I’ve got this story in my head and I can’t get rid of it.
Evil Terrorist Mastermind: You my friends have been selected to smite the crusaders. Here is an hundred grand – go and prepare bombs as you have been trained.
NHS Suicide Squad head off to the god-forsaken wastes of Blackburn or Glasgow or somewhere.
First NHS Terrorist: Right. We are going to use car bombs, so we need some cars. Let us consult the Exchange & Mart.
Second Terrorist: Sod that – I always wanted a Mercedes-Benz. Let’s go to the dealership.
Third Terrorist: I concur.
(Terrorists buy nice shiny Mercedes (2 of), and a Jeep Cherokee, and show off driving them around for several months while accustoming themselves to the Land of the Infidel.)
First NHS Terrorist: I have received word: the attack is to be when the new leader of the infidels takes over. We must make our bombs. Where is the fertilizer?
Second NHS Terrrorist: ah… about the fertilizer
Third Terrorist: We had not enough money left after buying the cars. I blame the Jews.
First Terrorist: Oh shit. Well we must do the best we can. I’m going to B&Q to look for something that might blow up.
There’s absolutely no reason to believe that’s what happened, but whatever the real story is, it probably isn’t any less stupid.
Oh, and do bear in mind that the whole NHS thing might be a bit of a red herring: the police seem to be rounding up telephone contacts of the self-immolationists, which in itself is a perfectly sensible approach, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if most of those arrested the last couple of days were to turn out to be innocent within the next few days.
There is now one reason to be worried about what Bruce Schneier has called the “Terrorist Special Olympics” going on in Great Britain.
Apparently the “mastermind” behind this shocking display of idiocy was a doctor. The idea that someone so ignorant of basic science as to be involved with these bargain basement incendiaries was actually practising medicine in this country is actually a little frightening. Let us all hope he is innocent.
There was previously just a tiny sliver of doubt in my mind. Were the two Mercedes cars left in London – the one that crashed and the one that was towed away by Westminster Council for being illegally parked – really as ill-prepared to do anyone any damage at all as news reports implied?
Possibly, as well as the “Propane, petrol and nails“, there was also a stick of dynamite that the police had neglected to mention. Maybe the petrol was mixed with ammonium nitrate. I couldn’t really be certain.
To set my mind at rest, there was the suicide arson attack on Glasgow Airport. This time, the car did actually “go off”, to the degree we would expect of the non-explosive combination of fuels that featured in descriptions of the London contraptions.
The media, and the Home Secretary, have spoken inaccurately of a “Detonator”. Propane and petrol do not detonate. They ignite. The result is something that scientists call a “fire”. And therefore, these cargo-cult terrorists are not bombers, but arsonists. One could call them “Suicide Arsonists”, but their equipment is not actually adequate even for suicide, so Attempted Suicide Arsonists are what they are.
The sensible response would be nothing at all. However, I cannot ignore them all by myself. I am therefore attempting to stir up some apathy. The “two minutes silence” has become a familiar ceremony to us all as we attempt to show our concern about some tragedy or another. I suggest that to mark this farcical terror campaign, we all stop what we are doing and publicly carry out a “one minute giggle”. Posters showing images of burning men holding Molotov cocktails, and would-be car-bombs being towed by traffic wardens. How about noon on Friday?
“Krazy Klown jihadis” – The Register
“Darwinian-Award dim” – Rachel
Interesting Wall Street Journal article – noting that no evidence of actual high explosive was found in the cars, and that propane-tank bombs have been used previously in Germany, and didn’t work there either.
High explosive – it’s not an optional extra.
Dammit, killing people isn’t a new idea. There’s been a lot of thought and work put into it these last few millenia, and there’s a good bit of prior art. The experts in large-scale homicide all agree: high explosives are the thing. Messing about with propane and petrol isn’t even amateur – it’s childish. Grow up and get some bombs.
How many people could they have killed if they’d thrown the silly toys out of the car and just started running people over? Cars kill 3-4 thousand people a year in Britain, and they use two whole cars up without killing anyone. They’re embarrassing.
In seriousness, the police do seem to have succeeded in making it very difficult for the bad guys to get their hands on the good stuff, and deserve a lot of credit.
I made the point some time ago that Chemical and Biological weapons are much less effective for mass destruction than high explosive. I don’t have any special knowledge, it’s just obvious.
Today in The Register, a former bomb disposal officer makes the exact same point.
I’m not saying that a chemical attack would be a completely trivial matter, but it would almost always be preferable to being hit by the same weight of high explosives.
So, if your aim is to kill and injure as many people as possible, you’d be a fool to use chemicals. And yet chemicals are rated as WMDs, while ordinary explosives aren’t. So too are biologicals, even more amazingly. Biological “weapons”, in the modern sense, have yet to be even demonstrated.
There is a lesson to the unexpected spectacle of the DUP/Sinn Fein power-sharing setup.
That is that a peace agreement has to be negotiated between the parties that are actually fighting. Distantly related proxies can negotiate all they want, but ultimately it’s what the conflicting parties themselves will accept that matters.
The initial peace negotiations in Northern Ireland were outside the political institutions, and they set the framework for the new regime. But at that stage it was still tentative.
The government formed by Trimble and Hume was not able to settle matters, because neither was able to satisfy the other side that was speaking for the hardliners. John Hume could not satisfy Unionists that the IRA was on board, because he doesn’t speak for the IRA. And Trimble could not satisfy Nationalists that the unionists were permanently committed to the new arrangements, because he could be overruled at any election by Paisley being elected.
So when commentators ask, how can Paisley make a deal that he attacked Trimble for making, the answer is that Paisley is making a deal via Sinn Fein with the IRA, not with the SDLP. And no deal with the SDLP is a deal for peace, because the SDLP was never at war.
I’m scrabbling around trying to get a lot of my disorganised thoughts on the War on Terror into proper relation.
The “long war” rationale for the Iraq war is essentially a return to the Heinlein theory that in a world of nuclear weapons, potential enemies cannot be tolerated. The Middle East is a threat for the indefinite future, and therefore must be reshaped politically to remove the danger.
The problem with the theory for me is the scale of its ambition. The project aims at achieving a world, in the relevant 10-30 year timescale, where no medium-sized industrial nation capable of developing nuclear weapons will be hostile enough to be a risk of passing on the weapons to terrorists, or using them.
The strategy doesn’t necessarily have to be 100% successful to be worthwhile, if a partial success would reduce the danger. But a partial success, while reducing the pool of potentially lethal enemies, might well at the same time increase the danger from those remaining in the pool, mostly by increasing their motivation to obtain nuclear weapons as a deterrent.
This is why, in the division of long-term projects I made in the previous piece, the project falls on the “hubris” side. We can be reasonably sure that having more fertile land, or having cheaper energy, 30 or 50 years in the future will be a good thing. It’s difficult to say how good, but the beneficial nature of these things are robust with respect to all sorts of unpredictable developments.
It’s not obvious in the same way that having a military presence in the Middle East will be a good thing. It might well be, but it easily might be a bad thing – there are well-known downsides to empire. The rationale for undertaking the project relies on a number of assumptions about political, technological and economic developments over several decades. They are not silly assumptions, but in combination they are not at all reliable.
Against that objection, there is a “desperation” argument. That says that the long-run prospects as they stand are so bad, that even if an attempt to remove the nuclear threat has a low chance of success, it is a chance worth pursuing, because it’s the best chance we have.
Again, I think that’s too pessimistic. I don’t know how we will deal with the increasing nuclear threat over the coming decades, but as a statement of ignorance of the future, that is not particularly interesting. Something may well turn up. I’m not saying we should assume it must, but the “desperation” argument assumes that nothing will turn up, and I think that is invalid.
In 1945, one nation had nuclear weapons. By 1949, there were two. 1964, five. Today, probably nine.
By now, any industrial nation could develop fission weapons if not actively prevented. Any advanced nation could probably develop fusion weapons.
A matter of a decade or two, it will be possible for half the countries on Earth to make nuclear weapons. A while ago, I suggested that one day a kitchen device would be able to synthesize arbitrary chemicals; if nanotechnology fulfils its promise, then uranium enrichment could become a garage activity. Twenty-five years? Fifty? I can’t see it taking a hundred.
Since 1945, various strategies have been put forward to protect against nuclear attack.
One of the first suggested was world conquest. Robert Heinlein was very insistent in the 40s that the only sane course was for the USA to conquer the entire world before any potential enemy could develop nuclear weapons.
Disarmament was another widely recommended option – stuffing the genie back into the bottle.
The two strategies that were actually pursued were deterrence and non-proliferation. Deterrence worked – and innovations such as submarine-launched missiles reduced the first-strike threat. But as the number of nuclear powers increases, the reliability of deterrence falls, as the possibility of a concealed or deniable attack increase, and there is more chance of a foreign power being desperate or crazy enough to not care about deterrence.
Non-proliferation may have slowed down the spread of nuclear weapon technology, but in the long run, it is failing.
So how bad is the long-run outlook? It is seriously worrying. If, in 2060, the likes of Mohammed Siddique Khan and his associates (or Timothy McVeigh, or David Copeland) can produce a few atomic bombs in a house, it seems inevitable that sooner or later we would see a level of destructive nuclear terrorism which could totally destabilize our society – in the way that present-day terrorism – with home-made bombs, sabotage, and assasination – simply can’t.
What about the nearer future? Say 2025 – enriched uranium is still outside the reach of the hobbyist, but there are 100 or 200 potential or actual nuclear powers in the world. Some of them are politically unstable. Some of them are our enemies. How long can such a situation endure without a society-destroying state or state-sponsored-terrorist nuclear attack?
It’s very difficult to say.
Somehow, I’m just not too worried by all this. It’s just too hard to predict politics that far into the future with any confidence. You can pick one issue – nuclear proliferation – and project and speculate as to how it will develop, which is what I’ve done. What you can’t do is take all the other areas which might change the environment, and predict how all of them will develop over decades. What countermeasures might be developed? How will the world economy change? How powerful will satellite surveillance become? What totally unexpected technological, political or economic development will change the game beyond recognition?
That’s not a conclusive reason for letting the future fend for itself. I’m trying to draw a distinction between the forseeable consequences of our actions, which we must evaluate and include in our calculations, and the attempt to predict and manipulate the state of the world in the far future, which is hubris. Projects which will bring long-term benefits are certainly worthy of consideration, whether they be irrigating the deserts, or developing new energy sources, or anything else useful – we are not sure how valuable their results will be, but if, appropriately discounted, our best estimate is that they will pay for their costs, then they are worth doing. But projects whose value depends on particular assumptions as to the state of the world in the far future – that we will be allied to certain types of government, or that the balance of state versus individual power will move in a certain way – well, given the right assumptions almost any policy can be justified, including policies of “bringing forward” future and actually quite unlikely conflicts to the present.
Update: A more alarming assesment of the current nuclear threat from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
The attack on the World Trade Center had mainly long-term goals. It was intended by its planners to win supporters to the long-term project of spreading Islamic theocracy by scoring a major coup, and by dragging the US into a war where it could be beaten.
The bombings in London had mainly short-term goals. It was intended by its planners, who were probably also the bombers, to drive Britain out of Iraq.
The invasion of Afghanistan had mainly short-term goals. It was intended to destroy the organisation which had planned the WTC attack, to punish them and to prevent them repeating it.
The invasion of Iraq had mainly long-term goals. There was a long article out about a month ago spelling out that the intention was not to prevent another WTC-style medium-tech terrorist attack, it was to prevent something much bigger, perhaps ten or twenty-five years down the road, by democratizing the Middle East so as not to contain any states that might feed future terrorists with nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately I can’t now find the article – the nearest thing I’ve got to spelling it out is GWB’s May speech.
Via Schneier, excellent article in Legal Affairs comparing modern terrorists with pirates. Parallels are strong, complete with states backing pirates for deniable attacks on other states, and pirates seizing land and forming mini-states in wild lands. The emphasis is on the law of the sea as precedent for an international legal framework for dealing with terrorism.
One difference, which is significant to the argument that the threat of terrorism is exaggerated: piracy was essentially for-profit, and therefore sustainable. Terrorism creates occasional opportunities for plunder, but is generally a loss-making activity requiring external funding. Therefore it is less likely to be as widespread and as near-permanent a problem as piracy was (and is).
Where terrorism is profitable, it is in “danger” of decaying into pure gansterism, losing its political side where that is not good for business. I believe that happened to a certain extent in Northern Ireland.