservation the system should forward the info to somebody for cross checking. By the time you reach the ticket counter the TSA should already know if they should take an extra interest in you. Age, national background, timing of reservation, payment method all could be used to trigger security flags. Once you are actually at a ticket counter paying in cash, one way tickets and no checked bags should automatically flag you for extra screening. There is simply no good reason that a 20 something male, paying in cash with no checked bags shouldn’t be looked at with some extra attention. No highly trained ex El Al screeners are required to id potential bad guys using this data.
    Look around on your next cross country or international flight. Ignore the race of your fellow passengers in the boarding area and look around. How many single men are on your flight ? Now, see how many single young men ? Unless you are flying with a college football team I doubt you will find more than a dozen guys. How many bought a one way cash ticket ? How many didn’t have any checked bags ?
    If the TSA has to do extra screening on more than 2 or 3 people per flight I’d be very surprised.
    Yes, the bad guys “could” buy a round trip ticket with a credit card and check some bags. Do you ever wonder why they don’t seem to try this ? There is a trail behind every credit card that they don’t want to reveal, that’s why not. That trail can lead back to a handler or at least identify previously unknown linkages or connections.
    Cash can’t be easily traced, credit cards can. They may not be as stupid as some think and are simply forced to use cash for operational safety. Its simple, they have no idea if the credit cards they do have are being traced so they can’t use them.

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  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Like most other criminals, terrorists just aren’t very smart.

    Would that it were true! Most domestic terrorist have apparently been pretty stupid. However, experience so far with foreign terrorists attempting attacks in the U. S. is somewhat different. Most have been people with educations and probably have IQ’s more than one standard deviation above normal or higher.

    It might be that just the need to obtain a visa ensures that foreign terrorists are above average in intelligence.

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  5. Dave Schuler says:

    His example is the al Qaeda moron who infiltrated the CIA and then blew up seven low-level agents rather than actually gaining complex intelligence or at least waiting for a higher-profile target.

    Are you talking about the Jordanian and the incident in Afghanistan recently? He was a doctor of medicine.

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  6. James Joyner says:

    Are you talking about the Jordanian and the incident in Afghanistan recently? He was a doctor of medicine.

    Perhaps “incompetent” or “inept” would be a better word than “stupid” for these folks.

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  7. Wayne says:

    Just like criminals, there are smart ones and stupid ones. That is why it is foolish for those who claim that prudent security measures shouldn’t be taken because they can be circumvented. Locking one doors or any other measure can be circumvented. That doesn’t mean the measures are not useful and shouldn’t be done. The idea is to make it difficult for your opponents and stop as many as is reasonable.We need to catch the stupid ones as well. In the end it is a contest. Sometime you are successful and sometimes you are not. The idea is to be as successful as possible.

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  8. Triumph says:

    The problem is that these people are Big-Government, community organizer-style liberals.

    Liberals and their Dummocrat allies are generally idiots. So this is nothing surprising.

    Just libs being libs.

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  9. Dave Schuler says:

    Competent, highly experienced suicide bombers are hard to come by.

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  10. It’s just possible that your very cleverest sort of fellow doesn’t volunteer to blow himself up in exchange for a promise of virgins in heaven.

    It’s also possible your intellectual paragons don’t grab onto the idea that picking a fight with a superpower is the way to re-launch a Caliphate.

    Stupid and intelligent aren’t always entirely separate circles in the big Venn Diagram of Life. Perfectly intelligent Marxists believed people would work just as hard for a Trabant as a Mercedes. And the majority of Republicans believe the world is 6,000 years old and that Adam loaded dinosaurs onto an Ark and floated around with T. Rexes and sheep nuzzling side by side.

    Real life terrorists are not Hollywood terrorists. That’s right: they are dumber than the average screen writer by a couple of orders of Bruce Willis.

    So while we should prepare for the advent of the terrorist mastermind we should also work to stop the dumbasses. And bear in mind that as dumb as this guy was, the counter person who sold him a one way ticket for cash and then saw no checked bags, is dumber still.

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  11. Ugh says:

    The only way this plot doesn’t work is if they catch the guy before he gets on the plane.

    1. If he blows up the plane, he’s killed ~300 people in spectacular fashion, al Qaeda claims credit.

    2. The device doesn’t work, and we get the current hysteria with respect to airline screening and calls for profiling and torture.

    3. The device explodes but doesn’t destroy the plane, and we still get the current hysteria with respect to airline screening and calls for profiling and torture.

    All he had to do was get on the plane.

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  12. Drew says:

    “And the majority of Republicans believe the world is 6,000 years old and that Adam loaded dinosaurs onto an Ark and floated around with T. Rexes and sheep nuzzling side by side.”

    C’mon, Michael. That’s not true, and reflects more on you (and a desire to snark) than Republicans.

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  13. sam says:

    C’mon, Michael. That’s not true

    I dunno. As least as far as humans go, this Gallup poll says otherwise:

    There is a significant political divide in beliefs about the origin of human beings, with 60% of Republicans saying humans were created in their present form by God 10,000 years ago, a belief shared by only 40% of independents and 38% of Democrats.

    Michael is off by 4,000 years, though.

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  14. tom p says:

    Michael is off by 4,000 years, though.

    Actually Sam, 60% of Republicans are off by 4,000 yrs (some would argue they are off by more than just a matter of years)

    Every Bible student worth his King James knows the earth is only 6,000 yrs old!

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  15. tom p says:

    Stupid and intelligent aren’t always entirely separate circles in the big Venn Diagram of Life.

    Or Congress….

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  16. It seems that the set of people willing to do terror, with suicide or not, is low. That Al Queda seems to poach the mentally infirm reinforces that it takes something unusual.

    That’s good, and we can pause right there to consider how much worse the War on Terror would be if there were armies of rational and ready suicide bombers lined up.

    I mean jeez louse, the one-way ticket thing has always bugged me. A rational terrorist would expect to be dead before the Visa card shows up, and so cost should be no object. Maybe Homeland Security keeps on scanning those one-way ticket holders because they no something about their quarry.

    Finally, this reinforces for me that it is less a war than a dangerous criminal conspiracy … complete with mad villains.

    Bin Laden is Dr. No, Moriarty, or something. 007 should be out there getting him.

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  17. Drew says:

    sam and tommy p -

    I think the literalist interpretation is long gone. And I believe that based upon countless personal encounters.

    Polls you cite I discount out of hand. Faded polling techniques are the current stock and trade of sophists.

    Figure this out: my wife is a reasonably devout Catholic, but who has major issues with the Church over certain issues. My daughter has gone to Catholic school for 7 years, but we just pulled her out and into public schools due to totally non-denominational issues. Me? I’m somewhere along an argument line between aethiest and agnostic. More agnostic, probably.

    Now does this fact set sound anything like the simple minded notion that slobbering Republicans believe that dinosaurs were present soon after creation…………or whatever?”

    This is just mindless crap.

    The issues are much more nuanced. Please treat them so.

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  18. tom p says:

    I think the literalist interpretation is long gone. And I believe that based upon countless personal encounters.

    Drew, I read you and comprehend… unfortunately, facts mean nothing to some. I have had a very good friend look at me and say, “Man did not descend from monkey’s.” I could say nothing. He was an intelligent human being. Far smarter than I. Yet incabable of discerning the difference of man descending from monkeys, and man descending from a common ancestor.

    I am sorry Drew. The literalist interpretation is not gone. It is alive and well, leave St. Louis and come to Shannon Co. visit Crawford Co. make a visit to Newton Co. Ark…. and remember… These people vote.

    And they are as absolute and certain sure that we did not come from monkeys… As you are that we did not come from monkeys… But no one can convince them of the difference.

    The issues are much more nuanced. Please treat them so.

    Drew: With you I will treat the issues as such, because you have earned as much. But you need to understand that so many in this world don’t want “nuance”, they know that man did not come from monkeys, what they don’t seem to understand, is we know the same.

    Figure this out: my wife is a reasonably devout Catholic, but who has major issues with the Church over certain issues.

    Drew, figure this out: My mother, who converted to Catholicism when she wed my father (just before he went off to Korea, his 2nd time in war)(her mother said she would disown her if she did) (her mother didn’t)(in fact her mother loved all of us “papist children” like we were her own)(and my mother told all of her children, “If I have to pick between you and your father, you lose.”) said to me, when I asked her if she wanted a priest for the last rites as she was lying on her death bed (don’t ask)…

    “No!!!”

    Drew, in all truth, I never asked why this (relatively) rich Southern Belle of a Southern Baptist who was so committed to her husband that she was willing to forgo her family heritage, willing to convert to the papist heresey, willing to sell her children to what ever hell awaited them… All for the sake of a polack from the south side of Chicago… and her last words in this world would be “F*ck the priest.”… I never asked her…

    I don’t know, there are so many questions I would ask…

    In truth, I am still don’t have a clue…. The only thing I do know is, my mother loved my father in a way that very few of us can understand, and none of us can explain. And that we should all be so lucky. I hope I am.

    I hope you are too.

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  19. tom p says:

    and tommy p

    and thanx for the “tommy”. i here that on a very irregular basis since my oldest sister died some years back, and yet, I still here it now and again, from places and people I never expected, from friends, on the job, here…

    Sometimes I like to think that there is a “connectedness” to this world even if I know better. It is a fantasy of mine…

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  20. I wish it were not true that the majority of Republicans believe in a literalist interpretation of the Bible. But they do.

    I understand that’s embarrassing to any intelligent, rational person such as yourself, Drew.

    The religious right is not only a major player in the GOP, it is the dominant player. And yes, they believe God zapped the universe into being a rather short time ago, created precisely two humans who somehow managed to give birth to the entire human race, and that dinosaurs (if they existed at all) co-existed with Adam.

    That’s not snark, it’s what many Americans and most conservatives believe. They also believe in angels and devils and a literal heaven and hell.

    If you question the polling on the topic, do you find anyone else on the right questioning it? I’d love to see a statement by a GOP spokesman pooh-poohing the conclusion.

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  21. steve says:

    Drew- I have 6 siblings. Five of them are rock solid creationists. They send me creationist literature all of the time. Where I come from, Southern Indiana, it is very common. The right wing evangelicals really do not think evolution is true. Now, to help you out here, I bet this was a relatively recent poll. Most likely the Christian right made up a larger percentage of those polling as Republicans. This poll done six years when independents like myself still voted Republican would have made the percentage lower.

    Steve

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  22. Here in southern California the big evangelical churches (non-traditional protestants) are fairly strict creationist and anti-evolution.

    Saddleback Valley Church is the biggest single congregation out here (at one point the biggest single congregation in the country). That is the church that Obama and McCain famously visited.

    Little Green Footballs says that before the visit they took down this paragraph:

    This should not sound so strange. After all, God tells us that he created all the land animals on the sixth day of creation, the same day that he created mankind. Man and dinosaurs lived at the same time. There was never a time when dinosaurs ruled the earth. From the very beginning of creation, God gave man dominion over all that was made, even over the dinosaurs.

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  23. sam says:

    @Drew

    Polls you cite I discount out of hand.

    Well that’s the end of this argument.

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  24. ulyssesunbound says:

    @Steve–sad to see that my experience in southern Indiana re: creationists is not unique. C’est la vie.

    In fact, just a few minutes away from the Kentucky/Indiana/Ohio border is a museum–a very well funded museum with thousands and thousands of visitors a year–devoted to explaining creationism. How man rode on dinosaurs (they have a dinosaur with a saddle to prove their point), and how t-rex was a vegetarian (so as not to eat Adam).

    What’s important to note, however (and helps Drew’s argument a bit), is that the visitors to this museum are hardly just Republicans/conservatives. Many are registered Democrats (like my girlfriends mother) who support health care reform, combating global warming, and union rights. They also believe that the story of Adam and Eve/The Creation is quite literal and couldn’t possibly be a story written around 400 AD as a parable to explain to a poorly educated yet curious populace how we came to be.

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  25. anjin-san says:

    Perhaps the ones who are willing to blow themselves up are stupid. Planning and executing successful attacks on the Pentagon and WTC does not strike me as indicative of stupidity. We should not get cocky on this one…

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  26. Don’t fall for the false dichotomy, Anjin. Many try to make the emotional argument that either you buy the ‘war’ metaphor, or you are for doing nothing.

    Obviously we must hunt down these criminal masterminds, who while themselves lurking in the worlds most remote corners do send out these crazies and idiots.

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  27. Have a nice G.A. says:

    And yes, they believe God zapped the universe into being a rather short time ago, created precisely two humans who somehow managed to give birth to the entire human race, and that dinosaurs (if they existed at all) co-existed with Adam.

    Harry, do a population count and then go backwards, it’s easy.

    Dinosaurs is a word that describes what and how long has it been in use?

    Try to understand how and why your judging things.

    They also believe that the story of Adam and Eve/The Creation is quite literal and couldn’t possibly be a story written around 400 AD as a parable to explain to a poorly educated yet curious populace how we came to be.

    Holy crap a Bible historian as well as a constitutional scholar?

    Dude, turn of the history channel for a while.

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  28. Have a nice G.A. says:

    Monkeys, common ancestors, or earth worms? that is the question.

    Another question, the progenators of the modern evolutionist sects, did they hate God before or after they started these movements.

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