Bottom of the Barrel

Today's terrorists aren't "sophisticated." They're stupider than ever. 

As the post-game analysis on the Boston bombings grinds on, a conventional wisdom is starting to take shape based on the heated claims of pundits, officials, and security experts, as well as the post-9/11 liturgy on terrorist theory. It goes something like this: Terrorists are highly intelligent foes who wield violence strategically, bringing immediate and significant attention to their political ends relative to their limited means.

Here's just a quick sampling of the reactions to the marathon attacks, from some serious people: Michael Leiter, former director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, characterized the Boston bombings as a "sophisticated attack," an opinion echoed from Congress to the FBI. Pennsylvania Rep. Patrick Meehan described the bombings as a "sophisticated operation." Jack Cloonan, who from 1996 to 2002 headed the FBI's Osama bin Laden unit, said the attacks exhibited unmistakable "sophistication." The terrorists were highly trained, said Ron Craig, a professor of pyrotechnics who has advised the FBI. And so on.

Indeed, ever since the publication of the 9/11 Commission report, it seems that most analysts reflexively default to the official position that contemporary terrorists are "sophisticated, patient, disciplined, and lethal." Most academics of terrorist theory have since poured concrete on this foundational thesis. Political scientist David Lake of the University of California, San Diego, for example, thinks that terrorists are "rational and strategic," while Andrew Kydd and Barbara Walter likewise argue they are "surprisingly successful in their aims."

But let's get one thing straight: The Tsarnaev brothers, wherever they may have learned to make bombs or hate Americans, were no geniuses.

In recent years, terrorists targeting the American homeland have been neither sophisticated nor masterminds, but incompetent fools. In December 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 en route to Detroit when the explosives in his underwear refused to ignite. He succeeded only in burning his pants and promptly getting arrested. Shortly after, Faisal Shahzad, despite extensive training in the camps of Waziristan, managed only to ruin the interior of his SUV in Times Square. And let's not forget Rezwan Ferdaus, with the brilliant plan to fly a small, remote-controlled, bomb-laden airplane into the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol, a plan so remedial and harebrained that the only explosives he managed to acquire were fake -- and presented to him, handcuffs included, by undercover FBI agents. About 20 Muslim Americans per year since 9/11 have been arrested for planning terrorist crimes, with the vast majority nabbed before engaging in any violence at all. As Daniel Byman and C. Christine Fair have critically noted, "The perception [wrongly] persists that our enemies are savvy and sophisticated killers."

Yes, the suspected bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers, allegedly managed to brutally kill several people, wound scores of bystanders, and instill fear throughout Boston. But this has less to do with their terrorism chops than the ease of wreaking havoc in a democracy.

Details of the tragedy remain sketchy, but evidence indicates that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev aimed to launch a series of mass-casualty attacks after the initial marathon bombing. Although idiocy is agnostic on preferences, masterminds would probably have had an escape plan or some cash on hand. Here's a few pro tips: Don't mingle with people who have license plates supporting terrorism affixed to their cars; don't post pro-Islamist sentiments on public websites; don't brag to innocents about being responsible for the bombing; and don't run over your brother with a car. This was amateur hour: After apparently flattening his older brother accidentally, Dzhokhar reportedly placed a pistol in his mouth and tried to kill himself. Once again, he failed. As John Mueller and Mark Stewart point out, such stupidity is "quite typical" of recent terrorists targeting the U.S. homeland.

To be fair, not all terrorists are so feckless. The Irish Republican Army, for instance, prided itself on the caliber of its members, picking only the finest recruits to ensure the organization's viability. The al Qaeda leadership used to do the same, vetting and training the best and the brightest in the world of terrorism, from Mohamed Atta to his 9/11 co-conspirators. But something important changed.

The United States started killing these guys. From the battle of Tora Bora in 2001 to the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 to the ongoing drone war, the decapitation campaign has resulted in serious attrition, granting unprecedented tactical autonomy to less strategic lower-level terrorists.

Before, al Qaeda leaders carefully selected operatives from tens of thousands of jihadists in Afghan training camps. Today, Inspire magazine and other online outlets appeal for anyone at all to commit violence against the infidels. The remaining leadership no longer even attempts to separate the wheat from the chaff. Al Qaeda has an open-door policy, praying for disgruntled people like Tamerlan and Dzhokhar to fashion bombs from leftovers in their mother's kitchen.

The decentralization of America's terrorist enemies is usually seen as advantageous for them. Decentralization is thought to unleash the human potential of militants, making their groups more flexible, innovative, resilient, and specialized. More concretely, decentralization is said to confer a bounty of strategic advantages on terrorists by rendering them harder to anticipate, detect, infiltrate, and dismantle or kill. This is the theory of the leaderless network, the elusive and independent "cellular" structure. Yet decentralization also carries costs to terrorists by eroding their quality as they move farther away from the leadership. This is because the leaders of terrorist groups, like in many other organizations, have a better sense of what they're doing than the freshest hires.

From what we know now, the alleged Boston bombers weren't even lone wolves. They were, in the grand scheme and historical sweep of terrorism, just puppies. If they were even just a bit smarter, many more innocent Americans might be dead.

That doesn't mean America's national security agencies can take their eye of the ball. But let's not rush to accord these two alleged terrorists any more IQ points than they deserve.


National Security

Inspiration Inflation

We're all to blame for giving al Qaeda's magazine more credit than it's due.

Have you heard the one about the English-language jihadist magazine targeting Western Muslims?

No, not the Taliban's whimsically named In-Fight Magazine. And it's not Mujahedin Monthly, or Al Hussam, or Afghan Mirror, or Afghan Jihad. And not the half-in-English Al Qaeda Airlines or Gaidi Mtaani. (And yes, those are all real things.)

No, the only English-language jihadist magazine you've probably ever heard of is Inspire, and you're probably going to hear a lot more about it in the near future.

NBC News reported this morning that the surviving Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, told investigators that he and his elder brother, Tamerlan, learned to build their bomb by reading Inspire, which is published by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

At this point, it doesn't really matter if NBC's report is accurate or if Tsarnaev's claim is true. Inspire has become the worst kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, in which our collective worries about terrorism magnified our enemies' reach.

Inspire was the brainchild of naturalized American citizen Samir Khan. It originated as an online fanzine called Jihad Recollections, which he published as a PDF from the basement of his parents' home in North Carolina.

After four amateurish issues, Khan moved to Yemen and went pro, rebranding the magazine as Inspire and releasing it as an online PDF under the official umbrella of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, under the supervision of American-born cleric Anwar Awlaki, beginning in July 2010 with its tenth issue published last month.

Although there have always been jihadist magazines targeting Western Muslims in English, Inspire's official al Qaeda branding prompted an explosion of media attention, including a number of laughably bad reports by people who normally do good work, with some even claiming it was printed on glossy paper, as if you could walk down to the local newsstand and pick up a copy.

The quality of the coverage has remained hysterical and inaccurate over the three years that Inspire has been in circulation. New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti claims in his new book The Way of the Knife that accused Fort Hood gunman Nidal Hasan and Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad were both "readers of Inspire," even though both of those attacks took place before Inspire ever existed. The list goes on and on.

Media coverage of Inspire is entirely relevant to its ability to reach an audience, so much so that every issue of the magazine includes a full page or more of quotes by Western journalists and terrorism analysts waxing on about how terrifying and impressive the magazine is.

That doesn't mean Inspire was never something to be concerned about. Samir Khan's command of English idiom and Western publication styles made the magazine novel and accessible.

Inspire's one meaningful innovation was its combination of terrorist how-to tactics with propaganda and incitement. Both had been available in English before Inspire, but not together between two covers. A number of would-be terrorists have been found with the magazine in their possession, although until now no one has invested enough perspiration to make its inspiration into a deadly reality.

The magazine's best moment on the technical front came in its very first issue, with an article called "Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom," which described in some detail a device similar to that used by the marathon bombers.

Since then, most of its tactical advice has ranged from bad to ludicrous, suggesting people weld lawnmower blades to a truck in an early issue, and degenerating in its most recent issue to a recommendation that lone jihadists rub highways with cooking oil in order to cause traffic accidents. (This trend toward fantasy may reverse itself in the wake of the marathon bombing.)

Inspire was never nothing; it was never a non-story. It always deserved scrutiny and analysis. But the bottom line is that Inspire would never have reached so many people as it did if not for the constant and overwhelming inflation of its value in the Western media, an inflation that was often based on inaccurate information.

And Inspire lapped up that coverage like a thirsty kitten, using it to further enhance its credentials and assuring further commentary from writers who were pleased as punch to see their names cited in its pages.

Now it's too late. Although Khan and Awlaki were killed by a drone in September 2011, other people involved with the magazine have kept the flame alive, albeit with a distinctly lower level of quality.

It is as close to certain as a prediction can be that Inspire's surviving editorial team will make hay from the Boston Marathon bombing and the surrounding media coverage, regardless of how important the magazine ultimately was to the plot and the construction of the bombs.

The magazine appears erratically and it's unclear how long it will take the editors to assemble an issue commemorating the attack and recounting all the complimentary things being said by the media. But I have virtually no doubt that such an issue is coming, whether sooner or later.

I won't say we only have ourselves to blame. Al Qaeda and its online sympathizers are experts at the propaganda game, and Inspire would likely have found some kind of audience even without all the help it got from Western media and analysts.

But they sure didn't help. And the threat presented by Inspire has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Despite its many weaknesses and flaws, and even if the reports of its role in the marathon bombing turn out to be misleading, incomplete, or even untrue, Inspire is here to stay, and it has nowhere to go but up.