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.