The Exaggerated Myth Of Terrorist Incompetence

In the aftermath of the latest terror attack in Britain, the international press has published a wide range of articles examining why the improvised bomb left in the passenger carriage of a London underground train may have failed to explode. So far, the suggestion that the initial blast stemmed from the detonator rather than the main charge seems to be the most popular, as the media await details from the police. This has led to some poorly framed conclusions by more than one newspaper. From the Guardian:

The incompetence of terrorists has spared hundreds of lives in recent years. The recent attacks in Barcelona could have been much worse if the leader of the plot had not blown himself up – along with the network’s stockpile of bomb components – hours before they occurred.

Counter-terrorist specialists in the west recognise that the “Four Lions factor” – a reference to the 2010 black comedy by Chris Morris that shows the incompetent attempt by a group of Britons to launch a terrorist campaign – is one of the most important defences against attack.

This is a somewhat specious argument, reflecting the understandable antipathy and disdain of British reporters for the terrorists assaulting their country. It helps that most civilians are unaware of the surprisingly high failure rates of even the most sophisticated conventional weapons. During the first three weeks of the 2004 invasion of Iraq by the United States and the United Kingdom, the armed forces of both nations dropped some 2000000 cluster bomb munitions on a large number of military, governmental and industrial targets in the region. Shockingly, up to 30% of these bombs failed to explode, leaving manufacturers scrambling to explain their own pre-conflict estimates that 2-5% of the devices would fail. In the end, some companies tried to blame the incompetence of the US and UK forces for the duds and not their own assembly lines.

The adherents of the Islamic State in Europe may lack training, knowledge and resources but they do not lack determination or commitment (or courage, as repugnant as that may seem). Lazy stereotyping like the frequent “Four Lions” reference owes more to racial or ethnocentric bias than it does to reality. The dreadful 2004 Madrid train bombings and the 2005 suicide attacks in London prove that.



  1. Peroxyoxalate reactions are not the most predictable or stable of processes and will eventually bite you. In this case the reaction had not gone to completion, rather than the detonator was an issue. The stuff’s unstable, the detonator went off and almost certainly consumed all of the reactive material.

    Why is it they’ve never tried to build a fertilizer bomb and emulate the Baltic Exchange/Bishopsgate attacks?

    1. I’ve always supposed that it was because they didn’t have the numbers or infrastructure, i.e. you need a fair amount of people in a group to be able to pull all the strands together where so much of this stuff is low level (though no less abysmal). Add to that the lack of a coherent strategy (one thing that is really telling is the way in which they’re willing to sacrifice themselves rather than live to fight another day which is by any reckoning tactically and strategically completely futile given the numbers willing to kill themselves are always going to be lower than those who would be wiling to ‘fight’ on). What do you think?

      1. Fert bomb is ground up ammonium nitrate, aluminium filings, fuel oil and a high explosive charge as detonator. Pretty straightforward to obtain supplies and manufacture. We are not talking mortars which are a whole other order of sophistication. But look at the Mujahideen manufacturing AKs in the 80s, the engineering capability exists and is straightforward to learn.

        Suicide bombing seems to function by recruiting someone who has just been traumatized – their family, friend is murdered by the Israeli state and in the aftermath they are recruited and in cases manipulated/coerced into following through even if their anger dissipates. They seem rooted in raw, unresolved, enraging trauma and an expression of desperation. To get someone to the point of committing a suicide bombing you have to have done something pretty terrible to them. To expect rationality in that case is irrational, right?

        In the west there is a pretty racist spin put on suicide bombings, whereas parachuting behind enemy lines (Operation Montgomery’s Ego for example) into near certain suicide conditions is admirable and heroic. Uh-huh. Why is a bomber pilot shot down over Dresden a hero but someone who blows up a single tube carriage is the equivalent of a Nazi? Pot meet Kettle.

        It remains though, why no increase in sophistication? It’s been 16 years. Something smells to high heaven and this bombing was just too politically convenient for May.

        1. I guess my thought would be that if it were quite that easy to construct said bombs then everyone across the political spectrum would be doing it and yet they’re not. I wonder if the issue of having cadres who self-immolate is a limiting factor (added to what ASF says below re the differences between a guerrilla or insurgent army and loose networks like ISIS and ISIS alike. Actually the latter always remind me a bit of Red Brigades etc, who tended to be small, isolated and under resourced with no real connection to broader communities or pools of support). After all, if every time you send people out you don’t expect them to come back because that’s a part of the process how does one maintain continuity of experience let alone expand it. And while I take your point re some having racist attitudes, in fairness PIRA or whoever didn’t sacrifice volunteers because that continuity of experience is key to prosecuting sustained campaigns. That to me is as likely a reason for no real improvement in 16 years (apart from the issue that it’s difficult to get people to be willing to give up tehir lives with no chance for walking away, however small).

          1. I think ASF’s points below and yours are right. The professionals are heading to the conflict zones. Leaving the amateurs at home. It appears to be the simplest, cleanest explanation for the failure to advance.

            The only thing I’d disagree with you on is the fert bomb complexity, they’re easy to build. And this time it wasn’t a suicide bombing. So perhaps the iteration is beginning?

    2. I suspect that the “franchise” nature of the Islamic State (IS) in Europe is both enabling and limiting its operations. Yes, the diffuse network is able to draw in recruits and organise where a tighter network would be liable to surveillance, penetration and interdiction. On the other hand, franchising means you supply a prepackaged one-size fits all model, including bomb-making techniques. Having discovered a doable terror formula the IS has no need to innovate (for now).

      The IRA however was a guerrilla army, with a clear command-and-control structure, even for overseas units. Its operational needs and strategies were completely different, and always evolving. A veritable light munitions industry facilitated the “blockbusters” of the 1990s and with specific purpose.

      Islamic State is simply selling a product, cheap and cheerful, for overseas novices and newbies. There are no urban guerrilla veterans as such in Europe, no training, or decades (centuries?) of in-house experience and technological know-how to draw upon.

      Again, that is for now. If the Islamic State collapses in Syria and European veterans return home…

  2. I’ve never understood why the media, without fail, speculates in areas which take trained experts days if not weeks or months to figure out. Does it serve any purpose to throw out a wide array of hypotheses which are grounded in nothing more than remote chance? I suppose it’s good for further frightening readers and viewers and pushing up sales, but do any of them ever sit back afterward and reflect on uninformed idiocy they spout regularly? My guess, no.

  3. My great fear, the way things in the North of Ireland are going, is that it is only a matter of time until we see elements in both communities, those who have only the most elementary grasp of the political and other issues triggered off by BREXIT, and that idiot Women Theresa May, thinking about making copycat attacks, as they see this night after night on the news. There grasp of politics may be wrong, and their resentment of the Peace process very flawed, but they could, realistically, re-ignite the War, with horrible consequences. The consequences of that do not need to be spelt out. The situation is not helped by the utter intransigence of the Loyalist community. They have learned nothing, and seem to think they can set the clock back 25 years. This is a prime situation for the hardliners on both sides, and they will exploit it. All of this might not seem in anyway connected with the Irish North. But it is. When you have a disaffected, isolated racial and ethnic minority, who have been severely repressed, their life and culture crushed, and have been deliberately forced down into an underclass social and economic group, violence becomes inevitable. In such communities, whether they are Islamic, Irish, or whatever, the same forces are at work, and will out. When a bomb goes off, it is not just a bomb. It is an expression of social, political, and cultural rage, by other means. Somebody explain why the same forces are not at work in the Northern nationalist community, that are at work in the Islamic community, on the UK Mainland. Unless the Republican political leadership, North and South, get realistic, and divert the Northern Nationalist Community into political and civil action, for reunification, the old “Hill-Side men” will wibe a large campaign for n this one. Over to You Gerry Adams. We need SF to be very clear, and to announce that BREXIT has caused a total change in the situation, and that now the UK government have wrecked the Peace Treaty and the Peace Process, there needs to a major movement for re-unification. So far, I have not seen either the will, or the spirit, to do this. Over then, to the hard men. A tragedy is coming, unless we look hard, at the latest bombing, on the mainland, and what an evil omen it is, for Irish politics in the North.

    1. It would be interesting to monitor whether a full blown repeat of the Troubles would be even possible given the claims by the U.K. Intelligence community and allies to have NI locked up tight against all potential insurgency threats.

  4. I am no expert but a forensic team would be hard pressed to conclude that a bomb had taken place in that train? Either way whomever is behind it has garnered the normal and desired reaction from the public I.e fear. Big question is who wants the public more afraid? ISIS or government?

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