Monday, May 3, 2010

Simple But Deadly

Yesterday I noted a tendency in some quarters to minimize terrorist threats by ridiculing certain attempts as unsophisticated or amateurish, even though crude devices can be quite deadly. Today an article in the Washington Post makes that point in more detail. As the authors explain,
it was the simple nature of those components that made the attempted bombing relatively easy to execute and nearly impossible to detect ... Both the Times Square bombmaker and the man who pleaded guilty in the plot to bomb the New York subway system last fall used recipes that required nothing more challenging than Internet research and a trip to the hardware store or beauty supply shop.
Military explosives and precision detonators may be more reliable, but they are also more difficult to obtain, harder to get into the country from abroad, and easier to detect. Homemade bombs can be assembled by anyone who has the time and ability to learn how to build one, using ordinary materials. If purchased carefully, a terrorist can use common materials to assemble a powerful explosive device inside this country without detection. Another key point,
"Often officials use the word' amateurish,' when in fact the attempts turn out to be more complex than first portrayed," said Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University. "Even if the bomb was amateurish, look at the target. New York has an image of being tough on terrorists, but that wasn't enough to prevent someone from putting a car bomb in the city's nerve center on a busy night."
So what can be done to prevent these attacks? If the perpetrator is part of a larger organization or has connections to known terrorists or terrorist-sympathizers, intelligence and counterterrorism efforts might be able to detect, disrupt or eliminate the plot before it gets to the point of execution. But what about a true lone-wolf?
Preventing such attacks is a harder challenge, one that requires well-trained local police officers and a vigilant citizenry, Townsend said. "Those are the people on the front lines when it comes to the individual one-off type of attacks," she said.
That's true, but unfortunately it requires quite a bit of luck -- someone in the right place at the right time. If that doesn't happen, even a crude, homemade terrorist construct, sited in a place where it can do maximum damage, can wreak havoc. 

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