Safe From Harm

3 July 2007

Ok, jokes aside, I’d like to cast a more serious eye over Friday’s and Saturday’s attacks. We are told, by the leader of The Times, no less, that it was a:

Lucky escape for London

This weekend could have been very different. Instead of relief at the narrow escape London had in the early hours of Friday, we would have been mourning the death and destruction bombers had brought to the capital. And perhaps Glasgow airport too.

Well, were we lucky? How close were we to carnage and 200-foot fireballs and mass annihilation? Well, thanks to the laws of physics, not very much:

Yes, it could have been a real horror. Only, the device could not have detonated. Not under any circumstances. You see, the terrorist wannabe clown who built it left out a crucial element: an oxidiser. The device was pure pre-teen boy fantasy.

“We’ll heat up these propane cylinders with burning petrol, and they’ll go off like bombs”, boys the world over have remarked with glee. They don’t realise that air is a poor oxidiser, and the only “explosion” they will get is when gas pressure inside the cylinders is great enough to burst them. Then the propane will ignite, and a nice fireball will blossom. A fireball, not an explosion.

Oh, the Piccadilly fireball would have blown the car’s windows out, and popped its doors open, and sent various bits like mirrors and so forth into the air at velocities possibly fatal to people nearby. It would have looked really cool, that’s for sure. But an explosive event…a detonation? Not in a million years. Sorry lads: you failed car bombing 101; you did not attend a single lecture; you did not even open the textbook.

If you prefer your analysis slightly more sober, then the security analysts at Stratfor come to a similar conclusion:

The devices were incendiary, not explosive, meaning they were capable of causing intense flames, but little concussive force. Though a firebomb can be dangerous to people and damaging to structures in the immediate vicinity, it is less likely to damage buildings or cause casualties than a blast caused by high explosives. Although gasoline vapors can cause a powerful explosion, it is difficult to create a viable improvised fuel-air explosive device.

And indeed on top of the laws of physics, we can also thank the laws of health and safety, which mean that propane tanks don’t vent when subject to a few seconds’ flame, nor do cars suddenly set alight and explode if you light some burning petrol underneath them. No doubt the likes of Jeremy Clarkson will be applauding our legislators and our European counterparts for such foresight. I’ll even stray into pure speculation briefly – one of the reasons why this tactic may work better in Iraq (which everyone says is the inspiration for this latest attack) is that the cars and gas tanks there are older and less well-maintained and thus more flammable than the ones here. Maybe I’m wrong on that front, though.

Anyway, moving away from the means to the end they wished to achieve. To be sure, they were in one way, intended to be highly destructive and to cause a great loss of life. Yet it wasn’t even the execution that was botched, but destined to fail from the very start; the very intent of the bombs was what caused it to fail in the first place. Some words from Jamie K:

Something odd has happened to the al-Qaeda and affiliates’ decision making loop at least out on the fringes of its area of activity. Up to the 7/7 attacks you could see a pattern emerging; mass casualty events on or utilising transport and communications networks, undertaken through established methods ? highjackings , for instance? and using tried and tested forms of explosive.

Now the attacks themselves seem to combine the ludicrously apocalyptic with the ridiculously amateurish and the targeting strategy either makes no sense from a warfighting point of view (the Ministry of Sound) or is impossibly ambitious (ten airliners blown up simultaneously).

(Admittedly these were made before the Glasgow attack, which was at least aimed at an airport, but even then they chose the relatively soft target of a departure lounge rather than a key piece of infrastructure)

Over at Bruce Schneier’s excellent blog, there has been much talk of the past of “movie plot threats” (e.g.). Two years ago, he claimed “Terrorists Don’t Do Movie Plots” but since then he’s changed his tune a little, in the aptly-timed “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot“, dicussing a recent non-plot to blow up JFK Airport:

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.

But read what Russell Defreitas, the lead terrorist, had to say: “Anytime you hit Kennedy, it is the most hurtful thing to the United States. To hit John F. Kennedy, wow…. They love JFK — he’s like the man. If you hit that, the whole country will be in mourning. It’s like you can kill the man twice.”

If these are the terrorists we’re fighting, we’ve got a pretty incompetent enemy.

The doolally idiocy has now spread to the other side; now the terrorists, no doubt given succour by how scaremongering politicians and journalists who portray them as the greatest threat to humanity, are now all too happy to fall for the lie, to be seduced by a dream of victory through Hollywood-style spectaculars and the bad movie physics that go along with them.1 So much for backwards medievalism, instead they are all too happy to be inspired by Western narratives; as John Gray has on occasion discussed, the acts that al-Qaeda perpetrate today are thoroughly modern in both their outlook and execution.

It’s our version of The Onion’s “After 5 Years In U.S., Terrorist Cell Too Complacent To Carry Out Attack” – except rather than complacency in decadence and laziness, the bombers are complacent in their ignorance of even the most basic scientific and physical principles, coupled with delusions of their own efficacy. This is a particularly stark reflection of modern Britain, worth a thousand hand-wringing pieces on dumbing down by journalists barely capable of stringing a sentence together themselves.

Of course, there may be other factors at hand here; the Stratfor article also notes how the British government have tightened the controls on other means of creating explosives meaning they have had to resort to ever-more improbable means (“liquid bombs” on airliners etc.). There’s even been the odd question that it might have involved an agent provocateur – here’s Jamie K again:

I can?t help thinking as well that counter-terrorism operations usually involve infiltration at decision making levels and to maintain the credibility of the infiltrator it then becomes necessary to permit certain terrorist actions to take place. Given al-Qaeda?s liking for mass casualty attacks, that raises certain difficulties. But you could square that circle by promoting attacks which by their very nature you know won?t succeed.

I won’t go there, interesting as it is and given past governments’ records on infiltrating terrorist organisations (and current concerns that some terrorism cases in the US may have involved entrapment) not absolutely implausible.

Instead, I’ll finish by reflecting on the sober and quiet reaction of the new Prime Minister and Cabinet to the attacks. There’s no John Reid or David Blunkett getting hysterical about the threat, no insecure Tony Blair hell-bent on showing his strength by coming up with rushed, absurd new laws. Instead there is a quiet resolve to get the job done without panicking the population unnecessarily, and by God it’s refreshing. I don’t think removing the climate of fear will simply remove the threat of terrorism, and it is definitely not a task that the Government alone is responsible for, but every effort to detoxify the air of needless fear which pollutes the debate and emboldens terrorists is a good one, and one that makes me feel, well, a little bit safer.

1 As a footnote – the other day, after watching the appalling Cliffhanger with Sylvester Stallone and John Lithgow, which features a slowly-descending helicopter suddenly bursting into flame the second it makes contact with the ground – Tom and I have tried to think up the most ridiculous “thing blowing up when you shoot it” scenario a film could do. Our current best effort so far is a ten-ton lorry carrying a load of fire extinguishers; if you can do better, then send it in.


2 Responses

Maybe they could go for the double-bluff and have a lorryload of flour exploding.

Most ridiculous thing to blow up when you shoot it? An iceberg.

Imagine if Hollywood had really managed to have their own way with the Titanic story:

“No goddamn iceberg’s gonna stop me from being king of the world! Eat lead, Frosty!”