Before the dust had settled in the London subways and the wounded evacuated much was already being made by breathless commentators about the "increasing sophistication" and technical expertise of the terrorist killers. These kind of coordinated attacks, we were assured, presuppose a highly intelligent, highly skilled group of terrorists. The implication is that we are losing ground and are increasingly helpless in the face of such professional competence. We have been forced into a reactive mode to an invincible terrorist threat. Well, that's simply not the case.
In fact, to judge by the sophistication levels of terrorist attacks they reached the pinnacle with the simultaneous hijacking of airliners and converting them into homicide missiles on September 11, 2001. The terrorists have been unable to equal that attack and since then the degree and sophistication of terrorist offensives have declined. Frankly, it is no great shakes for a jihadist revolutionary movement with the kind of funding al Qaeda receives from sheiks in Saudi Arabia and mullahs in Iran to blow up a few bombs individually or simultaneously. It does not take loads of sophistication to pack a car with explosives, drive it to a target, and close an electrical circuit. Nor can it be anything other than sheer desperation to rely on terrorists who kill themselves along with their victims. Use of suicide bombers is a strategy of self-imposed attrition that can only result in organizational self destruction. Horrific, yes; advanced, no.
Where we see - or think we see - a growing sophistication of the terror movement is in organization and communication. Again, commentators speak in hushed tones of the use of the Internet for communications by al Qaeda, as if this is some amazing technological feat. What would really be amazing would be a terror organization that eschewed use of cell phones, PDAs, e-mails, wire transfers, and other everyday technologies that we all employ.
The origin for this odd attitude can be found in the commonly-held stereotype that these terrorists are poverty-stricken, ignorant refugees, fleeing from a life so cruel and unfair that killing Westerners is the only avenue open to them. A brief look at the biographies of these killers ought to be sufficient to disabuse that notion.
In a rather small set of terrorists - the 520 detainees held by US forces at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - one will find men with advanced degrees in engineering, economics, finances, and philosophy. One will find computer geeks capable of creating complex software programs or innovative methods of triggering explosives. Locked away in the GITMO cells are practical, hands-on technicians who can wire up a bomb in the dark as adroitly as they can behead a helpless hostage. There are a few men from the rougher classes of the 17 countries represented in the camp, but most are educated, intelligent, and, in their own twisted world, highly creative.
Initially much was made of the fact that in the London bombing all of the explosions went off within a minute of each other. Folks, that is what timers are designed to accomplish. One commentator noted that "in Madrid the bombs went off within two minutes of each other. (In London) they went off within a minute. That shows remarkable capability." Again, the question has to be raised: does it really?
Perhaps, if the explosions were under the desks of heads of state, inside key communications facilities, or capable of taking down an electrical grid and all blew simultaneously we could credit al Qaeda with highly increased sophistication. Not for the timing devices - these are fairly easy to rig and detonate - but for the placement of the explosives. But in London we saw none of this. Rather we saw the most basic kind of terrorist attack: random bombing of innocent civilians in the most public of places, subway trains and busses.
The late explosion - the bus explosion - was observed by witnesses as the terrorist fiddled inside of the pack containing the explosives. Was he trying to disarm the explosive or detonate it? Interesting question, because even though the terrorists have been labeled as "suicide bombers" by the police there remains an open - perhaps insoluble - question: could these bombers have been fooled themselves? Suppose they were directed to enter the public conveyances, place the backpacks in a crowded location, then leave? The timers, which they might have been told were set to go off a half-hour or so later, were then rigged to detonate early and convert their attack into a "martyrdom" operation.
Is this a frivolous notion? Not necessarily. Recall that post-911 we saw video of Usama bin Laden entertaining a visiting sheik. Bin Laden was regaling his visitor with stories of how he pulled off the September 11 attacks. In the course of the conversation bin Laden mentioned - with a half-smile - that several of the attackers "did not know that this was a martyrdom operation." In other words, even on what to date has been the most complex al Qaeda operation only a restricted few were privy to the real nature of the attack. This is certainly in keeping with what is known in the business as "tradecraft," reflecting precautions of compartmentalization and "need to know." Once committed to the World Trade Center attack there was no opportunity for the terrorists to back out. Had they known all along that it was a suicide operation might one or two chickened out? It is always a possibility, one neatly checkmated by the simple act of lying to the operative.
Given the backgrounds of the British-Pakistani men involved in the London terrorist attack it seems suspicious that they all four would have agreed to be homicide bombers. In my opinion, it is highly likely that they were intentionally misled by their al Qaeda control. If al Qaeda is now at the point where it cannot even recruit simple homicide bombers then it is struggling indeed. Regardless, we must be careful that while we give ample credit to the cunning, commitment, and aberrant ideology of our Islamist enemy we do not overstate their capabilities. We have them on defense and need to keep hounding them till we kill or capture the last one.