This past week, authorities in New York announced the arrest of four men, who were charged with a plot to bomb two synagogues in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, and to shoot down Air National Guard planes in Newburgh, NY. According to the press reports, this “terrorist cell” had been under surveillance for about a year. Although they allegedly planted car bombs outside the two synagogues before they were arrested, the “bombs” contained only dummy explosives, which were supplied by an FBI informant. Speaking of dummies, the alleged plotters were not exactly the brightest bulbs in the chandelier:
But they were amateurs every step of the way. They had trouble finding guns and bought cameras at Wal-Mart to photograph their targets. One was a convicted purse snatcher, another smoked marijuana the day the plot was to be carried out.
There is no record of the plotters having any weapons except for the dummy explosives and a dummy surface-to-air missile, all supplied by the informant. The members of the cell, although they are doubtless not very nice people, hardly fit the profile of criminal or terrorist masterminds: one had done time for purse snatching, and the others for various drug offenses.
There are aspects of this case that are reminiscent of the so-called “Liberty City 7” plot, in which seven down-and-outs, living in a warehouse, were arrested in Miami in 2006, and charged with plotting to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago. In that case, too, the alleged plotters seemed pretty incompetent. The only weapons and money they got came from — you guessed it — another FBI informant. Some of the details of the alleged plot were just ludicrous:
At one point during the Liberty City investigation, Batiste suggested to the informant that they could blow up the Sears Tower so that it would fall into Lake Michigan and create a tsunami. “Where did you get this idea?” Batiste’s attorney later asked him on the stand. His answer was believable: “Just from watching the movies.”
(Just for the record, according to its Web site, the Sears Tower is 1450 feet tall. It is approximately 5000 feet from the nearest point of Lake Michigan shoreline. How the tower was supposed to be moved 3000+ feet horizontally in order to fall into the lake was not explained.) The case ended with one defendant being acquitted, and the other six cases ending in a mistrial.
It’s noteworthy, in both these cases, that the plot, such as it was, was uncovered by old-fashioned, ordinary police work. No warrantless wiretaps or other devices of questionable legality were involved.
I suppose that one can look on the bright side, and say that, if these are representative terrorist plots, we don’t have all that much to worry about, because the plotters all seem to be idiots. But one has to wonder whether we are wasting resources catching people who were probably more likely to blow themselves up than anyone else. An old cynic like me also wonders how much of this is related to the FBI and other security agencies looking for more funding.
Bruce Schneier had an excellent essay on this, “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot“, which was originally published in Wired back in 2007; it’s still timely.