Successful Terrorism

When it comes to killing people using airplanes, terrorism isn't doing all that well. Nate Silver gave us a nice little ten-year evaluation of The Odds of Airborne Terror, and Gizmodo did it up as a colourful chart.

Sad to say, it appears I'll be flying to the United States twice this year, and while I've never been a huge fan of air travel, I'm especially not looking forward to what will no doubt be my most uncomfortable and pointlessly time-wasting experiences yet, given the recent successful terrorism incident.

Oh, what's that? It wasn't successful, you say? As I mention in a comment on Cockpit Conversation, I thought so too.

My initial thought upon hearing about this incident was that it should be counted as a success in counter-terrorism. The passenger screening appeared to be good enough that the perpetrator couldn't manage to bring an effective bomb aboard the aircraft, passengers stepped up to stop him when they discovered what he was doing, and the aircraft landed safely.

Bravo! One attempt at terrorism has little to no effect.

Until the TSA steps in, of course, and decides to make it a lot more successful. Now we have yet more secret rules, an elevated climate of fear, and a greatly elevated level of passenger annoyance and inconvenience, including losing the right to read a book (or was that never a right in the U.S.?) for an hour of one's life.

It makes me wonder if TSA really stands for "Terrorist Support Agency." Terrorists wouldn't get nearly as far disrupting our lives without the TSA to assist them in this way.


  1. The terrorists are not winning, but the annoyancists, inconveniancists and exasperationists are well in the lead.

  2. It's indisputable that this attack produced a dramatic reaction in the target society, and that this reaction both noticably reduced the quality of life for a large number of people (far larger than involved in the attack itself), and increased the level of fear in a very large number of people.

    It's hard to see how that can be defined as anything other than a successful attack.

    Whether or not the terrorists are "winning" overall depends on how you define that, of course, but at relatively low cost to them they've caused untold economic harm (for example, I no longer holiday in the US, even though I have relatives there, and look how much is spent on security theatre), as well as degrading our quality of life. They've figured out what they need to do to do this, and that it doesn't involve bombs that actually explode in most cases isn't relevant.

    I hope that Margaret Wente is right when she writes in her article Security Theatre of the Absurd:

    One day, our grandchildren will marvel at our preposterous approach to self-defence. They'll wonder why we squandered billions on useless security measures. They'll be amazed at how we harassed millions of ordinary citizens and made flying as unpleasant as possible.

  3. Oh, and here's Bruce Schneier's security analysis of the incident. He says about the explosives on the plane:

    The security checkpoints worked. Because we screen for obvious bombs, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab -- or, more precisely, whoever built the bomb -- had to construct a far less reliable bomb than he would have otherwise. Instead of using a timer or a plunger or a reliable detonation mechanism, as would any commercial user of PETN, he had to resort to an ad hoc and much more inefficient homebrew mechanism: one involving a syringe and 20 minutes in the lavatory and we don't know exactly what else. And it didn't work.

    Yes, the Amsterdam screeners allowed Abdulmutallab onto the plane with PETN sewn into his underwear, but that's not a failure either. There is no security checkpoint, run by any government anywhere in the world, designed to catch this. It isn't a new threat; it's more than a decade old. Nor is it unexpected; anyone who says otherwise simply isn't paying attention. But PETN is hard to explode, as we saw on Christmas Day.

    Additionally, the passengers on the airplane worked.