Terrorists: Stupid or desperate?

The latest round of arrests of terrorist wannabes has turned up several well-educated doctors among the suspects; Michelle Malkin is among many offering comments. As a number of folks on the anti-jihad side have said, this should, once and for all, put to rest the leftist claim that terrorists are underprivileged victims who act out of economic desperation.

But intellectual honesty demands that we also re-examine the claim, made by Michael Ledeen and many others, that
the British terrorists don't seem very smart. Or technologically ept. They failed to blow themselves up in London, despite having lots of martyrdom gear. They failed to crash through barricades at Glasgow Airport, and you'd think they might have noticed the obstacles. Beloved Allahpundit remarks, in response to stories suggesting that the failed terrorists came from al Qaeda and received guidance from Iran, that "a joint AQ-Iran operation would have run a lot more smoothly and packed a considerably bigger wallop that these attacks did."

Did you really expect high-I.Q. martyrs? Maybe clever killers, but somebody should have pointed out--long since--that it isn't very smart to blow yourself up. And for the most part, the martyrs haven't come from the best-educated sectors of the population.

Ledeen's statement may be right "for the most part", but clearly the latest batch of martyrs did come from "the best-educated sectors of the population".

So let me point out a couple of obvious facts from daily life: (1) There are different kinds of smart. (2) Smart people can do stupid things. Now, armed with this pair of truisms, I'm going to offer a couple of comments on the recent UK bomb attacks.

First, the general IQ and education level of a terrorist is immaterial. What matters from an operational standpoint is his effectiveness as a terrorist. And by all accounts, the latest British terror plot was hopelessly inept. A couple of recent articles at Stratfor (subscription) give an idea of just how many things these folks did wrong:
Because propane tanks were also used in these attempts, some media sources have suggested the devices were similar to those employed by Iraqi insurgents. While propane is sometimes used in IEDs in Iraq, the devices deployed in the United Kingdom have little in common with Iraq's powerful car bombs, which always involve the use of high explosives. The use of gasoline rather than high explosives to ignite the propane also suggests that the plotters had little experience in designing effective IEDs. [A commenter on a Strategy Page forum notes that propane tanks are equipped with a safety valve to prevent them from exploding.] ...

The bombers likely had no access to explosives or the precursors needed to make improvised explosives such as TATP, which suicide bombers used against London's transportation system July 7, 2005. As a result of the long struggle with Irish Republican Army bombers and the 2005 London bombings, British authorities tightly control the sale of precursor chemicals that can be used to manufacture improvised explosives, and require that nitrogen in fertilizers be diluted. These measures, combined with stepped-up vigilance and public consciousness regarding bulk sales of acetone and peroxide -- two ingredients in TATP -- might have frustrated the latest attackers' efforts to acquire such materials.

Plus, it's hard to blow up your intended target with a car bomb when the car gets towed. But that's another story.

What I am getting from these reports is that the bombers may or may not have been the sharpest tacks in the drawer, but they didn't know jack diddly about making bombs. That's the part that counts. And they were inept because the talent pool of the jihadis has been seriously depleted.

That's the good news; the bad news, of course, is that we can't rest on our laurels. Michael at ThreatsWatch ties it all together:
-The aspiration for large attacks continues unabated. This is knowledge that is readily shared and easily available, and while desire still appears to exceed expertise, the learning curve is flattening and recall that blind squirrels still find nuts.
-Again: Their words resonate. The latest reports indicate that at least in Glasgow the perpetrators are not downtrodden who are acting out in response to real or perceived oppression. If the professional-class is beginning to join in the fight, the learning curve for truly deadly action flattens even more.
-Surveillance is not a failsafe. Domestic intelligence and security in the UK can be tough; tougher in some ways than we can implement here. Yet indications are that the perpetrators were already under scrutiny and were able to move freely even after the first attack. Restricting the liberty of the malicious is a much lesser evil than relieving life from the innocent.
-Their motives are clear. The second bomb in London was reportedly placed to target first responders; a tactic employed by those we are fighting “over there” is moving steadily westward. Now would be a good time to start sharing battlefield lessons-learned with the defenders of our respective homelands.

I've been talking here about the jihadist enemy and about the nuts-and-bolts business of bombmaking. On another front, The Belmont Club has some wisdom on the danger of underestimating the enemy:
The political elite of the West, like the last Manchus, may be have become so blinkered by the long assumption of guaranteed superiority that they have become slower than their supposed inferiors at grasping the possibilities of the 21st century warfare. Methods like cyberattacks and a networked insurgency are pitted against limited pacifist and diplomatic responses often with great effectiveness. Putin's audacity may be vile, but it displays an imagination and a willingness to step outside the beaten track so rare among Western leaders. Just as courtiers in Beijing once thought the Chinese emperor had the right to rule 'all under heaven', today the Eurocrats may believe "International Law" composed in Brussels actually governs the fate of nations and trumps all national political decisions. They forgot what the authority to rule 'all under heaven' was actually based upon though Putin has not.

What does this mean for the future? In From the Cold weighs in on coming attractions.
The idea that Al Qaida wants to stage another 9-11-style "spectacular" is hardly new. A number of analysts who focus on the terrorist organization have long held that Al Qaida needs another, large-scale success, for a variety of reasons. As Strategy Page recently observed, the organization is hardly on a roll; the number of operations tied to the group has declined, and the U.S. troop surge in Iraq is forcing Al Qaida to devote even more resources to that battle--resources that might otherwise be allocated to attacks in western Europe and the United States.

But the bad news doesn't end there. The loss of Al-Anbar Province as a logistical and operations base was a devastating set-back for Al Qaida. Recent clearing operations in Dialya are having a similar effect, and American troops are now moving into terrorist safe-havens in the Baghdad security belts. While the battle for Iraq is far from won, Al Qaida finds itself increasingly on the defensive, in areas that were once terrorist sanctuaries. ...

Collectively, these defeats suggest a terrorist network that has--at best--achieved a bloody stalemate with the U.S. and its allies. And, that lack of progress affects other, critical aspects of terrorism, most notably fund-raising. Successful tracking and prosecution of Al Qaida's financial networks has made it more difficult for sympathizers to give money to the cause, and with the lack of apparent progress in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa and elsewhere, some donors may be re-thinking their contributions.

In short, Al Qaida is in something of a squeeze, and needs to prove that it's still capable of large-scale, "spectacular" attacks on the enemy's home soil.

Wretchard points out that 'By bringing to the forces of radical Islam to battle, the US has achieved two things. First, as American critics have pointed out, it has allowed al-Qaeda to generate recruits to fight America. But secondly -- and this is the neglected half of the equation -- al-Qaeda's operations have allowed America to get recruits to fight them. The Anbar tribes are a good example. But from the Horn of Africa to France -- Sarkozy's election being another example -- al-Qaeda's activities have generated a backlash of their own.' In other words, the West may be learning the lessons of the Manchus after all - at least on some fronts. But let's get back to the business of our suicide doctors:
Al-Qaeda's attack cell in Britain consists of 3 or more medical doctors. Using doctors as suicide bombers, as one of the Glasgow attackers appeared to be, especially when they are "cleanskins" is an incredibly wasteful given their potential as sleeper agents or leaders. There cannot be so many al-Qaeda agents that they can afford to use neurologists as hit men. This suggests a certain level of eagerness to make a big publicity splash that is inconsistent with confident strength.

What emerges from all this is that it is not the terrorist pawns who are "driven by desperation", but their masters. They may have started out rich, but they're ending up poor. They may dream of domination, but they are awakening to a fight for survival. They may wish to be "top dog", but ... well, I'll let Strategy Page tell it:
Al Qaeda is having some success in the Western media, and among Moslems living in Europe. But those expatriate Moslems are handicapped by many of their brethren who are not enthusiastic about Islamic terrorism. The police get tips, make arrests, and al Qaeda losses a few more true believers. Al Qaeda is desperate for another highly visible attack in the West. Many such operations are apparently being planned, but by amateurs who can get no help from al Qaeda experts. Most of al Qaedas traveling experts are dead or in prison. Inspiring amateurs to attempt poorly planned attacks, like the recent ones in Britain, only discourage recruits. That's because another bunch of wannabes get sent away for long prison terms. This is a fate worse than death for Islamic terrorists. There are no 72 virgins in Western prisons, unless you consider the fact that you may be turned into one.