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I’m Sure Faisal Shahzad Did His Best, But Terrorism Is Hard

May 9, 2010

It’s not surprising that the Canadian media have been closely following the misadventures of Faisal Shahzad, the “liberal-looking young man” from a village near Peshawar, Pakistan who became a US citizen last year and made a failed attempt to detonate a car bomb in New York’s Times Square this Beltane. Natural interest in the affairs of a neighbour aside, Shahzad and his actions represent a fresh case study in the perennially popular subject of Islamic terrorism. Attempts like Shahzad’s are excellent grist for the eternally grinding mills of speculation about the mindset of those militant Muslims who seem determined to torment the West, or in some cases just America, and discussion of just how much we all need to worry about the threat they pose.

Most of the commentary I’ve seen has been quick to dismiss Shahzad as a pathetically inept terrorist. Not only did his bomb fail to properly detonate, let alone kill anyone, but he even left his keys in the ignition of the Nissan Pathfinder that he’d packed with explosives. What kind of imbecile does that?! The most inspired article that I’ve seen along these lines is one by Chris Selley, in the National Post:

And now, Shahzad — a man who reportedly claims to have undergone weapons training in Pakistan and yet succeeded only in creating a lot of smoke and some popping noises. If I were his instructor, I’d be fiercely denying ever having met him.

If jihadist groups had courts martial (and for all I know, they do), I suppose that’s the kind of thing Shahzad’s prosecutors would be saying, although perhaps not with such panache. For the defense, however, we have the more sober Alex Wilner:

Shahzad’s plan only failed at the very last phase after he successfully acquired, constructed, and placed the car bomb, undetected, in Times Square. In his many cumulative successes, he proves himself no fool. Had Shahzad been a willing suicide bomber instead of simply lighting the fuse and running off to catch a flight to Dubai, he very well might have succeeded.

I were on the jury that had to decide whether or not Shahzad was guilty of incompetence, I think I would vote for acquittal on the grounds that, well, terrorism is hard. Only a real virtuoso, or someone blessed with the luck of the Irish – perhaps, come to think of it, that’s what made the IRA as effective as they were – could possibly hope to pull off an attack on any decent scale. Personally, I wouldn’t know where to begin even if my inclinations ran in that direction.

After all, the vast majority of terrorist attacks involve bombs. This throws up the immediate technical problems of acquiring the necessary materials and then assembling them into a device that can be easily triggered and concealed but is also powerful enough to inflict serious damage. Then there are the logistical problems of getting the device to the right location, and – unless you opt for suicide bombing, a point I’ll return to in a minute – making sure you’re out of harm’s way and ideally in a position to easily escape when the blast goes off. Finally, there’s the psychological problem of having to do all this under considerable stress. The risks are all too obvious, and it’s a simple fact (however uncomfortable for people who like to see the world in the starkest black and white) that terrorists are human beings. It’s probably quite normal for them to experience all kinds of qualms as they climb into their Pathfinders.

I thought Wilner’s point about suicide bombing was especially interesting from this perspective. Sure, Shahzad might well have succeeded if he had “been a willing suicide bomber” and all other things had been equal. But I suspect that willing suicide bombers are even less common than willing non-suicide bombers, and also that the willing suicide bombers are likely to be younger and less meticulous. They also have to contend, as they strap on their explosives and try to manoeuvre into position, with the added stress of having only two alternatives – failure or death. And is even the most brainwashed young mujahid really confident enough of his nicely landscaped garden and 72 virgins to view the prospect of death with total equanimity?

For all these reasons, I’m not prepared to dismiss Shahzad as incompetent. Rather, I’d prefer to think that he was simply attempting something very difficult – and the fact that terrorism is so difficult should be a source of considerable comfort to Canadians who would prefer not to be blown up. Terrorists will always face an uphill battle, replete with failures and frustrations, and even their occasional successes need only dismay us as much as we allow them to.

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