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Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot

James Kellerman

Bruce Schneier has an excellent article in Wired and on his blog about the idiocy of the recent terrorist plots that have been foiled by the authorities and the hype and disinformation that has been central to the reporting of them.
The alleged plan, to blow up JFK's fuel tanks and a small segment of the 40-mile petroleum pipeline that supplies the airport, was ridiculous. The fuel tanks are thick-walled, making them hard to damage. The airport tanks are separated from the pipelines by cutoff valves, so even if a fire broke out at the tanks, it would not back up into the pipelines. And the pipeline couldn't blow up in any case, since there's no oxygen to aid combustion. Not that the terrorists ever got to the stage -- or demonstrated that they could get there -- where they actually obtained explosives. Or even a current map of the airport's infrastructure.
Compare this with the comments from media reports.
"The devastation that would be caused had this plot succeeded is just unthinkable," U.S. Attorney Roslynn R. Mauskopf said at a news conference, calling it "one of the most chilling plots imaginable." Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) added, "It had the potential to be another 9/11."
This reminds me of the liquid bombers that were supposedly going to blow up planes leaving the UK. We have no idea of how far along they were in the plot, whether it was feasible or even if they were ever to go through with it. As Bruce says these are difficult prosecutions, proving intent is incredibly difficult and I believe the wrong stage to intercept these groups. It risks creating thought crimes, being arrested etc for thinking, writing or discussing an act that you may have no capability or intention to carry out.
Even under the best of circumstances, these are difficult prosecutions. Arresting people before they've carried out their plans means trying to prove intent, which rapidly slips into the province of thought crime. Regularly the prosecution uses obtuse religious literature in the defendants' homes to prove what they believe, and this can result in courtroom debates on Islamic theology. And then there's the issue of demonstrating a connection between a book on a shelf and an idea in the defendant's head, as if your reading of this article -- or purchasing of my book -- proves that you agree with everything I say.
When these cases come to trial they deserve the utmost scrutiny to ensure that there is no miscarriage of justice. Read Bruce's commentary here