Terrorism Is Not Effective

More effective ways to kill = terrorists are stupid, or killing not most important thing to them
sociology, politics
2009-04-142017-04-21 finished certainty: highly likely importance: 8

Ter­ror­ism is not about caus­ing ter­ror or casu­alties, but about other things. Evi­dence of this is the fact that, despite often con­sid­er­able resources spent, most ter­ror­ists are incom­pe­tent, impul­sive, pre­pare poorly for attacks, are incon­sis­tent in plan­ning, tend towards exotic & dif­fi­cult forms of attack such as bomb­ings, and in prac­tice inef­fec­tive: the modal num­ber of casu­al­ties per ter­ror­ist attack is near-ze­ro, and global ter­ror­ist annual casu­alty have been a round­ing error for decades. This is despite the fact that there are many exam­ples of extremely destruc­tive eas­i­ly-per­formed poten­tial acts of ter­ror­ism, such as poi­son­ing food sup­plies or rent­ing large trucks & run­ning crowds over or engag­ing in spo­radic sniper attacks.

One of the least com­monly noted pieces of evi­dence for the the­ory that Ter­ror­ism is not about Ter­ror (be­sides the other points like the com­plete fail­ure to obtain their pol­icy goals) is how unter­ri­fy­ing most ter­ror­ism is, and how attacks usu­ally have such low death tolls.

No ter­ror­ist group has achieved a kill rate any­where near a con­ven­tional mil­i­tary; and are vastly less than those death tolls for guer­rilla orga­ni­za­tions or dic­ta­tors. Stalin or Mao could, in a bad day, exceed the deaths caused by all inter­na­tional ter­ror­ism over the last 2 cen­turies1. , the crown­ing inci­dent of ter­ror­ism in those cen­turies, was equaled by just 29 days2 of car acci­dents in the USA345678—and 9/11 was only acci­den­tally that suc­cess­ful9! 9/11 is also a ster­ling exam­ple of the : besides it, how many attacks could the best informed West­ern cit­i­zen name? Per­haps a score, on a good day, if they have a good mem­o­ry; inas­much as the MIPT data­base records >19,000 just 1968-2004, it’s clear that ter­ri­fy­ingly excep­tional ter­ror­ist attacks are just that. Remark­ably, it seems that it is unusual for ter­ror­ist attacks to injure even a sin­gle per­son; the MIPT data­base puts the num­ber of such attacks at 35% of all attacks.10 Cer­tainly the post-9/11 record would seem to indi­cate it was a fluke11. And sta­tis­ti­cal­ly, it seems that for estab­lished ter­ror­ist groups, assas­si­nat­ing their leader does them a favor—they sur­vive longer, pre­sum­ably because they had ossi­fied.12 Many ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions keep very detailed finan­cial records (con­sider the troves of data seized from Al-Qaeda-in-I­raq, from Bin Laden’s safe­house, or Al Qaeda’s insis­tence on receipts), with lit­tle trust of under­lings, sug­gest­ing far less ide­o­log­i­cal devo­tion than com­monly believed & seri­ous . Sto­ries about ter­ror­ist incom­pe­tence are legion1314 and the topic is now played for laughs (eg. the 2010 movie 15), prompt­ing colum­nists to tell us to ignore all the incom­pe­tence and con­tinue to be afraid.

The mys­tery is that this does­n’t have to be the case. Mass mur­der is quite fea­si­ble with­out the tech­niques ter­ror­ists resort to. We don’t even have to resort to spec­u­la­tion to improve on the con­tem­po­rary ter­ror­ist state-of-the-art16; his­tory teaches us quite enough.

The most famous ter­ror­ist attacks like the (10 attack­ers killed >173, wounded >308) may not suf­fice to prove the point that ‘grand spec­ta­cle’ ter­ror­ism is inef­fi­cient in killing, since the Pak­istani sup­port under­mines the fact of their low-tech sim­ple approach (ex­ten­sive state spon­sor­ship, arm­ing, train­ing, engag­ing in lit­er­ally an amphibi­ous assault, and real­time intelligence/advice from their Pak­istani han­dler­s), and nev­er­the­less, the effi­ciency per-at­tacker was far below many other instances of ter­ror­ism (like Breivik or Nice). But we can point to oth­ers:

  1. The inci­dent, involv­ing nee­dles found in straw­ber­ries, cost rel­a­tively lit­tle (only a few grower bank­rupt­cies & esti­mates of sales losses as low as $12 mil­lion), but is strik­ing because the orig­i­nal stil­l-un­known cul­prit may have planted only a few needles, and the rest were done by copy­cats

  2. The 1982 (7 deaths, national pan­ic, cul­prit remains unknown) seem to have involved noth­ing more com­pli­cated than some shoplift­ing, dump­ing in some cyanide, and putting the bot­tles back on the shelves; this forced the recall & destruc­tion of $100m (2017: $254m) of Tylenol prod­ucts, indus­try-wide upgrades of tam­per-ev­i­dent safety seals & pack­age seal­ing & pills, and large losses in sales.

  3. Some pes­ti­cide in the wrong place can cost a nation $150 mil­lion17,

    • a com­pany >$250 mil­lion18,
    • or a con­ti­nent $1.5 bil­lion.19
  4. And an 20 cost the Chilean econ­omy $300 mil­lion.21

Competent murders

The nat­ural com­par­ison, of course, is to pri­vate cit­i­zens with­out gov­ern­ment or orga­ni­za­tional back­ing who set out to kill a lot of peo­ple over a brief, no more than few days long, peri­od. Or as we call them where I come from, ‘mass mur­der­ers’; but let’s nar­row things down: how many peo­ple can you kill in a short period of time? Let us con­sult Wikipedia which – ever help­ful – has even com­piled a sorted list for us: “”.

The 2001 killed 108 peo­ple and was offi­cially blamed on an unem­ployed deaf man. As of 2010, the global record for undis­puted attacks was held by one , who killed 56-6222 peo­ple in 1982, with an hon­or­able men­tion to (57 con­firmed kills as of 1957). The US record goes to with 32 kills in 2007 (the US record being bro­ken by in 2016 with 49 kill­s). Bum-kon lost the record in 2011 to the Nor­we­gian who killed 8 with a bomb and then killed 69 campers with firearms23, total­ing 77 kills. This record was bro­ken 5 years later in the by Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouh­lel, with 84+ deaths.

The most strik­ing thing one notices in the entries is how these atroc­i­ties rarely involve extremely elab­o­rate prepa­ra­tions, and how min­i­mal the equip­ment was:

  • Bum-kon’s Uiryeong mas­sacre was lit­er­ally on the spur of the moment, when he got drunk after an argu­ment with his girl­friend; some­what unusu­al­ly, he had access to grenades via the police, but the grenades arguably did not con­tribute to the death toll24.
  • William Unek killed his first 21 peo­ple with just an axe.
  • In the Japan­ese , Katō had noth­ing but a rented truck and a knife, nor any known mar­tial arts train­ing or espe­cial fit­ness—and yet, in a large crowd with mul­ti­ple police already at the scene, he still man­aged to kill 7 peo­ple and wound 10. In the 2016-07-26 , the attacker Satoshi Uematsu killed 19 peo­ple & injured 26. (Like Bum-kon’s mas­sacre, Uematsu ben­e­fited from the late-night cir­cum­stances, as almost all of the men­tally & phys­i­cally hand­i­capped peo­ple were stabbed in their sleep.) The wit­nessed 8 men & women with knives kill >33 peo­ple and injure >143, while an 2015-09-18 attack by 9 attack­ers killed 50 peo­ple (see also ). The (ex­actly what it sounds like) killed 17.
  • Cho had two pis­tols, bought a few weeks before the Vir­ginia Tech mas­sacre. Seung-Hui made the most elab­o­rate prepa­ra­tions (videos & let­ters, mul­ti­ple gun store trip­s), but one still has the impres­sion that he could’ve fin­ished all his prepa­ra­tions in just a few hours.
  • The one that did, Anders Breivik, is almost the excep­tion that proves the rule—he had bought fer­til­izer in May 2011, months before the attack, but that bomb was almost a non-event: he killed an order of mag­ni­tude more in the sec­ond attack with his firearms. (He appar­ently worked on his 1500-­page man­i­festo for 2 years, though he did­n’t kill any­one by drop­ping it on them.)
  • Omar Matene sim­ply entered a night­club with a hand­gun and semi­-au­to­matic rifle (hav­ing failed at buy­ing body armor because he went to the wrong store first, then was turned away at the sec­ond) and started shoot­ing; he bluffed about hav­ing bombs dur­ing the attack, but oth­er­wise had made no fur­ther prepa­ra­tions
  • Bouh­lel had acquired a small arse­nal of weapons, most of which were fake or bro­ken; his main weapon was sim­ply a rented truck he ran peo­ple over with

The speed with which these mass mur­ders were pre­pared and car­ried out are quite shock­ing when we com­pare them to the mul­ti­ple years and intri­cate multi­na­tional ter­ror­ist net­work it took to bring 9/11 to fruition. I am not the only one to notice this, nor is Schneier25; the ter­ror­ists them­selves know it, accord­ing to STRATFOR:

It must be remem­bered that sim­ple ter­ror­ist attacks are rel­a­tively easy to con­duct, espe­cially if the assailant is not con­cerned about escap­ing after the attack. As jihadist groups such as have noted in their online pro­pa­gan­da, a deter­mined per­son can con­duct attacks using a vari­ety of sim­ple weapons, from a pickup truck to a knife, axe or gun. Jihadist ide­o­logues have repeat­edly praised and have pointed out that jihadists oper­at­ing with mod­est expec­ta­tions and act­ing within the scope of their train­ing and capa­bil­ity can do far more dam­age than oper­a­tives who try to con­duct big, ambi­tious attacks that they lack the basic skills to com­plete.

OK. So this alone sug­gests that per­haps ter­ror­ists are, to put it mild­ly, adopt­ing sub­op­ti­mal tech­niques for killing peo­ple. But wait! These are impres­sive body counts, but maybe ter­ror­ists are hop­ing to win the lot­tery and achieve a 9/11 attack (even though for every 9/11, there are dozens & hun­dreds of attacks which kill 10 or 20 peo­ple, or even only the ter­ror­ist). After all, the 19 ter­ror­ists aver­aged 157 kills just in that one attack. That’s nearly 3 times Bum-kon’s life­time total.

Competent soldiers

Now we should shift com­par­isons. Civil­ian­s—with min­i­mal prepa­ra­tion, with no train­ing, with noth­ing spe­cial what­so­ever about them—­can kill up to 60 peo­ple. What could some­one with years of prepa­ra­tion and hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars avail­able26 do?

Well, I can’t answer that. But I can point to an inter­est­ing exam­ple.

was a Finnish in the , when the Soviet Union invaded Fin­land. He ulti­mately killed over 54227 Rus­sians – and sur­vived the war.

Now, Simo was a rare marks­man; this is true. But con­sider the hand­i­caps he labored under:

  • he is fight­ing in Fin­land in the depths of an unusu­ally harsh win­ter;
  • he is sub­ject to mil­i­tary discipline/constraints;
  • he is in the mid­dle of a ful­l-s­cale con­ven­tional war, where life is cheap and death could come at any moment if he is on the wrong side of the shift­ing bound­aries;
  • he is using a rel­a­tively old and ordi­nary bolt-ac­tion rifle with iron sights;
  • he is being specif­i­cally tar­geted by the Rus­sians (who are not mil­i­tary incom­pe­tents, even after Stal­in’s purges), who are dis­patch­ing their own snipers and artillery squadrons for the sole pur­pose of killing him; etc.

Simo was work­ing in chal­leng­ing con­di­tions, let us say.

But a mod­ern sniper can buy the finest rifles on the mar­ket, and can con­fine his activ­i­ties to tem­per­ate areas where he does not need to freeze his tookis while wait­ing for a shot. He is opposed only by police and para­mil­i­tary orga­ni­za­tions with lit­tle train­ing or even famil­iar­ity with coun­ter-s­niper weapons and tac­tics. (It is not as if they have ever had to!) He can travel any­where within the coun­try and wait indef­i­nitely for his next attack. The many his­tor­i­cal exam­ples of teach us this dis­turb­ing lesson: if he is con­trolled and patient, a man can kill indef­i­nitely even while mak­ing close per­sonal con­tact with the vic­tim and killing in inef­fi­cient ways. (One run­ning theme with ser­ial killers is how effec­tive sim­ply pick­ing ran­dom vic­tims is at pre­vent­ing cap­ture or even iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of vic­tims, eg despite pro­vid­ing a count & descrip­tions, 6+ mur­ders remain uniden­ti­fied and cer­tainly would have never been solved). How much more so could a sniper pick­ing ran­dom tar­gets!

The Belt­way snipers offer an (in­com­pe­tent) exam­ple: the nation was trans­fixed and hor­ri­fied, the DC area grid­locked for weeks, and extra­or­di­nary mea­sures were taken like the Sec­re­tary of Defense autho­riz­ing the deploy­ment of Army . Another dubi­ous exam­ple comes cour­tesy of the Swedish shooter who eluded cap­ture for 6 months despite crip­pling his guns with pseudo-si­lencers, walk­ing up to sev­eral of his 11 vic­tims, and rob­bing banks on a bicy­cle.

It is not unrea­son­able to think that a ter­ror­ist-s­niper could kill indef­i­nite­ly, at a high tem­po. If he shot one per­son a mon­th, he will exceed Bum-kon in just 5 years. If the 20 9/11 hijack­ers had instead become snipers, they would at that slow rate match Simo in 2 years or so, and 9/11 in ~12 years. And they could keep on killing. It’s not like they have to retire after a decade or two.

Why not?

Propaganda, not deaths

So if all these other meth­ods are eas­ier, or more effec­tive, then why do ter­ror­ists like hijack­ings and bomb­ings? Stu­pid­ity or fanati­cism might explain why one group would sab­o­tage itself, but it can’t explain all groups for cen­turies.

One pos­si­ble expla­na­tion is given by Ter­ror and Con­sent – the is more effec­tive when the killings are spec­tac­u­lar (even if inef­fi­cien­t). The dead bod­ies aren’t really the goal.

But is this really plau­si­ble? Try to con­sider the ter­ror­ist-s­niper plan I sug­gest above. Imag­ine that 20 unknown & anony­mous peo­ple are, every mon­th, killing one per­son in a tri-s­tate area28. There’s no rea­son, there’s no ratio­nale. The killings hap­pen like clock­work once a month. The gov­ern­ment is pow­er­less to do any­thing about it, but their national & local responses are tremen­dously expen­sive (as they are hir­ing secu­rity forces and buy­ing equip­ment like mad). The killings can hap­pen any­where at any time; last mon­th’s was at a Wal-­mart in the neigh­bor­ing town. The month before that, a kid com­ing out of the library. You haven’t even worked up the courage to read about the other 19 slay­ings last month by this group, and you know that as the month is end­ing next week another 20 are due. And you also know that this will go on indef­i­nite­ly, and may even get worse—who’s to say this group isn’t recruit­ing and send­ing more snipers into the coun­try?

Con­sider the after 9/11. In my mem­o­ry, the sheer ter­ror and reflex­ive jin­go­ism that gripped the coun­try after 9/11 was at least dou­bled dur­ing them.

The anthrax attacks killed very few peo­ple & a tiny per­cent­age of 9/11 (0.17%29). But their ran­dom­ness and dura­tion through time made them deeply & irra­tionally fright­en­ing.

Just 5 peo­ple died of anthrax over the 3 weeks of the anthrax attacks; and peo­ple were pan­icked. How much more dev­as­tat­ing would it have been if it had been 20 peo­ple who had died? Or if the mail­ings had con­tin­ued month after mon­th? I think that it would have been much more effec­tive, and that this sup­ports the value of my sniper plot30.

Social factors

If I may, the social expla­na­tion (see my “”) explains much about ter­ror­ism, and in par­tic­u­lar it explains this odd­i­ty. Have you never dis­cussed flip­ping out or going postal or car­ry­ing out a ter­ror­ist attack with your friends? Have you noticed that always it is the elab­o­rate and fun-­to-dis­cuss attacks you dis­cuss?31 (Have you noticed how inter­est­ing a topic the ques­tion “how many peo­ple could some­one eas­ily kill?” is, and how many sub­ject areas it draws upon?)

No ter­ror­ist says to him­self, “I’m going to fol­low a bor­ing but effec­tive strat­e­gy: I’ll enlist, get sniper train­ing, and kill a cou­ple hun­dred civil­ians”—even though it worked so well for Simo against much more chal­leng­ing tar­gets.

This kind of strat­egy would accom­plish much more than a reg­u­lar sui­cide bomb­ing, but they never do it or any halfway effec­tive strat­e­gy. (I refer again to “Why Ter­ror­ism does­n’t work”; if many ter­ror­ists failed to adopt effec­tive strate­gies, that’d be one thing—but just about all of them? That’s a sys­temic fail­ure which requires a sys­temic expla­na­tion.)

They don’t want to adopt mil­i­tary dis­ci­pline, train in sniper tac­tics and marks­man­ship for years, and sep­a­rate per­ma­nent­ly.

It’d spoil the fun.


On the absence of true fanatics

“The Benef­i­cence of Oth­ers”, Abstruse Goose

“A few hon­est men are bet­ter than num­bers.”

, let­ter to Sir William Spring (Sep­tem­ber 1643)

“If we were bees, ants, or Lacedae­mon­ian war­riors, to whom per­sonal fear does not exist and cow­ardice is the most shame­ful thing in the world, war­ring would go on for­ev­er. But luck­ily we are only men—and cow­ards.”


The famous reports that a knife man can cover 21 feet & stab in just 1.5 sec­ond­s—­faster than most trained peo­ple can draw and shoot a gun. While vic­tims fight back, they are still dis­patched in sec­onds32.

There is a les­son here. I take away this mes­sage: most peo­ple don’t really care. Most orga­ni­za­tions lack . The exis­ten­tial­ists tell us we have tremen­dous power & free­dom but we don’t use it and we for­get it except on occa­sion when we read with awe of prodi­gious feats by reli­gious fig­ures like or or the end­less marathons, or enjoy fic­tional exam­ples. I agree that we have tremen­dous destruc­tive pow­ers, but this also implies that we have lim­ited con­struc­tive pow­ers. (De­struc­tive pow­ers don’t inter­fere with each oth­er, but they mean that it is far harder to cre­ate than to destroy. Any­one can destroy a DVD with ease, but to man­u­fac­ture it, much less cre­ate what­ever it stored, is much hard­er—a task fit for an entire coun­try or civ­i­liza­tion.)

Destruc­tion can be use­ful though. Many peo­ple all over the polit­i­cal spec­trum has expressed earnest desires in the last few years to destroy some group or insti­tu­tion. Ter­ror­ists come to mind.

But the odd thing is, very lit­tle destruc­tion has hap­pened. A nut with a gun has an aver­age kill or destruc­tion rate bet­ter than that of your aver­age ter­ror­ist. A lit­tle effec­tive plan­ning, and a nut could do a lot. is a case in point. Despite unre­lent­ing police oppo­si­tion, he and his armored bull­dozer destroyed 13 build­ings worth $7 mil­lion. He was stopped by his own incom­pe­tence when he drove the bull­dozer into a base­ment; he then com­mit­ted sui­cide.

I also point out a far more effec­tive ter­ror­ist strat­egy than exist­ing ones in the pre­ced­ing essay on ter­ror­ism.

A good answer for ter­ror­ists specif­i­cally is the social one; but what about every­one else? Why do they not pur­sue their tar­gets with all the highly effec­tive means pos­si­ble?

The answer is moti­va­tion and val­ues. We value ordi­nary com­forts & life. The power is avail­able to us only at the cost of every­thing else. Fruit­ful com­par­i­son might be made with idiot savants or autis­tics with obses­sive inter­ests, or less patho­log­i­cal­ly, sub­groups like ‘otaku’ or ‘’.

Fic­tional exam­ples are also of inter­est. offers us the —a genius vari­ety of human who are obsessed with pro­tect­ing their kin­dred. Though described as super-in­tel­li­gences, Niven, being an ordi­nary human him­self, depicts Pak feats within reach of a moti­vated human. pos­tu­lates ‘Focus’ in his : a or per­ma­nent state of being —with the that implies. (It is worth not­ing that stud­ies of human genius fre­quently say that raw IQ and tal­ent suf­fer dimin­ish­ing returns past 130 IQ, such that while very high IQ indi­vid­u­als are still far more likely to make break­throughs or reach the heights of pro­fes­sional accom­plish­ment than any lower per­centiles (see for exam­ple the SMPY life­time achieve­ment result­s), there’s still a good chance of being fairly ordi­nary and they don’t come off as an entirely dif­fer­ent species—per­haps because they are held back by being less excep­tional in other key ways like moti­va­tion, open­mind­ed­ness, con­sci­en­tious­ness, extra­ver­sion, or mono­ma­nia, traits which cur­rently can­not be affect­ed.)

Fanat­ics are fright­en­ing. Sui­cide tac­tics in even small quan­ti­ties can be highly effec­tive. The Jew­ish , or Japan­ese are cases in point. Though small in num­ber, they were more effec­tive than con­ven­tional meth­ods. (Kamikazes were neu­tral­ized by the end of WWII, but only by vast oppo­si­tion—hun­dreds of defend­ing planes, pick­ets sta­tioned more than 50 miles away, improved artillery, etc.) That ter­ror­ists do so lit­tle enhances this point: one was so effec­tive that for a mil­lion dol­lars or two at most, it trig­gered the expen­di­ture (and waste) of thou­sands of lives and lit­er­ally tril­lions of dol­lars. 1 or 2 mil­lion dol­lars would­n’t even buy a dic­ta­tor a worth­less tank which the USAF could bomb! Com­pare this to some­thing like , which has deter­minedly avoided vio­lence, in a mis­guided attempt to shame the shame­less and inspire action. (The shame seems impor­tant; Gandhi suc­ceeded with min­i­mal vio­lence on his part because he waged in essence a pro­pa­ganda cam­paign against the British elite, who never before had trou­ble hold­ing India, while it is often for­got­ten that Nel­son Man­dela was a ter­ror­ist, per­haps because the South African elites were uni­fied and could not be sim­ply shamed—so the ANC switched to inter­na­tional pro­pa­ganda com­bined with long-term threat­s.) Moral sua­sion is nei­ther suf­fi­cient nor nec­es­sary, and I sus­pected OWS would run into a sim­i­lar fate as the : burned out of their camps, dis­persed, and ulti­mately as effec­tive as the anar­chists and social­ists of yore who were giants com­pared to their pusil­lan­i­mous con­tem­po­raries. As it turned out, OWS was eas­ily dis­persed by police when they tried, and at least of August 2013, the OWS pro­gramme has been a fail­ure & they have dis­ap­peared from national con­scious­ness.

The idea of elite cohe­sion (or ) is an inter­est­ing one; what I won­der, as I watch mod­ern pol­i­tics, is ‘are the cur­rent Anglos­phere elites more or less cohe­sive than past cohorts, and if they are, is this due to free mar­ket ide­olo­gies and mech­a­nisms which serve to pun­ish dis­si­dents and ele­vate those who are capa­ble [so­cio­pathic and intel­li­gent enough to ’sparkle’?] and also who wish to defend and cleave to the sta­tus quo?’ Some inter­est­ing quotes from “Insight: The Wall Street dis­con­nect”:

Paul­son responded by putting out a press release that described his $28 bil­lion, 120-per­son fund as an exem­plar of the Amer­i­can Dream: “Instead of vil­i­fy­ing our most suc­cess­ful busi­ness­es, we should be sup­port­ing them and encour­ag­ing them to remain in New York City.” Other cap­tains of finance like to por­tray them­selves as hum­ble entre­pre­neurs. One owner of a mul­ti­-­bil­lion-­dol­lar hedge fund grum­bled in the midst of the finan­cial cri­sis that he has to worry not only about mak­ing trad­ing deci­sions but also about “all the has­sles that come with run­ning a small busi­ness.”…“I think every­one gets what the anger is about… But you just can’t say, ‘Well I want all debts for­giv­en.’ That is not hap­pen­ing,” says one West Coast trader, who like most still work­ing in the finan­cial ser­vices indus­try, declined to be iden­ti­fied by name in this arti­cle…“At first I had friends who were scratch­ing their heads at the protests,” says Ader…Thomas Atte­ber­ry, a part­ner and port­fo­lio man­ager with Los Ange­les-based First Pacific Advi­sors, a $16 bil­lion money man­age­ment firm, says his suc­cess “was­n’t a gift” and he had to work hard to get where he is. Atte­berry says he under­stands the frus­tra­tion many feel about income inequal­i­ty. But he said the prob­lem isn’t with those who are suc­cess­ful, but rather our “tax codes and reg­u­la­tions.”…Many of Amer­i­ca’s well-­to-­do, not just Wall Streeters, say they don’t feel par­tic­u­larly advan­taged. A recent sur­vey by mar­ket­ing firm HNW Inc. found that half of the nation’s rich­est 1% “don’t see them­selves as being part of that elite group.” Also, 44% of those sur­veyed told HNW’s poll­sters they already pay too much in tax­es….“I think Wall Street has­n’t taken in how much anger there is out there and they haven’t taken par­tial respon­si­bil­ity for the finan­cial cri­sis,” says Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion fel­low Dou­glas Elliott, who was an invest­ment banker for two decades before join­ing the lib­er­al-ori­ented pub­lic pol­icy group. “I think both sides—Wall Street and Main Street—misun­der­stand each oth­er.”

Sup­pose peo­ple angry at Gold­man Sachs were truly angry: so angry that they went beyond pos­tur­ing and beyond act­ing against Gold­man Sachs only if action were guar­an­teed to cost them noth­ing (like writ­ing a blog post). If they ceased to care about whether legal pro­ceed­ings might be filed against them; if they become obsessed with destroy­ing Gold­man Sachs, if they devoted their lives to it and could ignore all bod­ily urges and crea­ture com­forts. If they could be, in a word, like Niven’s Pro­tec­tors or Vinge’s Focused.

Could they do it? Could they destroy a 3 cen­tury old cor­po­ra­tion with close to $1 tril­lion in assets, with sym­pa­thiz­ers and for­mer employ­ees through­out the upper ech­e­lons of the United States Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment (it­self the sin­gle most pow­er­ful entity in the world)?

Absolute­ly. It would be easy.

As I said, the destruc­tive power of a human is great; let’s assume we have 100 fanat­ic­s—a van­ish­ingly small frac­tion of those who have hated on GS over the years—will­ing to engage even in assas­si­na­tion, a his­tor­i­cally effec­tive tac­tic33 and per­haps the sin­gle most effec­tive tac­tic avail­able to an indi­vid­ual or small group.

explains the basic the­ory of in a 2006 essay, “State and Ter­ror­ist Con­spir­a­cies” / “Con­spir­acy as Gov­er­nance”: cor­po­ra­tions and con­spir­a­cies form a net­work; the more effi­ciently com­mu­ni­ca­tion flows, the more pow­er­ful a graph is; the graph, or impede com­mu­ni­ca­tion (through leaks which cause self­-in­flicted wounds of secrecy & para­noia), and its power goes down. Carry this to its log­i­cal extreme…

If all links between con­spir­a­tors are cut then there is no con­spir­a­cy. This is usu­ally hard to do, so we ask our first ques­tion: What is the min­i­mum num­ber of links that must be cut to sep­a­rate the con­spir­acy into two groups of equal num­ber? (di­vide and con­quer). The answer depends on the struc­ture of the con­spir­a­cy. Some­times there are no alter­na­tive paths for con­spir­a­to­r­ial infor­ma­tion to flow between con­spir­a­tors, other times there are many. This is a use­ful and inter­est­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of a con­spir­a­cy. For instance, by assas­si­nat­ing one ‘bridge’ con­spir­a­tor, it may be pos­si­ble to split the con­spir­a­cy. But we want to say some­thing about all con­spir­a­cies.

We don’t. We’re inter­ested in shat­ter­ing a spe­cific con­spir­acy by the name of Gold­man Sachs. GS has ~30,000 employ­ees. Not all graphs are , but all trees are , and cor­po­ra­tions are usu­ally struc­tured as trees. If GS’s hier­ar­chy is sim­i­lar to that of a , then to com­pletely knock out the 8 top lev­els, one only needs to elim­i­nate 256 nodes. The top 6 lev­els would require only 64 nodes.

If one knocked out the top 6 lev­els, then each of the remain­ing sub­trees in level 7 has no pri­or­ity over the rest. And there will be or 64 such subtrees/nodes. It is safe to say that 64 sub­-­cor­po­ra­tions, each poten­tially headed by some­one who wants a bat­tle­field pro­mo­tion to head­ing the entire thing, would have trou­ble agree­ing on how to recon­struct the hier­ar­chy. The stock­hold­ers might be expected to step in at this point, but the Board of Direc­tors would be included in the top of the hier­ar­chy, and by def­i­n­i­tion, they rep­re­sent the major­ity of stock­hold­ers.

We could in fact par­ti­tion a binary tree in half just by assas­si­nat­ing the root node, the CEO, and this has become a revived strat­egy in this age of the cor­po­ra­tion; , “Pierc­ing the Cor­po­rate Veil”:

CEO kid­nap­ping isn’t new. It is com­mon prac­tice in Brazil, Mex­i­co, etc. The dif­fer­ence in Iraq is the motive. In Iraq, it isn’t purely finan­cial gain. It is being used as a way to unravel the fledg­ling Iraqi gov­ern­ment. Here’s why. Amer­i­ca’s sec­ond largest ally in Iraq isn’t the UK. Not even close. Cor­po­ra­tions like Hal­libur­ton pro­vide almost as many trig­ger pullers and engi­neers as the US Army. They are the bat­tal­ions of foot sol­diers in Thomas Bar­net­t’s sys-ad­min force – con­nect­ing Iraq to the US and the world. This role con­verts CEOs into generals/colonels in the US glob­al­iza­tion machine (lead­ers of new entrants in the rapidly expand­ing long tail of war­fare). They are now legit­i­mate and highly prized tar­gets.

…The cor­po­ra­tion is a par­tic­u­larly bad orga­ni­za­tion for war­fare. It is much too cen­tral­ized. The insti­tu­tion of the CEO is a par­tic­u­lar weak­ness (a in global guer­rilla lin­go). The CEO’s net­work cen­tral­ity makes him/her a sin­gle point of fail­ure for the entire cor­po­rate organ­is­m….

  • Finan­cial trau­ma. The depar­ture of the CEO from a pub­lic com­pany can cre­ate sub­stan­tial mar­ket volatil­ity in the com­pa­ny’s stock (see this Fed study for more) for up to two years after the event. Note: This volatil­ity offers the incen­tive of rapid finan­cial gains to guer­ril­las with the fore­knowl­edge of attacks through lever­aged invest­ments in options and deriv­a­tives…

…a CEO is an excel­lent strate­gic tar­get as well as a tac­ti­cal tar­get. As a rule of thumb, I would con­sider all CEOs that reside/work within a nation-s­tate at war with non-s­tate guer­ril­las at risk. Under almost all mea­sures of this new method of war­fare, CEOs are bet­ter tar­gets than gov­ern­ment or mil­i­tary offi­cials. Remem­ber, in this flat world, it is easy to pull up a CEO’s name, address, credit his­to­ry, and even a satel­lite photo of his/her home from a Cyber Cafe in Peshawar.

A wor­ri­some coun­ter-ex­am­ple is , which lost an entire office and 2⁄3 of its head­count on 9/11, but is still around. But this fits into the graph for­mal­ism well if we look at the details and notice that the dam­age was entirely con­fined to a sin­gle group in CF. An office is just a sub­graph—los­ing an entire office meant that the hier­ar­chy was pre­served: one sub­tree was lopped off, and the main tree con­tin­ued. Every sur­vivor knew where they were in the hier­ar­chy. “The Sur­vivor Who Saw the Future for Can­tor Fitzger­ald”, reveals many inter­est­ing details from the ‘attack’ point of view rel­e­vant to the graph per­spec­tive:

  • Can­tor was the linch­pin of its busi­ness (“In 2001, more than 70% of all Trea­suries were traded through Can­tor.”), a busi­ness which, thanks almost directly to 9/11 and the sub­se­quent inva­sions of Afghanistan & Iraq with the con­tin­ued deficits & war-spend­ing, was about to boom from $5.7 tril­lion to $16.1t 2000-2012:

    …based on data released by the com­pany and pay­outs to fam­i­lies, Can­tor and eSpeed made about $150 mil­lion a year, on aver­age, in the five years after the attacks. For all its losses and sor­rows, Can­tor actu­ally had the wind at its back. eSpeed thrived in 2002 and 2003 thanks in part to the nation’s bal­loon­ing debt. As the gov­ern­ment sold more bonds to finance its deficit, the bond mar­ket grew and Can­tor had more Trea­suries to trade.

  • the Can­tor CEO and chair­man, Howard W. Lut­nick, worked in the NYC office yet by sheer luck hap­pened to not be there

  • Can­tor had a Lon­don office and which was able to han­dle Can­tor’s main busi­ness:

    Unable to reach Mr. Lut­nick on Sept. 11, Lee Amaitis, the head of the Lon­don office and a close friend, began map­ping out a plan. He helped recon­fig­ure Can­tor’s trad­ing sys­tems so that trades could be processed through Lon­don, rather than New York. Mr. Lut­nick and his remain­ing employ­ees in New York soon decamped to a win­dow­less com­puter cen­ter in Rochelle Park, N.J. Thanks to eSpeed, Can­tor could clear its trades elec­tron­i­cal­ly. Forty-­seven hours after the planes hit, as the bond mar­ket ner­vously reopened for busi­ness, so did Can­tor.

  • the afore­men­tioned eSpeed was also cru­cial—the humans were not that nec­es­sary:

    In 1999, he took pub­lic Can­tor’s elec­tronic trad­ing sub­sidiary, eSpeed. Some of his bro­kers feared that such elec­tronic trad­ing sys­tems would even­tu­ally put them out of work. In fact, Mr. Lut­nick’s elec­tronic push helped Can­tor stay afloat after Sept. 11. Can­tor lost almost all of its bro­ker­s—but eSpeed did­n’t need bro­kers. With­out the new trad­ing tech­nol­o­gy, Can­tor might have gone under. “In a way, eSpeed saved them,” says Richard Repet­to, an ana­lyst at San­dler O’Neill, which itself lost 66 employ­ees at the World Trade Cen­ter.

One could launch the attack dur­ing a board meet­ing or sim­i­lar gath­er­ing, and hope to have 1 fanatic take out 10 or 20 tar­gets. But let’s be pes­simistic and assume each fanatic can only account for 1 tar­get—even if they spend months and years recon­noi­ter­ing and prepar­ing fanat­i­cal­ly.

This leaves us 36 fanat­ics. GS will be at a min­i­mum impaired dur­ing the attack; finan­cial com­pa­nies almost uniquely oper­ate on such tight sched­ules that one day’s dis­rup­tion can open the door to pre­da­tion. We’ll assign 1 fanatic the task of research­ing emails and tele­phone num­bers and addresses of GS rivals; after a few years of con­stant schmooz­ing and FOIA requests and dump­ster-­div­ing, he ought to be able to reach major traders at said rivals. (This can be done by hir­ing or becom­ing a hacker group—as has already pen­e­trated Gold­man Sachs—or pos­si­bly sim­ply by and sources like a .) When the ham­mer goes down, he’ll fire off noti­fi­ca­tions and sug­ges­tions to his con­tacts34. (For bonus points, he will then go off on an addi­tional sui­cide mis­sion.)

GS claims to have offices in all major finan­cial hubs. Offhand, I would expect that to be no more than 10 or 20 offices worth attack­ing. We assign 20 of our remain­ing 35 fanat­ics the tasks of build­ing Okla­homa City-­sized truck bombs. (This will take a while because mod­ern fer­til­izer is con­t­a­m­i­nated specif­i­cally to pre­vent this; our fanat­ics will have to research how to undo the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion or acquire alter­nate explo­sives. The exam­ple of reminds us that sim­ple guns may be bet­ter tools than bomb­s.) The 20 bombs may not elim­i­nate the offices com­plete­ly, but they should take care of demor­al­iz­ing the 29,000 in the lower ranks and punch a num­ber of holes in the sur­viv­ing sub­trees.

Let’s assume the 20 bom­b-builders die dur­ing the bomb­ing or remain to pick off sur­vivors and obstruct res­cue ser­vices as long as pos­si­ble.

What shall we do with our remain­ing 15 agents? The offices lay in ruins. The cor­po­rate lords are dead. The lower ranks are run­ning around in utter con­fu­sion, with long-op­pressed sub­or­di­nates wak­ing to real­ize that becom­ing CEO is a live pos­si­bil­i­ty. The rivals have been tak­ing advan­tage of GS’s dis­ar­ray as much as pos­si­ble (although likely the mar­kets would be in the process of shut­ting down).

15 is almost enough to assign one per office. What else could one do besides attack the office and its con­tents? Data cen­ters are a good choice, but hard­ware is very replace­able and attack­ing them might impede the rivals’ efforts. One would want to destroy the soft­ware GS uses in trad­ing, but to do that one would have to attack the source repos­i­to­ries; those are likely either in the offices already or dif­fi­cult to trace. (You’ll notice that we haven’t assigned our fanat­ics any­thing par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult or sub­tle so far. I do this to try to make it seem as fea­si­ble as pos­si­ble; if I had fanat­ics becom­ing mas­ter hack­ers and infil­trat­ing GS’s net­works to make dis­as­trous trades that bank­rupt the com­pa­ny, peo­ple might say ‘aw, they may be fanat­i­cally moti­vat­ed, but they could­n’t really do that’.)

It’s not enough to sim­ply dam­age GS once. We must attack on the psy­cho­log­i­cal plane: we must make it so that peo­ple fear to ever again work for any­thing related to GS.

Let us pos­tu­late one of our 15 agents was assigned a research task. He was to get the addresses of all GS employ­ees. (We may have already needed this for our sur­gi­cal strike.) He can do this by what­ever mean: being hired by GS’s HR depart­ment, infil­trat­ing elec­tron­i­cal­ly, break­ing in and steal­ing ran­dom hard dri­ves, —what­ev­er. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Divvy the addresses up into 14 areas cen­tered around offices, and assign the remain­ing 14 agents to travel to each address in their area and kill any­one there. A man may be will­ing to risk his own life for fab­u­lous gains in GS—but will he risk his fam­i­ly? (And fam­i­lies are easy tar­gets too. If the 14 agents begin before the main attacks, it will be a while before the Gold­man Sachs link becomes appar­ent. Shoot­ing some­one is easy; get­ting away with it is the hard part.)

I would be shocked if Gold­man Sachs could sur­vive even half the agents.

The reader will object that this is an absurd mad intel­lec­tual game! Which it is. Where are 100 humans who would not flinch at such cold-blooded mass mur­der, who will devote unceas­ing years to the mis­sion, who will live on $1 of bul­gur pilaf a day to save money for bombs & bribes?

Coordination problems

Why do large coun­tries like France35 or China focus on ham­mer­ing smooth all their eth­nic and lin­guis­tic diver­sity and estab­lish­ing “patri­o­tism”? Why did find that “diver­sity” in Amer­ica cor­re­lated with low com­mu­nity trust, pub­lic goods, char­i­ty, friends, and qual­ity of life? Why do our 100 fanat­ics seem the stuff of fic­tion? Read­ing in eco­nom­ics once, I hit the phrase “all eco­nom­ics is ”, and it seemed exactly true to me: why do busi­nesses have all these man­agers and infra­struc­ture and sheer appar­ent waste? Because of and sim­i­lar issues, all of which can be con­strued as coor­di­na­tion prob­lems. Why do we need them? Because there are so many het­ero­ge­neous peo­ple involved, all dif­fer­ing in var­i­ous ways with dif­fer­ent inter­ests, and they need to be ham­mered into a coher­ent force.

Why not just select sim­i­lar peo­ple, elim­i­nate this mas­sive over­head of coor­di­na­tion, and just let them work on stuff? After all, this seems to be exactly what hap­pens in places like the Apollo pro­gram or the spy satel­lite pro­grams, star­tups like Github or Apple or Google or Microsoft; far from illus­trat­ing how “diver­sity is strength”, these pro­grams seem to thrive on being a homo­ge­neous clus­ter of geeky young male White/Asian techs shar­ing the same cul­tural shib­bo­leths like Star Wars or Monty Python, with a strik­ing absence of wom­en, blacks, His­pan­ics, or human­i­ties types. If this bla­tant sys­tem­atic dis­crim­i­na­tion was not use­ful, why do we see so few star­tups blast­ing apart estab­lished tech giants with their under­priced wom­en? (Alan Greenspan, for exam­ple, ran a prof­itable eco­nom­ics firm using dis­crim­i­nat­ed-a­gainst women.) The easy answer is sim­ply that the dis­crim­i­na­tion works in get­ting the peo­ple they need with the Right Stuff. Well… it works for a while: there’s only so many ener­getic skilled young techies. But when you can clus­ter enough of them in one homo­ge­neous com­pa­ny, you may get some­thing amaz­ing.

Amaz­ing until it keeps grow­ing, het­ero­gene­ity builds up, and prob­lems with coor­di­na­tion start hap­pen­ing…


I have just laid out a scheme whereby agents extra­or­di­nary only in ded­i­ca­tion have exerted world-shak­ing pow­er. Sim­i­lar sce­nar­ios are true of other sec­tors. (The Secret Ser­vice works hard, but can they pro­tect the Pres­i­dent against the 100 fanat­ic­s?) Destruc­tion and offense is always eas­ier than con­struc­tion and defense, but it’s hard to see why the fanatic advan­tage would be com­pletely negated in con­struc­tive enter­pris­es. (Small groups of pro­gram­mers and engi­neers rou­tinely rev­o­lu­tion­ize sec­tors of tech­nol­o­gy, with­out being espe­cially fanat­i­cal.) But of course, we see very few such schemes in either direc­tion. That is the point. There is a very large gap between what we can do and what we will do. Coor­di­na­tion is extremely hard (see again the prin­ci­pal-a­gent prob­lem).

But the scary thought is—will things remain that way? I have been at pains to keep the agents ordi­nary. Is there any way now or in the future to cre­ate such agents? My thoughts, any­way, imme­di­ately turn to the famed Assas­sins, whose name sup­pos­edly comes from their use of hashish to delude their agents into more than usual reli­gious zealotry, and who were quite effec­tive in bad cir­cum­stances until finally extir­pated by the Mon­gols. Yes, drugs are a wor­ry­ing prece­dent; the crav­ings of addic­tion can make some­one do any­thing, no mat­ter how depraved. And what are drugs but chem­i­cals which affect small parts of the brain? And if a chem­i­cal will affect the brain in such a way, are there chem­i­cals with enhanced effects? Or another way of accom­plish­ing the same effect, per­haps with elec­tric­i­ty?

In short, is there any rea­son to believe will not work in humans like it works in mice? Wire­head­ing is gen­er­ally dis­missed36 as a prob­lem that neatly solves itself: some­one with a elec­trode in their plea­sure cen­ter will be like a drug addict with an unlim­ited sup­ply—they will bestir them­selves only enough to stay alive to keep acti­vat­ing the elec­trode, if even that. Dar­win takes care of the prob­lem. But some see wire­head­ing as poten­tially very use­ful, and it is not hard to think of safe­guards. For exam­ple, what if the elec­trode is not under the con­trol of the sub­ject? Some­one else con­trol­ling it could use it to get use­ful work out of the sub­ject, although one could analo­gize a wire­head is an evil genie: they truly care only about the stim­u­la­tion and get­ting con­trol of it, and not gen­uinely serv­ing the con­troller (eg ) and like all evil genies, sus­cep­ti­ble to back­fir­ing spec­tac­u­larly on any­one try­ing to use them. (“The only thing that really wor­ried me was the ether. There is noth­ing in the world more help­less and irre­spon­si­ble and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge, and I knew we’d get into that rot­ten stuff pretty soon.”) That is one sce­nario. Here is anoth­er: the elec­trode is under the con­trol of a pro­gram con­nected to met­rics cho­sen by the sub­ject, like going to the gym. (Re­lated top­ic: nico­tine & habit-­for­ma­tion.) The incen­tives are much more closely aligned: the sub­ject could gain con­trol of the stim­u­la­tion, but that would frus­trate another goal of his (go­ing to the gym). Imag­ine the pro­gram hooked up to a com­pre­hen­sive plan for attack­ing Gold­man Sachs; one rather doubts that an agent will break the plan and not eat bul­gur pilaf if that means he is simul­ta­ne­ously sab­o­tag­ing the plan and also depriv­ing him­self of plea­sure.

Such a prospect is awe­some, in both the neg­a­tive and pos­i­tive sense. A wire­head has such poten­tial.

And the next log­i­cal step, an uploaded mind which has been patched and rewrit­ten to not even need plea­sure-­cen­ter stim­uli to carry out its cho­sen goals? That would be a Sin­gu­lar­ity in the Vingean sense that one truly can­not pre­dict beyond—whether the world will end in fire or ice.

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker

The Bet­ter Angels of Our Nature:

Where are they now? In most of the devel­oped world, domes­tic ter­ror­ism has gone the way of the poly­ester disco suits. It’s a lit­tle-­known fact that most ter­ror­ist groups fail, and that all of them die.194 Lest this seem hard to believe, just reflect on the world around you. Israel con­tin­ues to exist, North­ern Ire­land is still a part of the United King­dom, and Kash­mir is a part of India. There are no sov­er­eign states in Kur­dis­tan, Palestine, Que­bec, Puerto Rico, Chech­nya, Cor­si­ca, Tamil Eelam, or Basque Coun­try. The Philip­pines, Alge­ria, Egypt, and Uzbek­istan are not Islamist theoc­ra­cies; nor have Japan, the United States, Europe, and Latin Amer­ica become reli­gious, Marx­ist, anar­chist, or new-age utopias.

The num­bers con­firm the impres­sions. In his 2006 arti­cle “Why Ter­ror­ism Does Not Work”, the polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Max Abrahms exam­ined the 28 groups des­ig­nated by the U.S. State Depart­ment as for­eign ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions in 2001, most of which had been active for sev­eral decades. Putting aside purely tac­ti­cal vic­to­ries (such as media atten­tion, new sup­port­ers, freed pris­on­ers, and ran­som), he found that only 3 of them (7%) had attained their goals: Hezbol­lah expelled multi­na­tional peace­keep­ers and Israeli forces from south­ern Lebanon in 1984 and 2000, and the Tamil Tigers won con­trol over the north­east­ern coast of Sri Lanka in 1990. Even that vic­tory was reversed by Sri Lanka’s rout of the Tigers in 2009, leav­ing the ter­ror­ist suc­cess rate at 2 for 42, less than 5%. The suc­cess rate is well below that of other forms of polit­i­cal pres­sure such as eco­nomic sanc­tions, which work about a third of the time. Review­ing its recent his­to­ry, Abrahms noted that ter­ror­ism occa­sion­ally suc­ceeds when it has lim­ited ter­ri­to­r­ial goals, like evict­ing a for­eign power from land it had got­ten tired of occu­py­ing, such as the Euro­pean pow­ers who in the 1950s and 1960s with­drew from their colonies en masse, ter­ror­ism or no ter­ror­is­m.195 But it never attains max­i­mal­ist goals such as impos­ing an ide­ol­ogy on a state or anni­hi­lat­ing it out­right. Abrahms also found that the few suc­cesses came from cam­paigns in which the groups tar­geted mil­i­tary forces rather than civil­ians and thus were closer to being guer­ril­las than pure ter­ror­ists. Cam­paigns that pri­mar­ily tar­geted civil­ians always failed.

In her book How Ter­ror­ism Ends, the polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Audrey Cronin exam­ined a larger dataset: 457 ter­ror­ist cam­paigns that had been active since 1968. Like Abrahms, she found that ter­ror­ism vir­tu­ally never works. Ter­ror­ist groups die off expo­nen­tially over time, last­ing, on aver­age, between five and nine years. Cronin points out that “states have a degree of immor­tal­ity in the inter­na­tional sys­tem; groups do not.”196

Nor do they get what they want. No small ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tion has ever taken over a state, and 94% fail to achieve any of their strate­gic aims.197 Ter­ror­ist cam­paigns meet their end when their lead­ers are killed or cap­tured, when they are rooted out by states, and when they morph into guer­rilla or polit­i­cal move­ments. Many burn out through inter­nal squab­bling, a fail­ure of the founders to replace them­selves, and the defec­tion of young fire­brands to the plea­sures of civil­ian and fam­ily life.

…Only slightly less sub­tle are the meth­ods of Hamas and other Pales­tin­ian ter­ror­ist groups, who hold out a car­rot rather than a stick to the ter­ror­ist’s fam­ily in the form of gen­er­ous monthly stipends, lump-­sum pay­ments, and mas­sive pres­tige in the com­mu­ni­ty.219 Though in gen­eral one should not expect extreme behav­ior to deliver a pay­off in bio­log­i­cal fit­ness, the anthro­pol­o­gists Aaron Black­well and Lawrence Sugiyama have shown that it may do so in the case of Pales­tin­ian sui­cide ter­ror­ism. In the West Bank and Gaza many men have trou­ble find­ing wives because their fam­i­lies can­not afford a bride-price, they are restricted to mar­ry­ing par­al­lel cousins, and many women are taken out of the mar­riage pool by polyg­y­nous mar­riage or by mar­riage up to more pros­per­ous Arabs in Israel. Black­well and Sugiyama note that 99% of Pales­tin­ian sui­cide ter­ror­ists are male, that 86% are unmar­ried, and that 81% have at least six sib­lings, a larger fam­ily size than the Pales­tin­ian aver­age. When they plugged these and other num­bers into a sim­ple demo­graphic mod­el, they found that when a ter­ror­ist blows him­self up, the finan­cial pay­off can buy enough brides for his broth­ers to make his sac­ri­fice repro­duc­tively worth­while.

Atran has found that sui­cide ter­ror­ists can also be recruited with­out these direct incen­tives. Prob­a­bly the most effec­tive call to mar­tyr­dom is the oppor­tu­nity to join a happy band of broth­ers. Ter­ror­ist cells often begin as gangs of under­em­ployed sin­gle young men who come together in cafés, dorms, soc­cer clubs, bar­ber­shops, or Inter­net chat rooms and sud­denly find mean­ing in their lives by a com­mit­ment to the new pla­toon. Young men in all soci­eties do fool­ish things to prove their courage and com­mit­ment, espe­cially in groups, where indi­vid­u­als may do some­thing they know is fool­ish because they think that every­one else in the group thinks it is cool.220 (We will return to this phe­nom­e­non in chap­ter 8.) Com­mit­ment to the group is inten­si­fied by reli­gion, not just the lit­eral promise of par­adise but the feel­ing of spir­i­tual awe that comes from sub­merg­ing one­self in a cru­sade, a call­ing, a vision quest, or a jihad. Reli­gion may also turn a com­mit­ment to the cause into a sacred val­ue-a good that may not be traded off against any­thing else, includ­ing life itself.221

The com­mit­ment can be stoked by the thirst for revenge, which in the case of mil­i­tant Islamism takes the form of vengeance for the harm and humil­i­a­tion suf­fered by any Mus­lim any­where on the planet at any time in his­to­ry, or for sym­bolic affronts such as the pres­ence of infi­del sol­diers on sacred Mus­lim soil. Atran summed up his research in tes­ti­mony to a U.S. Sen­ate sub­com­mit­tee:

When you look at young peo­ple like the ones who grew up to blow up trains in Madrid in 2004, car­ried out the slaugh­ter on the Lon­don under­ground in 2005, hoped to blast air­lin­ers out of the sky en route to the United States in 2006 and 2009, and jour­neyed far to die killing infi­dels in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pak­istan, Yemen or Soma­lia; when you look at whom they idol­ize, how they orga­nize, what bonds them and what dri­ves them; then you see that what inspires the most lethal ter­ror­ists in the world today is not so much the Koran or reli­gious teach­ings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eter­nal respect and remem­brance in the wider world that they will never live to enjoy…. Jihad is an egal­i­tar­i­an, equal-op­por­tu­nity employ­er: . . . fra­ter­nal, fast-break­ing, thrilling, glo­ri­ous, and cool. Any­one is wel­come to try his hand at slic­ing off the head of Goliath with a paper cut­ter.222

…The prospect of an attack that would kill mil­lions of peo­ple is not just the­o­ret­i­cally pos­si­ble but con­sis­tent with the sta­tis­tics of ter­ror­ism. The com­puter sci­en­tists Aaron Clauset and Maxwell Young and the polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Kris­t­ian Gled­itsch plot­ted the death tolls of eleven thou­sand ter­ror­ist attacks on log-log paper and saw them fall into a neat straight line.261 Ter­ror­ist attacks obey a pow­er-law dis­tri­b­u­tion, which means they are gen­er­ated by mech­a­nisms that make extreme events unlike­ly, but not astro­nom­i­cally unlike­ly.

The trio sug­gested a sim­ple model that is a bit like the one that Jean-Bap­tiste Michel and I pro­posed for wars, invok­ing noth­ing fancier than a com­bi­na­tion of expo­nen­tials. As ter­ror­ists invest more time into plot­ting their attack, the death toll can go up expo­nen­tial­ly: a plot that takes twice as long to plan can kill, say, four times as many peo­ple. To be con­crete, an attack by a sin­gle sui­cide bomber, which usu­ally kills in the sin­gle dig­its, can be planned in a few days or weeks. The 2004 Madrid train bomb­ings, which killed around two hun­dred, took six months to plan, and 9/11, which killed three thou­sand, took two years.262 But ter­ror­ists live on bor­rowed time: every day that a plot drags on brings the pos­si­bil­ity that it will be dis­rupt­ed, abort­ed, or exe­cuted pre­ma­ture­ly. If the prob­a­bil­ity is con­stant, the plot dura­tions will be dis­trib­uted expo­nen­tial­ly. (Cron­in, recall, showed that ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions drop like flies over time, falling into an expo­nen­tial curve.) Com­bine expo­nen­tially grow­ing dam­age with an expo­nen­tially shrink­ing chance of suc­cess, and you get a power law, with its dis­con­cert­ingly thick tail. Given the pres­ence of weapons of mass destruc­tion in the real world, and reli­gious fanat­ics will­ing to wreak untold dam­age for a higher cause, a lengthy con­spir­acy pro­duc­ing a hor­ren­dous death toll is within the realm of think­able prob­a­bil­i­ties.

…A few brave ana­lysts, such as Mueller, John Para­chini, and Michael Levi, have taken the chance by exam­in­ing the dis­as­ter sce­nar­ios com­po­nent by com­po­nent.271 For starters, of the four so-­called weapons of mass destruc­tion, three are far less mas­sively destruc­tive than good old-­fash­ioned explo­sives.272 Radi­o­log­i­cal or “dirty” bombs, which are con­ven­tional explo­sives wrapped in radioac­tive mate­r­ial (ob­tained, for exam­ple, from med­ical waste), would yield only minor and short­-lived ele­va­tions of radi­a­tion, com­pa­ra­ble to mov­ing to a city at a higher alti­tude. Chem­i­cal weapons, unless they are released in an enclosed space like a sub­way (where they would still not do as much dam­age as con­ven­tional explo­sives), dis­si­pate quick­ly, drift in the wind, and are bro­ken down by sun­light. (Re­call that poi­son gas was respon­si­ble for a tiny frac­tion of the casu­al­ties in World War I.) Bio­log­i­cal weapons capa­ble of caus­ing epi­demics would be pro­hib­i­tively expen­sive to develop and deploy, as well as dan­ger­ous to the typ­i­cally bungling ama­teur labs that would develop them. It’s no won­der that bio­log­i­cal and chem­i­cal weapons, though far more acces­si­ble than nuclear ones, have been used in only three ter­ror­ist attacks in thirty years.273 In 1984 the Rajneeshee reli­gious cult con­t­a­m­i­nated salad in the restau­rants of an Ore­gon town with sal­mo­nel­la, sick­en­ing 751 peo­ple and killing none. In 1990 the Tamil Tigers were run­ning low on ammu­ni­tion while attack­ing a fort and opened up some chlo­rine cylin­ders they found in a nearby paper mill, injur­ing 60 and killing none before the gas wafted back over them and con­vinced them never to try it again. The Japan­ese reli­gious cult Aum Shin­rikyo failed in ten attempts to use bio­log­i­cal weapons before releas­ing sarin gas in the Tokyo sub­ways, killing 12. A fourth attack, the 2001 anthrax mail­ings that killed 5 Amer­i­cans in media and gov­ern­ment offices, turned out to be a spree killing rather than an act of ter­ror­ism.

  1. Mao’s death toll has been esti­mated to be any­where from 10 mil­lion to 80 mil­lion, or 120,000-960,000 deaths per year ( - ). If we use the per-year death rate from Alan Har­ris of 1000, and apply it to the 20th cen­tury (a gen­er­ous appli­ca­tion), then the last cen­tu­ry’s ter­ror­ism death toll was still vastly smaller than a sin­gle year of Mao.

    One review of US mil­i­tary pro­grams speaks for itself (“Mil­i­tary Social Influ­ence in the Global Infor­ma­tion Envi­ron­ment: A Civil­ian Primer”, King 2010):

    Beyond this, U.S. mil­i­tary per­cep­tion man­age­ment spe­cial­ists are con­vinced that mod­ern enemy infor­ma­tion cam­paigns have been so suc­cess­ful that they have tipped the bal­ance in recent con­flict, suc­cess­fully frus­trat­ing U.S. and allied forces (Collings & Rohozin­ski, 2008; Mur­phy, 2010; Seib, 2008). For instance, it has been argued that opti­mal man­age­ment of satel­lite tele­vi­sion, Inter­net-based media, and jour­nal­ist access to infor­ma­tion thwarted Israeli Defense Force (IDF) activ­ity in Lebanon in 2006 (Cald­well et al., 2009). And Al Qaeda, many believe, con­tin­ues to be a for­mi­da­ble foe, not because of mil­i­tary resources, but as a result of their highly coor­di­nated global media cam­paign (Kil­cul­len, in Pack­er, 2006; Seib, 2008).

  2. : “In the 29 OECD coun­tries for which com­pa­ra­ble data were avail­able, the annual aver­age death rate from road injury was approx­i­mately 390 times that from inter­na­tional ter­ror­ism. The ratio of annual road to inter­na­tional ter­ror­ism deaths (av­er­aged over 10 years) was low­est for the United States at 142 times. In 2001, road crash deaths in the US were equal to those from a Sep­tem­ber 11 attack every 26 days.”↩︎

  3. And let’s not even talk about the usual death toll; “The Most Dan­ger­ous Per­son in the World?”, :

    Deaths of Amer­i­cans due to ter­ror­ist activ­i­ties, accord­ing to the US State Depart­ment, have aver­aged less than 15 per year since 2002. And all of those occurred abroad. The major­ity were in Saudi Ara­bia, Egypt and the Occu­pied Pales­tin­ian Ter­ri­to­ries. (Civil­ian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan were not counted due to the fact those occurred in war zones.)

  4. John Mueller, “React­ing to Ter­ror­ism: Prob­a­bil­i­ties, Con­se­quences, and the Per­sis­tence of Fear”; Ohio State Uni­ver­si­ty, Feb­ru­ary 6, 2007:

    How­ev­er, as can be seen in the fig­ure, the num­ber of peo­ple world­wide who die as a result of inter­na­tional ter­ror­ism by this def­i­n­i­tion is gen­er­ally a few hun­dred a year. In fact, until 2001 far fewer Amer­i­cans were killed in any group­ing of years by all forms of inter­na­tional ter­ror­ism than were killed by light­ning. More­over, except for 2001, vir­tu­ally none of these ter­ror­ist deaths occurred within the United States itself. Indeed, out­side of 2001, fewer peo­ple have died in Amer­ica from inter­na­tional ter­ror­ism than have drowned in toi­lets. Even with the Sep­tem­ber 11 attacks included in the count, how­ev­er, the num­ber of Amer­i­cans killed by inter­na­tional ter­ror­ism over the period is not a great deal more than the num­ber killed by light­ning—or by acci­den­t-­caus­ing deer or by severe aller­gic reac­tions to peanuts over the same peri­od. In almost all years the total num­ber of peo­ple world­wide who die at the hands of inter­na­tional ter­ror­ists is not much more than the num­ber who drown in bath­tubs in the United States—­some 300–400.

    Another assess­ment comes from astronomer Alan Har­ris. Using State Depart­ment fig­ures, he assumes a world­wide death rate from inter­na­tional ter­ror­ism of 1000 per year—that is, he assumes in his esti­mate that there would be another 9/11 some­where in the world every sev­eral years. Over an 80 year period under those con­di­tions some 80,000 deaths would occur which would mean that the life­time prob­a­bil­ity that a res­i­dent of the globe will die at the hands of inter­na­tional ter­ror­ists is about one in 75,000 (6 bil­lion divided by 80,000). This, he points out, is about the same like­li­hood that one would die over the same inter­val from the impact on the earth of an espe­cially ill-di­rected aster­oid or comet. If there are no repeats of 9/11, the life­time prob­a­bil­ity of being killed by an inter­na­tional ter­ror­ist becomes about one in 120,000.

  5. Never are more rel­e­vant than in secu­ri­ty. From Mueller & Stew­art 2011:

    Although these tal­lies make for grim read­ing, the total num­ber of peo­ple killed in the years after 9/11 by Mus­lim extrem­ists out­side of war zones comes to some 200 to 300 per year. That, of course, is 200 to 300 too many, but it hardly sug­gests that the destruc­tive capac­i­ties of the ter­ror­ists are mon­u­men­tal. For com­par­ison, dur­ing the same period more peo­ple—320 per year—drowned in bath­tubs in the United States alone. Or there is anoth­er, rather unpleas­ant com­par­i­son. Increased delays and added costs at U.S. air­ports due to new secu­rity pro­ce­dures pro­vide incen­tive for many short­-haul pas­sen­gers to drive to their des­ti­na­tion rather than fly­ing, and, since dri­ving is far riskier than air trav­el, the extra auto­mo­bile traf­fic gen­er­ated has been esti­mated to result in 500 or more extra road fatal­i­ties per year.

  6. Given the rar­ity and low costs of attacks, it’s very hard to jus­tify expen­sive secu­rity mea­sures like s; a con­ser­v­a­tive analy­sis nev­er­the­less writes in its abstract:

    The cost of this tech­nol­ogy will reach $1.2 bil­lion per year by 2014. The paper devel­ops a cost-ben­e­fit analy­sis of AITs for pas­sen­ger screen­ing at U.S. air­ports. The analy­sis con­sid­ered threat prob­a­bil­i­ty, risk reduc­tion, loss­es, and costs of secu­rity mea­sures in the esti­ma­tion of costs and ben­e­fits. Since there is uncer­tainty and vari­abil­ity of these para­me­ters, three alter­nate prob­a­bil­ity (uncer­tain­ty) mod­els were used to char­ac­terise risk reduc­tion and loss­es. Eco­nomic losses were assumed to vary from $2-50 bil­lion, and risk reduc­tion from 5-10%. Mon­te-­Carlo sim­u­la­tion meth­ods were used to prop­a­gate these uncer­tain­ties in the cal­cu­la­tion of ben­e­fits, and the min­i­mum attack prob­a­bil­ity nec­es­sary for AITs to be cost-­ef­fec­tive was cal­cu­lat­ed. It was found that, based on mean results, more than one attack every two years would need to orig­i­nate from U.S. air­ports for AITs to pass a cost-ben­e­fit analy­sis. In other words, to be cost-­ef­fec­tive, AITs every two years would have to dis­rupt more than one attack effort with body-borne explo­sives that oth­er­wise would have been suc­cess­ful despite other secu­rity mea­sures, ter­ror­ist incom­pe­tence and ama­teur­ish­ness, and the tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties in set­ting off a bomb suf­fi­ciently destruc­tive to down an air­lin­er. The attack prob­a­bil­ity needs to exceed 160-330% per year to be 90% cer­tain that AITs are cost-­ef­fec­tive.

  7. Or con­sider the broader pic­ture; “Ter­ror, Secu­ri­ty, and Mon­ey: Bal­anc­ing the Risks, Ben­e­fits, and Costs of Home­land Secu­rity” (2011), by John Mueller and Mark Stew­art:

    The cumu­la­tive increase in expen­di­tures on US domes­tic home­land secu­rity over the decade since 9/11 exceeds one tril­lion dol­lars…Thus far, offi­cials do not seem to have done so and have engaged in var­i­ous forms of prob­a­bil­ity neglect by focus­ing on worst case sce­nar­ios; adding, rather than mul­ti­ply­ing, the prob­a­bil­i­ties; assess­ing rel­a­tive, rather than absolute, risk; and inflat­ing ter­ror­ist capac­i­ties and the impor­tance of poten­tial ter­ror­ist tar­gets. We find that enhanced expen­di­tures have been exces­sive: to be deemed cost-­ef­fec­tive in analy­ses that sub­stan­tially bias the con­sid­er­a­tion toward the oppo­site con­clu­sion, they would have to deter, pre­vent, foil, or pro­tect against 1,667 oth­er­wise suc­cess­ful Times-Square type attacks per year, or more than four per day.

    …As we approach the tenth anniver­sary of 9/11, fed­eral expen­di­tures on domes­tic home­land secu­rity have increased by some $360 bil­lion over those in place in 2001. More­over, fed­eral national intel­li­gence expen­di­tures aimed at defeat­ing ter­ror­ists at home and abroad have gone up by $110 bil­lion, while state, local, and pri­vate sec­tor expen­di­tures have increased by a hun­dred bil­lion more. And the vast major­ity of this increase, of course, has been dri­ven by much height­ened fears of ter­ror­ism, not by grow­ing con­cerns about other haz­ard­s-as Veronique de Rugy has not­ed, by 2008 fed­eral spend­ing on coun­tert­er­ror­ism had increased enor­mously while pro­tec­tion for such com­pa­ra­ble risks as fraud and vio­lent crime had not, to the point where home­land secu­rity expen­di­tures had out­paced spend­ing on all crime by $15 bil­lion.[3] Tal­ly­ing all these expen­di­tures and adding in oppor­tu­nity cost­s-but leav­ing out the costs of the ter­ror­is­m-re­lated (or ter­ror­is­m-de­ter­mined) wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and quite a few other items that might be includ­ed-the increase in expen­di­tures on domes­tic home­land secu­rity over the decade exceeds one tril­lion dol­lars.

  8. There are a num­ber of esti­mates of how much :

    1. The Bush admin­is­tra­tion esti­mated Iraq at $50-60 bil­lion.
    2. in 2005 esti­mated a total cost of >$2 tril­lion.
    3. In 2008 Stiglitz upped it to >$3 tril­lion (see The Three Tril­lion Dol­lar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Con­flict).
    4. In 2011, Pres­i­dent Obama pub­licly esti­mated the cost of Afghanistan & Iraq at >$1 tril­lion.
    5. Also in 2011, the esti­mated Pen­ta­gon expen­di­tures at >$1.3 tril­lion from 2001 to 2011.
    6. The 2011 report “The Costs of War” puts it at >$3.2 tril­lion (omit­ting inter­est, non-fed­eral med­ical & social ser­vice expens­es, aid to Iraq or Afghanistan or Pak­istan, or dam­age done to non-Amer­i­can inter­est­s).
  9. From the trans­la­tion of a 2001 record­ing of Bin Laden released by the Pen­tagon:

    …we cal­cu­lated in advance the num­ber of casu­al­ties from the ene­my, who would be killed based on the posi­tion of the tow­er. We cal­cu­lated that the floors that would be hit would be three or four floors. I was the most opti­mistic of them all…

    Notice that Bin Laden clearly does not expect any tow­ers to col­lapse, much less 2 or 3, and that only the peo­ple on a few floors would be killed; con­trast this to the reli­able & eas­ily cal­cu­lated fig­ures of >4000 casu­al­ties if Al Qaeda had instead car­ried out the (which suc­cess­fully tested a bomb on board an inter­na­tional air­lin­er). While the results of 9/11 were ulti­mately more impres­sive, this was unfore­see­able by AQ; it was the wrong choice to make if they cared about results. (Play­ing the lot­tery is a bad deci­sion, even if you hap­pen to win one time.)

    For more con­text, see a com­pi­la­tion of 1994–2004 state­ments by Bin Laden (which does not include the above).↩︎

  10. “Global ter­ror­ism fol­lows a power law”, Physics World, dis­cussing te paper :

    Clauset and Young analysed a data­base that con­tains details of more than 19,900 ter­ror­ist events that occurred in 187 coun­tries between 1968 and 2004. Accord­ing to the data­base, which is main­tained by the National Memo­r­ial Insti­tute for the Pre­ven­tion of Ter­ror­ism (MIPT), at least one per­son was killed or injured in some 7,088 of these events.

  11. “Al Qaeda in Its Third Decade: Irre­versible Decline or Immi­nent Vic­to­ry?”, Brian Michael Jenk­ins, RAND 2012:

    Arrests of home­grown ter­ror­ists show an uptick in 2009 and 2010, but this is pri­mar­ily the result of increased recruit­ing in the Somali dias­pora and the FBI’s increased use of sting oper­a­tions. Ethiopi­a’s inva­sion of Soma­lia pro­voked strong sen­ti­ments among Amer­i­ca’s Soma­l­is, who regard Ethiopi­ans as their his­tor­i­cal ene­mies. Fund-rais­ing and recruit­ing began soon after, which U.S. author­i­ties became aware of when Amer­i­can Soma­lis turned up in Soma­lia. This dis­cov­ery led to a nation­wide effort involv­ing fed­eral agents and local police work­ing with coop­er­a­tive Somali com­mu­ni­ties to pre­vent fur­ther recruit­ing.

    For­tu­nate­ly, few of Amer­i­ca’s jihadists have proved to be very ded­i­cated or com­pe­tent. They are not deter­mined, cun­ning “lone wolves”; they are skit­tish stray dogs. Most of the 32 jihadist ter­ror­ist plots uncov­ered since 9/11 were imma­ture expres­sions of inten­tions. Only ten had what could be described as an oper­a­tional plan, and of the­se, six were FBI stings. Per­haps the most seri­ous inter­rupted plot was Najibul­lah Zaz­i’s plan to carry out sui­cide bomb­ings in New York’s sub­ways. Out­side of the stings, only three plots led to attempted attacks. One was Faisal Shaz­ad’s failed bomb­ing in Times Square. Only two resulted in fatal­i­ties: Car­los Bled­soe’s shoot­ing at an Army Recruit­ing Cen­ter in Arkansas and Nidal Hasan’s attack at Fort Hood. “Active shoot­ers” like Hasan are cur­rently con­sid­ered the most wor­ri­some threat.

    By com­par­ison, the United States saw an aver­age of 50 to 60 ter­ror­ist bomb­ings per year in the 1970s and a greater num­ber of fatal­i­ties. The pas­sage of ten years since 9/11 with­out a major ter­ror­ist attack on an Amer­i­can tar­get abroad or at home is unprece­dented since the 1960s.

    And think, these num­bers are all true despite how much the FBI stings smell like entrap­ment and trumped-up mal­con­tents; AQ indeed has lit­tle oper­a­tional capa­bil­ity under any seri­ous pres­sure—un­less one wishes to argue that the US gov­ern­ment is actu­ally com­pe­tent when it comes to fight­ing ter­ror­ism, though nowhere else?↩︎

  12. Of course, ter­ror­ism is not about ter­ror, so it’s not a sur­prise that actu­ally accom­plish­ing ter­ror­ist groups could expe­ri­ence ‘mis­sion drift’ or ‘lost pur­poses’ where mem­bers pre­fer the sta­tus quo and inac­tiv­ity and pur­su­ing more con­ge­nial goals that used to be cor­re­lated with the orga­ni­za­tion accom­plish­ing its goal (much like Max Planck’s quote that sci­ence advances ).

    “Aca­d­e­mics Debate Whether Osama bin Laden’s Death Will Have Imapct on al-Qaeda Lead­ers”:

    …53% of the ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions that suf­fered such a vio­lent lead­er­ship loss fell apart—which sounds impres­sive until you dis­cover that 70% of groups who did not deal with an assas­si­na­tion no longer exist. Fur­ther crunch­ing of the num­bers revealed that lead­er­ship decap­i­ta­tion becomes more coun­ter­pro­duc­tive the older the group is. The dif­fer­ence in col­lapse rates (be­tween groups that did and did not have a leader assas­si­nat­ed) is fairly small among orga­ni­za­tions less than 20 years old but quite large for those more than 20 years in age, and even larger for those that have been around more than 30 years.

    Assas­si­na­tion of a leader does seem to neg­a­tively impact smaller ter­ror­ist groups: The data shows orga­ni­za­tions with fewer than 500 mem­bers are more likely to col­lapse if they suf­fer such a lead­er­ship loss. But orga­ni­za­tions with more than 500 mem­bers are actu­ally more likely to sur­vive after an assas­si­na­tion, mak­ing this strat­egy “highly coun­ter­pro­duc­tive for larger groups,” Jor­dan writes.

  13. Con­sider how was arrested for dri­ving with­out license plates, or was arrested after the try­ing to get his deposit back for the truck used in the bomb­ing, or the DC snipers for sleep­ing in their car, or John Auso­nius rob­bing banks on a bicy­cle, or a Mus­lim Russ­ian who blew her­self up when an unex­pected text mes­sage was sent by her cell­phone car­rier (or Soma­lis just blow­ing them­selves up, not that they beat the Iraqi instruc­tor who killed him­self & 21 recruits), or the British Mus­lim who eschewed in favor of a “because ‘kaf­firs’, or non-­be­liev­ers, so it must be ”!

    , after clev­erly arrang­ing con­tact with his assas­si­na­tion tar­get (a Saudi deputy Min­is­ter), decided to exe­cute him with a bomb hid­den up his anus; the bomb was not big enough to do more than slightly injure the min­is­ter (but did kill him). Ibrahim Abdeslam did like­wise, per­haps because he smoked too much weed to bother with plan­ning.

    The Boston bombers were undone when they decided it would be a great idea to kill a police offi­cer, then do some car­jack­ing and rob­bery.

    The bomber failed to do his home­work and believed he had cre­ated a fer­til­izer bomb, but he had­n’t, and in any case, his wiring meant that all he accom­plished was set­ting his car on fire. Still, that was bet­ter than the , where they tried to use a car bomb made out of propane, but drove the car into a bol­lard rather than any­where impor­tant, set it on fire, and one of the ter­ror­ists him­self caught on fire and was the only fatal­i­ty. (Propane is a recur­ring theme and does not seem to work very well, eg another French attack sim­i­larly failed: “Inès Madani, 19, and her three friends were alleged to have fol­lowed to the let­ter his instruc­tions to ‘fill a car with gas cylin­ders, sprin­kle petrol in it and park in a busy street … BOOM.’ The women ran off leav­ing the warn­ing lights flash­ing after fail­ing to det­o­nate the gas by set­ting fire to a rag.”)

    ran over 9 peo­ple—killing none—and turned him­self in peace­ably; report­edly, he man­aged to choose a nar­row area where he could­n’t accel­er­ate, was too lazy to get a gun per­mit so he could buy a gun, decided not to enlist in the US mil­i­tary because he had bad eye­sight, and in gen­eral was feck­less, prompt­ing the reporter to write:

    Taher­i-Azar’s incom­pe­tence as a ter­ror­ist is bewil­der­ing. Surely some­one who was will­ing to kill and die for his cause, spend­ing months con­tem­plat­ing an attack, could have found a more effec­tive way to kill peo­ple. Why was­n’t he able to obtain a firearm or impro­vise an explo­sive device or try any of the hun­dreds of mur­der­ous schemes that we all know from movies, tele­vi­sion shows, and the Inter­net, not to men­tion the news? And once Taher­i-Azar decided to run peo­ple over with a car, why did he pick a site with so lit­tle room to accel­er­ate?

    A would-be jihadist tried to but had to beg for his hand­gun back after two Amer­i­can sol­diers wres­tled it away and in any event, all his guns had jammed and he knew nei­ther how to unjam a gun nor how to load a mag­a­zine into his hand­gun.

    In the , Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouh­lel tried the Taher­i-Azar strat­egy but this time chose a open street filled with crowds and used a truck (as pre­vi­ously rec­om­mended by Al-Qaeda & later by ISIS, and also employed in the with >11 fatal­i­ties); this sim­ple strat­egy resulted in an aston­ish­ing 84+ deaths. Still, there were some pecu­liar aspects: police “found a fake auto­matic pis­tol; two fake assault rifles, a Kalash­nikov and an M-16; a non­func­tion­ing grenade; and a mobile phone and doc­u­ments.”, leav­ing one to won­der why a ter­ror­ist would bring along a bro­ken grenade and 3 use­less gun­s—the grenade under­stand­ably could­n’t be tested in advance, but surely he at least test-­fired the assault rifles? Which makes the lazi­ness of (0 fatal­i­ties) all the more remark­able in telling his ISIS recruiter (whose frus­tra­tion can only be imag­ined) that he was­n’t going to bother to learn how to drive a car:

    The tran­script of the con­ver­sa­tion begins with the ter­ror chief ask­ing: “What weapons do you intend to kill with?” Riaz replied: “Knife and axe are at the ready.” It goes on: “Broth­er, would it not be bet­ter to do it with a car?” He responds: “I can not dri­ve.” The ter­ror chief instructs: “You should learn.” Khan answers: “Learn­ing takes time.” The ISIS com­man­der then respond­ed: “The dam­age would be much greater.” Khan says: “I want to go to par­adise tonight.”

    con­ducted >3 bomb­ings in NY/NJ in 2016, killing no one, and was quickly iden­ti­fied because of fin­ger­prints & the cell­phones he used as det­o­na­tors were reg­is­tered in his name; despite his head start, he only made it a few miles into NJ where he was found sleep­ing, home­less-style, in front of a bar↩︎

  14. From “The Ter­ror­ism Delu­sion: Amer­i­ca’s Over­wrought Response to Sep­tem­ber 11”:

    In sharp con­trast, the authors of the [50] case stud­ies, with remark­ably few excep­tions, describe their sub­jects with such words as incom­pe­tent, inef­fec­tive, unin­tel­li­gent, idi­otic, igno­rant, inad­e­quate, unor­ga­nized, mis­guid­ed, mud­dled, ama­teur­ish, dopey, unre­al­is­tic, moron­ic, irra­tional, and fool­ish.9 And in nearly all of the cases where an oper­a­tive from the police or from the Fed­eral Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tion was at work (al­most half of the total), the most appro­pri­ate descrip­tor would be “gullible”. In all, as Shikha Dalmia has put it, would-be ter­ror­ists need to be “rad­i­cal­ized enough to die for their cause; West­ern­ized enough to move around with­out rais­ing red flags; inge­nious enough to exploit loop­holes in the secu­rity appa­ra­tus; metic­u­lous enough to attend to the myr­iad logis­ti­cal details that could tor­pedo the oper­a­tion; self­-­suf­fi­cient enough to make all the prepa­ra­tions with­out enlist­ing out­siders who might give them away; dis­ci­plined enough to main­tain com­plete secre­cy; and-above all-psy­cho­log­i­cally tough enough to keep func­tion­ing at a high level with­out crack­ing in the face of their own impend­ing death.”10 The case stud­ies exam­ined in this arti­cle cer­tainly do not abound with peo­ple with such char­ac­ter­is­tics. In the eleven years since the Sep­tem­ber 11 attacks, no ter­ror­ist has been able to det­o­nate even a prim­i­tive bomb in the United States, and except for the four explo­sions in the Lon­don trans­porta­tion sys­tem in 2005, nei­ther has any in the United King­dom. Indeed, the only method by which Islamist ter­ror­ists have man­aged to kill any­one in the United States since Sep­tem­ber 11 has been with gun­fire—in­flict­ing a total of per­haps six­teen deaths over the period (cases 4, 26, 32).11

  15. Direc­tor Chris Mor­ris on the real-life inspi­ra­tions:

    I was, out of curios­i­ty, just read­ing about the sub­ject. I was read­ing a book by Jason Burke on Al-Qaeda, and I came across an exam­ple of a bunch of peo­ple from Yemen who wanted to blow up a U.S. war­ship on Mil­len­nium Eve. They went down in the mid­dle of the night, 3 a.m., they filled up a boat with explo­sives, and it sank. I thought, “Ah.” I laughed out loud when I read that. I was­n’t expect­ing to laugh when I was read­ing that book. Then I came across a cou­ple more exam­ples—a guy who set out to blow up an offi­cer at a com­pound, I think it was a Kur­dish com­pound. He went off on a job, he was called back, so he built up over another week and a half, basi­cally got him­self psy­ched up to do it, went up to the com­pound. As he was going through the gate the guard said, “Who are you here to see?” He said, “I’m here to see the chief offi­cer.” He said, “All right. By the way, what’s under your shirt?” The guy said, “Oh, yeah, it’s a bomb.” And again I thought, this is just ridicu­lous. How he got to that point. And then I started pur­su­ing that line. I read a few other books, and sim­i­lar lit­tle silly things hap­pened, things that were sort of stu­pid­-level, ordi­nary human behav­ior fun­ny. Then I went to a high court case. There were a bunch of guys in the docks for buy­ing fer­til­izer mak­ing very loose plans what to do with it, and there was about three months of sur­veil­lance from MI-5. Page after page of absolutely ludi­crous, pretty much stoner dri­v­el. Drug-free, but it was hard to believe when you read it. I thought, wait, we’re on to some­thing here. The ide­ol­ogy is ter­ri­fy­ing, but it’s some­what mod­i­fied when it’s jux­ta­posed with con­ver­sa­tions about what a great actor Johnny Depp is, how cool he’d look with a big beard. Just silly things, which seem sur­pris­ing, until you think, “Why would these guys be any dif­fer­ent to any other bunch of guys?”… I was struck that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed took an hour to get him­self ready for the cam­era, because he kept want­ing to choose a cos­tume that did­n’t make him look fat. You have this, I think, right the way through the top.

  16. Although such spec­u­la­tion can be very fun and quite edu­ca­tion­al. I refer the inter­ested reader to the thou­sands of plots sug­gested in first, sec­ond, third, and fourth “Movie-­Plot Threat Con­tests”↩︎

  17. Ire­land’s esti­mated loss in dol­lars from the .↩︎

  18. “An unad­dressed issue of agri­cul­tural ter­ror­ism: A case study on feed secu­rity”, Kosal & Ander­son 2004:

    Fif­teen years lat­er, also in rural Wis­con­sin, chlor­dane, an organochlo­rine pes­ti­cide, was inten­tion­ally added to ren­der­ing plant mate­r­ial that was then dis­trib­uted to major ani­mal feed pro­duc­ers (Ne­her, 1999; Schuldt, 1999). Tainted feed was iden­ti­fied as hav­ing been dis­trib­uted to over 4,000 farms, prin­ci­pally dairies, and led to recalls in four Mid­west­ern states of prod­ucts includ­ing cheese, but­ter, and ice cream that were sus­pected of con­t­a­m­i­na­tion. The action level for chlor­dane is parts per bil­lion. The charged sus­pect [caught through let­ters] was a com­peti­tor of the tar­geted facil­i­ty. The cost to the feed pro­ducer alone was esti­mated at over $250 mil­lion.

  19. Kosal & Ander­son 2004, describ­ing the :

    In late win­ter 1999, poul­try farm­ers in Bel­gium began report­ing sharp decreases in egg pro­duc­tion, chicks exhibit­ing abnor­mal devel­op­men­tal behav­ior, and instances of unex­pected death, pre­dom­i­nantly due to eggs fail­ing to hatch (Bernard et al., 1999; Craw­ford, 1999; Lok and Pow­ell, 2000). -con­t­a­m­i­nated feed orig­i­nat­ing from a sin­gle pro­ducer of fat for ani­mal feed was found to be the cause. Appar­ent­ly, one sin­gle stor­age tank had been con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed. The inci­dent prompted a U.S. ban on all chicken and pork from the Euro­pean Union; trade sus­pen­sions and warn­ings with respect to other Euro­pean food­stuffs were issued by over 30 gov­ern­ments around the world. The esti­mated finan­cial impact exceeded $1.5 bil­lion (Reuters, 1999; Lok and Pow­ell, 2000). Three cab­i­net-level min­is­ters from Hol­land and Bel­gium resigned, and the Bel­gium Pre­mier lost his June 1999 reelec­tion bid. The offi­cial source of the dioxin has not been con­clu­sively deter­mined.

  20. Wikipedia fails to men­tion that the 2 infa­mous grapes were prob­a­bly not even poi­soned.↩︎

  21. “Poi­soned Grapes, Mad Cow, and Pro­tec­tion­ism”, Engel 1999.↩︎

  22. You would think that by this point we would know exactly how many!↩︎

  23. Bruce Schneier remarks in 2011, of a survey/book of known Amer­i­can ter­ror­ist inci­dents which found that most involved law enforce­ment and its inform­ers, that none suc­cess­fully employed a bomb:

    Note that every­one who died was shot with a gun. No Islamic extrem­ist has been able to suc­cess­fully det­o­nate a bomb in the U.S. in the past ten years, not even a Molo­tov cock­tail. (In the U.K. there has only been one suc­cess­ful ter­ror­ist bomb­ing in the last ten years; the 2005 Lon­don Under­ground attack­s.) And almost all of the 33 inci­dents (34 if you add LAX) have been lone actors, with no ties to al Qae­da.

  24. Inas­much as Bum-kon could’ve killed his vic­tims as effec­tively with his firearms. His attacks were unop­posed by the police and were stopped by his sui­cide, so Bum-kon could have just shot the <10 peo­ple killed by grenades; Wikipedia describes his leisurely mas­sacre:

    Ini­tial­ly, he killed three oper­a­tors at the local tele­phone exchange to pre­vent oth­ers call­ing from emer­gency ser­vices. He then walked from house to house and used his posi­tion as a police offi­cer to make peo­ple feel safe and gain entry into their homes. He shot most of his vic­tims, but in one case he killed an entire fam­ily with a grenade. He con­tin­ued this pat­tern for a full eight hours. After Woo had shot a num­ber of peo­ple in one vil­lage, he would resume the spree killing in a nearby vil­lage. In the early hours of April 27, after ram­pag­ing through five vil­lages in Uiryeong coun­ty, Woo took his final two grenades and strapped them to his body. He then held three peo­ple cap­tive and then set the grenades’ fus­es, killing both him­self and his final vic­tims.

  25. “Where Are All The Ter­ror­ist Attacks?”, 2010-05-04:

    As the details of the Times Square car bomb attempt emerge in the wake of Faisal Shahzad’s arrest Mon­day night, one thing has already been made clear: Ter­ror­ism is fairly easy. All you need is a gun or a bomb, and a crowded tar­get. Guns are easy to buy. Bombs are easy to make. Crowded tar­gets – not only in New York, but all over the coun­try – are easy to come by. If you’re will­ing to die in the after­math of your attack, you could launch a pretty effec­tive ter­ror­ist attack with a few days of plan­ning, maybe less.

  26. Accord­ing to the , the resources actu­ally expended by al-Qaeda on 9/11 were roughly >$500,000 and 5 years.↩︎

  27. This is just his con­firmed kill count.↩︎

  28. Impos­si­ble, you say, that they could remain at lib­erty for so long? Then con­sider the exam­ple of the “Mad Bomber”, who placed 47 bombs in New York City over 20 years, injur­ing 15 peo­ple. He was only appre­hended when his let­ters to the news­pa­pers began includ­ing such details as work­ing for Con Edi­son & then devel­op­ing pneu­mo­nia & tuber­cu­lo­sis.↩︎

  29. ↩︎

  30. One pos­si­ble objec­tion to my sniper plot is that by select­ing Simo Häyhä as my exem­plar, and sug­gest­ing that an indef­i­nite kil­l-rate of 1 per­son per mon­th, I am cher­ry-pick­ing my data; most ter­ror­ist-s­nipers, the sug­ges­tion goes, would be more akin to the Belt­way sniper attacks by John Allen Muham­mad and Lee Boyd Malvo: result­ing in few deaths (11) and rel­a­tively quick appre­hen­sion (3 week­s).

    The DC sniper attacks, how­ev­er, were not con­ducted at sniper ranges, were mul­ti­ple killings by the same per­son in the same time and loca­tion, and were con­ducted poor­ly—the two were arrested and dis­cov­ered because they were sleep­ing in their car.↩︎

  31. Mueller & Stew­art 2011:

    Beyond the tiny band that con­sti­tutes al-Qaeda cen­tral, there are, con­tin­ues Sage­man, thou­sands of sym­pa­thiz­ers and would-be jihadists spread around the globe who mainly con­nect in Inter­net chat rooms, engage in rad­i­cal­iz­ing con­ver­sa­tions, and var­i­ously dare each other to actu­ally do some­thing. [Hoff­man, Bruce. 2006. Inside Ter­ror­ism. Revised and expand­ed. New York: Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity Press.] All of these rather hap­less-per­haps even pathet­ic-peo­ple should of course be con­sid­ered to be poten­tially dan­ger­ous. From time to time they may be able to coa­lesce enough to carry out acts of ter­ror­ist vio­lence, and polic­ing efforts to stop them before they can do so are cer­tainly jus­ti­fied. But the notion that they present an exis­ten­tial threat to just about any­body seems at least as fan­ci­ful as some of their schemes.

    By 2005, after years of well-­funded sleuthing, the FBI and other inves­tiga­tive agen­cies noted in a report that they had been unable to uncover a sin­gle true al-Qaeda sleeper cel­l…It fol­lows that any ter­ror­ism prob­lem in the United States and the West prin­ci­pally derives from rather small num­bers of home­grown peo­ple, often iso­lated from each oth­er, who fan­ta­size about per­form­ing dire deeds and some­times receive a bit of train­ing and inspi­ra­tion over­seas.

  32. Steve Moore, “The Moun­tain of Miss­ing Evi­dence” while writ­ing on the case:

    When I was on an FBI SWAT Team, we had an exer­cise designed to teach us the dan­gers of try­ing to fight off a knife attack. A red mag­ic-­marker played the part of a knife, and an “assailant” would attempt to attack another mem­ber of the SWAT Team with it. We did this in white t-shirts and open sleeves so we could see the wounds. Within sec­onds, the assailant had usu­ally dis­patched the vic­tim with stabs and slash­ing attacks to the neck and tor­so, as the vic­tim fought back des­per­ate­ly. With­out excep­tion though, the attacker was “cut”. Always. And almost every time on the hands or fin­gers. This is because the vic­tim, in attempt­ing to fight off a knife, reaches for the hands, which deflects the knife into fin­gers or other parts of the hands. In addi­tion to the “cuts”, there were bruises and lac­er­a­tions sim­ply from elbows and arms fly­ing. Also, fold­ing knives have no ‘hilt’, a per­pen­dic­u­lar piece between the knife han­dle and blade to keep your hand from slid­ing for­ward when using the knife for stab­bing. When this hap­pens, the attacker usu­ally receives slash injuries to his fin­ger just below (or in the vicin­ity of) the sec­ond knuck­le. Amanda could not have known that. She had no such cuts. Rudy Guede, when arrested had such cuts across three of his fin­gers. One piece of evi­dence used against O.J. Simp­son in his stabbing/slashing mur­der trial was that he had a severe cut on his fin­ger, likely inflicted dur­ing a stab­bing motion when his hand slid over the blade. In the FBI, I have been involved in sev­eral phys­i­cal alter­ca­tions, includ­ing a cou­ple of attempts to take a knife away from a per­son. Each of those events ended in all par­ties hav­ing bruises and/or cuts. And these peo­ple weren’t fight­ing for their life; they were just fight­ing to keep from being arrest­ed. Mered­ith had 46 wounds con­sis­tent with a fight for her life. Rudy had just such cuts on his hand. If Mered­ith had been attacked by three peo­ple, is it plau­si­ble that in all of Mered­ith’s fight­ing that she was unable to inflict a sin­gle scratch or a bruise on either of her other two attack­ers? Not real­ly.

  33. All anec­dotes like Lin­coln or Kennedy or Arch­duke Fer­di­nand aside, sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis seems to bear out that, as one might expect, assas­si­na­tions do change things. See , Jones & Olken 2009.↩︎

  34. This may or may not be a use­ful strat­e­gy. was report­edly sav­aged by its fel­lows, who smelled its finan­cial weak­ness­es; but Can­tor Fitzger­ald was report­edly attacked after 9/11, yet has sur­vived:

    Such was Mr. Lut­nick’s rep­u­ta­tion that in the days and weeks after Sept. 11, some of his rivals actu­ally gloated over Can­tor’s dev­as­ta­tion. They jumped at the oppor­tu­nity to put an end to his firm, which pock­eted many mil­lions in com­mis­sions while enabling the great invest­ment houses to trade bonds in rel­a­tive anonymi­ty.

  35. See for exam­ple Rob­b’s 2007 The Dis­cov­ery of France, and more gen­er­ally fas­ci­nat­ing See­ing Like A State.↩︎

  36. eg. in or Larry Niven’s Known Space↩︎