Editor’s Note: The following article originally appeared in The Atlantic (July/August 2010) under the title “The Case for Calling Them Nitwits.”
In the years after 9/11, the images we were shown of terrorists were largely the same: shadowy jihadists who, even when they were foiled, seemed always to have come terrifyingly close to pulling off a horrific attack. We’ve all become familiar by now with the stock footage of Talibs in black shalwar kameezes zipping across monkey bars or, more recently, perfecting kung fu kicks in some secret training camp. Even in the aftermath of the botched Times Square bombing earlier this spring, the perception persists that our enemies are savvy and sophisticated killers. They’re fanatical and highly organized—twin ideas that at once keep us fearful and help them attract new members.
But this view of the jihadist community is wildly off the mark. To be sure, some terrorists are steely and skilled—people like Mohamed Atta, the careful and well-trained head of the 9/11 hijackers. Their leaders and recruiters can be lethally subtle and manipulative, but the quiet truth is that many of the deluded foot soldiers are foolish and untrained, perhaps even untrainable. Acknowledging this fact could help us tailor our counterterrorism priorities—and publicizing it could help us erode the powerful images of strength and piety that terrorists rely on for recruiting and funding.
Nowhere is the gap between sinister stereotype and ridiculous reality more apparent than in Afghanistan, where it’s fair to say that the Taliban employ the world’s worst suicide bombers: one in two manages to kill only himself. And this success rate hasn’t improved at all in the five years they’ve been using suicide bombers, despite the experience of hundreds of attacks—or attempted attacks. In Afghanistan, as in many cultures, a manly embrace is a time-honored tradition for warriors before they go off to face death. Thus, many suicide bombers never even make it out of their training camp or safe house, as the pressure from these group hugs triggers the explosives in suicide vests. According to several sources at the United Nations, as many as six would-be suicide bombers died last July after one such embrace in Paktika.
Many Taliban operatives are just as clumsy when suicide is not part of the plan. In November 2009, several Talibs transporting an improvised explosive device were killed when it went off unexpectedly. The blast also took out the insurgents’ shadow governor in the province of Balkh.
When terrorists do execute an attack, or come close, they often have security failures to thank, rather than their own expertise. Consider Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab—the Nigerian “Jockstrap Jihadist” who boarded a Detroit-bound jet in Amsterdam with a suicidal plan in his head and some explosives in his underwear. Although the media colored the incident as a sophisticated al-Qaeda plot, Abdulmutallab showed no great skill or cunning, and simple safeguards should have kept him off the plane in the first place. He was, after all, traveling without luggage, on a one-way ticket that he purchased with cash. All of this while being on a U.S. government watch list.
Fortunately, Abdulmutallab, a college-educated engineer, failed to detonate his underpants. A few months later another college grad, Faisal Shahzad, is alleged to have crudely rigged an SUV to blow up in Times Square. That plan fizzled and he was quickly captured, despite the fact that he was reportedly trained in a terrorist boot camp in Pakistan. Indeed, though many of the terrorists who strike in the West are well educated, their plots fail because they lack operational know-how. On June 30, 2007, two men—one a medical doctor, the other studying for his Ph.D.—attempted a brazen attack on Glasgow Airport. Their education did them little good. Planning to crash their propane-and-petrol-laden Jeep Cherokee into an airport terminal, the men instead steered the SUV, with flames spurting out its windows, into a security barrier. The fiery crash destroyed only the Jeep, and both men were easily apprehended; the driver later died from his injuries. (The day before, the same men had rigged two cars to blow up near a London nightclub. That plan was thwarted when one car was spotted by paramedics and the other, parked illegally, was removed by a tow truck. As a bonus for investigators, the would-be bombers’ cell phones, loaded with the phone numbers of possible accomplices, were salvaged from the cars.)
A similar streak of ineptitude has been on display in the United States, where many of those arrested on terrorism-related charges possess long criminal records and little sense of how to put a nefarious idea into action. A group of Miami men schemed (often while smoking marijuana) to attack targets in South Florida as well as the Sears Tower in Chicago, but they couldn’t get their hands on explosives and were uncovered when the FBI easily penetrated their ranks.
If our terrorist enemies have been successful at cultivating a false notion of expertise, they’ve done an equally convincing job of casting themselves as pious warriors of God. The Taliban and al-Qaeda rely on sympathizers who consider them devoted Muslims fighting immoral Western occupiers. But intelligence picked up by Predator drones and other battlefield cameras challenges that idea—sometimes rather graphically. One video, captured recently by the thermal-imagery technology housed in a sniper rifle, shows two Talibs in southern Afghanistan engaged in intimate relations with a donkey. Similar videos abound, including ground-surveillance footage that records a Talib fighter gratifying himself with a cow.
Pentagon officials and intelligence analysts concede privately that our foes also have a voracious appetite for pornography—hardly shocking behavior for young men, but hard to square with an image of piety. Many laptops seized from the Taliban and al-Qaeda are loaded with smut. U.S. intelligence analysts have devoted considerable time to poring over the terrorists’ favored Web sites, searching for hidden militant messages. “We have terabytes of this stuff,” said one Department of Defense al-Qaeda analyst, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It isn’t possible that they are encrypting messages in all of this stuff. Some of these guys are just perverts.”
Tawdry though this predilection for porn may be, it is not necessarily trivial. There is, after all, potential propaganda value in this kind of jihadist behavior. Current U.S. public diplomacy centers on selling America to the Muslim world, but we should also work to undermine some of the myths built up around our enemies by highlighting their incompetence, their moral failings, and their embarrassing antics. Beyond changing how the Muslim world perceives terrorists, we can help ourselves make smarter counterterrorism choices by being more realistic about the profile and aptitude of would-be attackers. More and more, as we work to disrupt training efforts, the jihadists we face are likely to be poorly prepared, and while that won’t always ensure a bungled attack, it suggests that terrorists are likely to select targets that are undefended and easy to hit. The United States has spent billions on port security since 9/11, even though terrorists have shown little interest in ports as targets and even less ability to actually strike them. In contrast, even small investments in training for police and airport-security personnel can make a big difference, as these are the people most likely to encounter—and have a chance to disrupt—an unskilled attacker.
The difference between a sophisticated killer like Mohamed Atta and so many of his hapless successors lies in training and inherent aptitude. Atta spent months learning his trade in Afghanistan and had the help of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership—a fact that underscores the importance of rooting out al-Qaeda havens in Pakistan. After all, fighting terrorism is a chore made simpler when we can keep the terrorists as inept as most of them naturally are.