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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 05/ 3/2010

Times Square: Axles of evil, part deux

By Jeff Stein

I’ll say it again: We’re lucky terrorists are such boneheads.

For every Carlos the Jackal, there are scores of guys like the 1993 World Trade Center bomber, who demanded a $400 deposit back from Ryder after blowing up its truck.

It didn’t take the FBI long to trace an axle part it found in the Trade Center to the bombers (although it would take awhile to get the ringleader).

Then there are the seven Afghans in the Najibullah Zazi case last year, who tried to rent a truck at a Queens U-Haul without credit cards or IDs. The manager, a bit suspicious about the bearded ones, called the police.

The latest entry in the annals of terr-perp stupidity comes from Times Square this weekend. Somebody connected to the Nissan Pathfinder carrying the bomb, police say, tried to file off the SUV’s VIN, or vehicle identification number -- as if it couldn’t be easily recaptured or found elsewhere.

“They make a lot of mistakes, even when they’re successful,” Mike Sheehan said to me Sunday afternoon.

In the 1990s, Sheehan headed the counterterrorism operations of both the NYPD and the State Department.

In his 2008 book, “Crush the Cell: How to Defeat Terrorism Without Terrorizing Ourselves,” he devotes an entire chapter to the general idiocy of these guys.

With one big exception, he says -- the Sept. 11 attacks, brilliantly executed -- Islamist terrorists succeed not because they’re such evil geniuses, but because we’re just not paying enough attention.

Take the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing in Nairobi.

One of the bombers jumped out of the truck and ordered the guard to open the gate, but he forgot his weapon. The driver, meanwhile, ran away with no money, passport or plan to escape Kenya.

If the truck had gotten inside the compound, the damage and death toll would have been far worse.

“Due to bungling on the part of several of the terrorist operatives immediately before and after the attack, it was determined within days that this plot was the handiwork of an organization, little known outside of the intelligence community, called al Qaeda,” Sheehan writes.

It was only a matter of time before the plotters were rolled up.

Sheehan also cites the USS Cole attack, in Aden in October 2000.

The first terrorist boat, overloaded, sunk. Lax security procedures let the next one slide right up to the hull.

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, of course, showed that stupidity is not confined to jihadis.

After his lethal artwork, McVeigh checked into a motel in Junction City, Kan., where he had rented the truck for his bomb under his own name.

"FBI agents traced the truck to a Junction City body shop that leased it after they recovered its vehicle identification number from the truck's rear axle, which was blown a block away from the blast," the Associated Press said.

The axle done him in.

McVeigh was convicted on federal bombing charges and executed in 2001.

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By Jeff Stein  | May 3, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Intelligence, Justice/FBI  
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Comments

I agree with your general proposition that terrorists are amazingly bad at execution. Times Square, Christmas, and the Ur-shoebomber are prime examples.

I have to take issue with some of your other assertions about the competency of terrorists. The fact that Timothy McVeigh was caught hardly proves stupidity on his part. He's no longer around, so we can't ask him, but I seriously doubt he considered the Oklahoma City bombing a failure. Additionally, I am unaware of anyone who thinks we got lucky or dodged a bullet in any way in that bombing. He refused to allow his lawyers to attempt an insanity defense, which suggests that evading punishment wasn't high on his list of priorities.

McVeigh was no more stupid or a failure than the September 11th hijackers. It makes about as much sense to pat ourselves on the back for McVeigh's death as for the September 11th hijackers' deaths. That was a price he was willing to pay to achieve his goal. Let's not pretend like we got the last laugh.

Posted by: grapoport | May 3, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse


As they are so stupid, doesn't this raise the question of to how easy they are to manipulate?

With regard to the 9/11 attacks, it's widely known that there were many warnings that were seen and ignored. For example, Sen. Diane Feinstien, who is remarkable for her level-headedness, was really upset one Sunday morning on a talk show that summer. She said there had been warnings that terrorists might attempt to hijack as many as five planes.

Man was she ever wrong! Missed it by one plane, as best we know.

Posted by: blasmaic | May 3, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

Fortunately, there aren't any successful suicide bombers with experience.

Posted by: ggilby1 | May 3, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

Judging from the combination of 'lethal' components this person had placed in the vehicle and looking at the video of the current 'person of interest', you could draw the conclusion that some college professor was testing the 'system' in New York City to shore up recognition for his new book on panic behavior syndroms. On the other hand if some Taliban terrorists in Waziristan want to claim credit and you can get them in the eye of the Predator, the usual rules of engagement for Crimes Against Humanity should take effect. For crimes against humanity or Criaghum, the perpetrator is guilty unless he can prove otherwise to a local constituted sovereignty. But the New Yorker intellectual doing a book is more probable.

Posted by: arjay1 | May 3, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse


Evil geniuses are in short supply. Only in Hollywood writers' imaginations do they abound. That is a good thing.

The great thing about suicide attacks is that they use up something in short supply. Mohammed Atta was at the heart of that conspiracy and he is no more.

Posted by: edbyronadams | May 3, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

I'm a little troubled by the author's characterization of these incidents as almost a kind of slapstick. I couldn't help noticing that in almost every case cited, the terrorists' "stupidity" didn't hinder them from killing innocent people. It's good that McVeigh made mistakes and was caught, but it was after lives were lost, and his capture also gave him a platform for his anti-government views. It's worth noting that suicide bombers don't have to worry about what evidence they leave behind. Also, part of what makes terrorism a useful tactic is that even when the attempt fails, it nevertheless sows fear. We better not let it sow complacency, and we shouldn't rely on the stupidity of terrorists too often.

Posted by: typedancer | May 3, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Terrorists, whether in thrall to religous superstitution or fox news, are mainly stupid, easily manipulated people with serious emotional problems.

They are believers of blsht -- that's why they cleave to nutcases like Beck and Limbaugh -- or true believers in right-wing religious nonsense.

I'm trying, and I just think of a single modern terrorist incident that involved lefties. Not one.

Terrorists have all turned out to be hyper-religious nutcases, christians, muslims or, like McVeigh, just terminally stupid right wing idiots.

Posted by: Casey1 | May 3, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

Terrorists, whether in thrall to religous superstitution or fox news, are mainly stupid, easily manipulated people with serious emotional problems.

They are believers of blsht -- that's why they cleave to nutcases like Beck and Limbaugh -- or true believers in right-wing religious nonsense.

I'm trying, and I just think of a single modern terrorist incident that involved lefties. Not one. (The unibomber wasn't religious, but just like the teabaggers, he longed to live in the 18th century.)

Nearly all terrorists have all turned out to be hyper-religious nutcases, christians, muslims or, like McVeigh, just terminally stupid right wing idiots.

Posted by: Casey1 | May 3, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse


I guess the Red Army Faction and Weather Underground are ancient history. (eye roll)

Posted by: edbyronadams | May 3, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

I have to correct Casey1. Although I generally agree that religious fundamentalism equals crazy and can sum up to "terrorist," there have been Leftist terrorists.

In the 1960's (or was it '70's? whoops), the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst and murdered innocent civilians, all in the name of prison reform and better access to food for the poor.

I think the Weather Underground was a terrorist cell that was active in the '60's in opposition to the Vietnam War.

Many liberals wear tee-shirts with the image of Che Guevara. Although the intended message has always seemed somewhat mottled to me, the general support for Che means support for guerrilla warfare, which equates to terrorism in this time (albeit Che fought against a series of oppressive regimes, and this brings up questions of when war is appropriate).

The lesson here: it takes all kinds, on the left and the right. Just because currently, the the right has adopted a culture of screaming, foaming at the mouth outrage does not make the left exempt from the crazies. Hey, I'd foam at the mouth for equal access to education, for a woman's right to choose, and universal healthcare. In fact, I'm doing it right now.

Posted by: 1234510 | May 3, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Underestimating the enemy is an arrogance that often costs dearly.

The Jihadists in Iraq, during their heyday, had considerable success against U.S. forces.

WTC 1 attack came very, very close to destroying the building's infrastructure. The fact that an idiot went back for his deposit in no way affected the mission's success.

Posted by: john_bruckner | May 3, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

We had the underwear bomber, now the car bomber both flopped. But what comes to mind is an old saying...Third time is a charm....

Posted by: Immanurse | May 3, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

This is a strange article... we're generally not talking about bank thieves here who intend to commit a crime and then go benefit from it... we're talking about people for whom the crime is usually contemplated as the last act of their lives. Is it a surprise that they lack the panache of a James Bond bad guy?

That said, I think our political debate has indeed clouded the reality of what will be needed to discover and break up these groups. It seems as though many of our successes are linked to the tried/true methods of investigation and lead follow-up that went so out of vogue post 9/11.

Jack Bauer makes for good TV and angry talk seems very masculine but I'll take a cool head behind the scenes connecting dots any day of the week.

Posted by: Rickster623 | May 3, 2010 1:34 PM | Report abuse

Israel always will work on all fronts to keep the Americans fighting for them, the funny thing is that most Americans know it by now, but they still more than happy to do the hard costly work for Israel.

Its another Mossad work, now the rest will be done in the white house where they get told how to react and what to do by the Israelis who rules America

Posted by: A008 | May 3, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

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