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April 22 2013 6:39 PM

Hapless, Disorganized, and Irrational

What the Boston bombers had in common with most would-be terrorists.

Suspects wanted for questioning in relation to the Boston Marathon bombing April 15 are seen in handout photos presented during an FBI.
Tamerlan (left) and Dzhokhar Tsarev are seen in handout photos presented during an FBI news conference in Boston, April 18, 2013.

Photo handout from FBI / Reuters

Between Sept. 12, 2001, and last Monday, some 52 cases came to light in which the United States itself has been, or apparently has been, targeted for terrorism by Islamist extremists, whether based in the United States or abroad.

By far the most striking difference between the Boston Marathon killings and these earlier cases is that, for the first time, terrorists actually were able to assemble and detonate bombs. Many previous plotters harbored visions of carrying out bombings, and in 10 of the cases, they were supplied with fantasy-fulfilling, if bogus, bombs by obliging FBI informants. But until Boston, no would-be terrorists had been able to make and set one off on their own. And, except for four bombs detonated on the London transport system in 2005, nor has any terrorist in the United Kingdom. This is surprising in part because in the 1970s there were hundreds of terrorist incidents on U.S. soil, most of them bombings, killing 72 people.

In many other respects, however, the Boston Marathon bombing is quite similar to the other 52 cases. For example, the Boston perpetrators were clearly not suicidal, which is the standard in American cases. In only six of the earlier plots were the perpetrators clearly willing to die in their terrorist effort.          

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And except for their ability to fabricate and detonate bombs, the Boston terrorists do not seem to have been any more competent than most of their predecessors. The Department of Homeland Security, in assessing what it ominously calls “the nature of the terrorist adversary,” is fond of stressing their determination, persistence, relentlessness, patience, and flexibility. This may apply to some terrorists somewhere, including at least a few of those involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. But it scarcely describes the vast majority of those individuals picked up on terrorism charges in the United States since those attacks.

In describing the “adversary,” the case studies far more commonly use words like incompetent, ineffective, unintelligent, idiotic, ignorant, inadequate, unorganized, misguided, muddled, amateurish, dopey, unrealistic, moronic, irrational, foolish, and gullible. Many of the cases suggest that there is little exaggeration in the 2010 film, Four Lions, the impressive dark comedy about a band of hapless home-grown British terrorists.

Amazingly, the Boston perpetrators apparently thought they could somehow get away with their deed even though they chose to set their bombs off at the most-photographed spot on the planet at the time. Moreover, although they were not prepared to die with their bombs, they do not seem to have had anything that could be considered a coherent plan of escape. This rather bizarre inability to think about the aftermath of the planned deed is quite typical in the case studies. (Also commonly found: an inability to explain how killing a few random people would advance their cause.)

The Boston perpetrators seem never to have ventured much more than a few miles from the bombing location, and they appear to have had no reliable means of transport and no money. Then, when the police published their photographs, they mindlessly blew whatever cover they had by killing a campus cop, hijacking a car, stealing money, trying to run a police blockade, and engaging in a brief Hollywood-style car chase and shootout. Surveillance imagery played an important role in identifying the terrorists (as it did in terrorist events in London in 2005), but the key breakthrough appears to have come when the culprits decided to leave their lair, after which the police applied standard killer-on-the-loose methodology.

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