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.