The Terrorist Challenge to Liberal Democracy: IEDs

A USA Today article yesterday quoted Lt. General Michael Barbero, retiring head of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), as saying that the threat of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs, homemade bombs) “is here to stay.”  Perhaps even more chilling, he added, “Boston is not an anomaly.”  In order to avoid fueling any public panic, this challenge must be carefully considered and the means of defeating it rationally explored.

Since the countries that report the highest number of IED attacks are the US and various Middle Eastern/Central Asian countries, I thought it would be useful here to reflect a bit on how the means to prevent IEDs all require watering down one or another element of what the US has valued as its practice of liberal democracy.  IED attacks will never succeed in bringing down US democracy, nor will they accomplish terrorists’ plans in the US (other than making the US population angrier across the board), but they frequently sabotage Middle Eastern attempts to implement broad-based democracy on a US model, and the responses taken by Middle Eastern governments to counter terrorism are often labeled “violation of freedoms” by people in the US who do not realize the choice between curtailed freedoms and further loss of life.  Looking at the limited means available to interrupt the production of IEDs, and their attendant costs in terms of freedom, may provide a more realistic assessment of options in both American and Middle Eastern governance.

So, how can IED attacks be prevented?

Option 1: Ignorance is bliss

If people don’t know how to make homemade bombs, they cannot make them to use in attacks.  Unfortunately, the cat is out of the bag, and I’ve heard that one can find bomb plans online (I haven’t looked).  So apart from bringing down the whole internet and reverting to 1995, which almost no one would support because of the widespread benefits which also come from internet access (including my ability to write this blog, for example), this is no longer an option.

Option 2: You don’t say!

Internet reading access is nearly unrestricted, but so is internet writing access, and now with free blogs and Facebook just about anyone can write anything and put it online.  One might try targeted cyber attacks to take down any webpage that posts recipes for homemade bombs.  Call it selective censorship.  Yes, it curtails freedom of speech, although some would be willing to pay a selective topic-specific loss in freedom of speech in order to gain more safety on the streets.

Unfortunately, it is not easy to define precisely what is or is not a recipe for an IED.  Pressure cookers, for example, were a main ingredient in the recent Boston Marathon bombs, but pressure cookers are also mentioned in home canning recipes posted online.  Given that those attempting to post bomb recipes would presumably not title them “How to Make an IED” or something equally obvious, there is a real danger of more subtle detection methods making Facebook never work again because of a continuous stream of false positives, and the majority of the US population would then go into withdrawal symptoms.  But there’s also the problem of false negatives: just as the alchemists of old came up with bizarre codes to encode their recipes which might allegedly turn lead into gold, so codes could be endlessly invented to attempt to circumvent the targeted cyber attacks.

And even if the internet could be ruled out as a means of transmitting the knowledge of how to make IEDs, that does not prevent person-to-person or over-the-phone sharing.

Option 3: It’s not what you know, it’s whom you know

If it is not possible to prevent transfer of the knowledge of how to make IEDs, perhaps it is possible to trace the social networks by which this knowledge transfer happens.  In this case, new social media websites actually help by making publicly visible the otherwise invisible threads of social connections.  If person A is a suspected terrorist, then all of person A’s “friends” might be suspected terrorists too!  Of course, as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s classmates have found out, it is possible to be a “friend” of someone accused of an attack without having the faintest idea.  This raises the problem of the lower and upper bounds of this kind of reasoning: the number of suspected terrorists for which a government knows the name (and social media usernames) might be very small relative to the number of people who might be getting information to plan IED attacks, while it might be very difficult to distinguish “terrorist social networks” from normal social networks on the basis of structure alone.

How to obtain better results?  Apart from putting a beacon on every search engine to inform them whenever anyone searches for “home made bomb recipes” (now admit it, how many of you found this post by just such a search?), it is very difficult, and there is great danger of racial profiling or religious profiling.  I was dismayed by the way news articles (for example, here) used reports that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had become “more religious” as synonymous with “more likely to be a terrorist.”  If a Protestant minister or an atheist blogger criticizes the US government, that is just the value of free speech in a functioning democracy, but if an imam criticizes the US government, many might take that to be a symptom of radical Islam!  Racial profiling and religious profiling will simply increase the bitterness and alienation of those in the targeted groups against the government, leading to increased violence.

(It is always worth reminding people that the terror tactics presently used by jihadis were adopted by them in imitation of secularist and right-wing Western terrorists of a previous generation.  These secularist and right-wing Western terrorists have continued to the present in figures such as Anders Behring Breivik.)

And even if social network analysis has yielded some folks who probably know how to make IEDs and know people who might want to use them, how should the government act on this information?  Should it arrest them?  On what charge?  Should it have secret police follow them around?  Wouldn’t that just make them angrier?  Should it simply tap their phones and wait for them to say something incriminating?  It is unclear how such information might be used to reduce the change of attacks rather than to increase it.

Option 4: Why do you want that pressure cooker?

A separate option would be to try to restrict the materials used in the construction of IEDs, keeping a national registry of anyone who buys pressure cookers, nails, or fertilizer.  Then if people are buying a whole lot of pressure cookers, they could be flagged for further investigation.  But given that a large proportion of the population uses nails or pressure cookers at one time or another, I doubt this approach would yield meaningful data.

Option 5: Checkpoint Charlie

The cheapest solution in many Middle Eastern countries is to install checkpoints with metal detectors.  There are two theories of this: one is to create a “safe zone” within which it is guaranteed that no one has IEDs (at least in theory), and the other is as a deterrent to try to prevent traveling bombs and catch some people in possession.  The former theory is the more difficult to implement, but is the theory of airline security.  The latter goal, more modest, may open the door for people to circumvent the checkpoints.  While these checkpoints are relatively standard in the Middle East, I doubt the US population would tolerate this curtailment of freedom of movement, even if it would create a lot of jobs.  In practice it would also give outlet to all of people’s prejudices and result in racial and religious profiling.

Option 6: Big Brother is Watching (Some of) You

I was struck how in the search for Boston Marathon bombing suspects the FBI quickly released photos taken by surveillance cameras.  This enlisted the public aid in a way that previous manhunts had not, and raised the possibility of increased permanent surveillance cameras being used to track people whom the government suspects of possible terrorist intent.  Of course, even if the whole country were blanketed in security cameras, it would be impossible to follow everyone all the time across them.  The camera-watching personnel could not in principle comprise such a large portion of the population to make that feasible.  And so inevitably, while Big Brother may be watching, it will only be watching some.  While those some may be identified through just means, they may also be identified as “persons of interest” through unjust means such as racial profiling.

There is also the danger of misconstrual: the pictures of the Tsarnaev brothers released by the FBI before they knew their names caused fear and consternation among people who physically resembled them.  Nor did the photos released by the FBI show any wrong-doing; and what if the photo released had been of someone who had not done anything wrong, but who had done something which might have looked perhaps like something wrong from the camera angle?  How confident are the people watching surveillance cameras in their understanding of the events depicted?

Option 7: Peer Pressure

Of course, the cheapest and most old-fashioned method is to ask people to report suspicious behavior to authorities.  Even this is not perfect, however, even apart from its undue burden on introverts and eccentric personalities.  People may report “suspicious behavior” of people they know and do not like (as in “witch hunts”), and people may not report known violent behavior if they suspect it will reflect negatively on them, for instance by making them a suspect of a crime or by alienating them from their current community.  When a minority identifies itself as alienated from its government, as Sunnis do in Iraq now, it is unlikely to be forthcoming with aid to the government.  All too often, this leads the government to view the group as a whole as terrorists or potential terrorists, breeding further resentment between the government and the targeted minority.


IEDs are indeed destructive, but often not in the way desired by terrorists.  While an attack may generate media attention, its ability to subvert democracy depends upon the public response to the violence.  If, as is often the case in the Middle East, the public views the attack in sectarian terms and blames everyone of a certain hated group (which group it is will depend on who was targeted), then democracy is among the first casualties.  In the US this is less common for public outcry to turn sectarian (although public suspicion of Muslims often approaches sectarianism), and such blasts tend to provoke public anger against the person(s) or group identified as responsible and a desire to thwart whatever might be identified as their goal.

But how can IED attacks be prevented?  Interrupting the transfer of knowledge over the internet involves censorship or restricting free access to information, while using social media and increased surveillance cameras or checkpoints almost universally leads to acting out prejudice and profiling.  The availability of IEDs for attacks, while they will not bring western democracy to an end, may require curtailing some of the freedoms we have enjoyed in the West.

Safety comes at a price.  In some cases, that price is worth it, and in some cases it isn’t.  But we do not know unless that price is made clear to us.  And if we decide the price is worth it, we must make sure that both the cost and the benefit are apportioned fairly, to avoid the “tyranny of the majority over the minority.”  Such democratic tyranny would only increase the bitterness and suspicion of minority groups, and result in greater violence.

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