Analysis The "car bomber" hysteria gripping much of the British and international media over the weekend has had a bucket of cold water from the Reg already, but just one bucket doesn't seem enough for this kind of outbreak.
To recap: an exceptionally incompetent group of troublemakers, unknown to the plods or spooks, decided to bring a spot of terror to old Blighty starting last Friday. These people had no actual explosives, and were apparently too lazy and ignorant to learn how to make them. Instead, they decided to load cars with petrol, domestic gas cylinders and "containers holding nails", and then set fire to them - either manually or using a cellphone-initiated remote rig of some kind.
Some selected headlines:
"Police avert car bomb 'carnage'" - BBC
"London on the Edge" - Belfast Telegraph
"Terror in Theatreland" - Daily Record
Normally reputable news sources used phrases like "explosives-packed cars", "Qaeda Tactics" and "a third attempt to create terror mayhem in Britain in under 36 hours. Only luck saved lives".
This isn't just rightwing hacks pumping up fear so that the evil securocrats can steal money from hospitals, aid, road safety etc, as our own Thomas C Greene has suggested (As an aside, for UK readers, the health-service budget alone is around three times that of the Defence ministry - and the Defence budget is the big fish in the UK securocrat pond).
Regrettably, alongside the usual mongers of terror fear, more liberal journos have also sought to exaggerate the significance of these rather pathetic attacks. In the case of the lefties, the idea is to suggest that had we Brits not mounted recent wars in Southwest Asia, we would be spared this kind of devastating "terror mayhem."
Frankly, if this kind of thing is the only backlash the West experiences for Iraq, we've got off pretty much scot-free: we should indulge in a spot of military adventurism any time we feel like it.
Conversely, if this is all al-Qaeda have to offer, we should never have lost a moment's sleep over them - let alone shoved our valuable appendages into the military meat-grinder of Afghanistan (I'm choosing to assume here that al-Qaeda only became a serious presence in Iraq after we invaded the place. Argue among yourselves as to whether Saddam was more or less threatening than Osama).
Getting back to here and now, these have to be some of the most pathetic terror attacks ever - difficult to distinguish from minor accidents. For goodness' sake, a car is full of petrol anyway; and gas cylinders too often enough. People drive cylinders of gas around all the time. Now and again - oh my god! - they probably carry boxes of nails, bolts, tools or whatever in the same vehicle. (Aiee!)
Sometimes these fiends crash their cars, and sometimes the vehicles burn out. It's one of the costs of living in the industrial world; if people couldn't get fuel - portable energy - easily enough to have accidents with it, most of us would still be dirt-poor, illiterate, shovelling muck for a living and dying like flies from disease - rather than dying very rarely in car crashes or gas explosions.
This kind of event happens on the motorways almost every day, at least the petrol fires and often enough with the other hazards added. The roads get closed off as a result, sometimes for hours - just like the Haymarket did on Friday morning. It causes massive inconvenience to lots and lots of people.
But the perimeter is manned by firemen and traffic cops, not bomb teams and terror-feds. And so this weekend a minor news story - one injured in bunt-out car / suicide attempt causes travel chaos - becomes a big international media frenzy, a "test of the new Prime Minister's mettle," if you please.
It might be a test of ministerial mettle if thousands of British Muslims were burning cars every night, as has happened in France. But what we seem to have here is some foreigners burning just one car and failing to burn two more owing to almost unbelievable incompetence.
The mindset of a man who's willing to set himself on fire to make a point - as one of the Glasgow terror-clowns seems to have done - but not to spend any effort at all on researching methods is a difficult one to understand. Even if these jokers were illiterate or had no internet access (seems unlikely, one of the suspects is apparently a doctor) they could have at least done a test. In my part of town, fun-loving teenagers burn out a car or two down by the canal every week or so: nobody would notice another one with some nails in it.
Such a test would have told these idiots what every bomb-disposal operator and Hollywood effects guy already knows: that petrol, gas etc make for an excellent, photogenic fireball which you can normally be quite close to without ill effects. Too much real, killer, shrapnel-throwing blast will actually prevent a fireball effect, if you're interested (When putting on shows for people, we used to use a quarter-stick of plastic explosive taped to a bottle of petrol. Any more bang than that, and you don't get a fireball. The petrol just vapourises harmlessly).
There are ways to get a killer blast out of nothing more than fuel and air, but you need a lot more air than there is inside a car for a decent bang and you need to mix the two ingredients thoroughly and in the right proportions. Even flour, well stirred up into a cloud in a closed bin which is partly empty, can form an effective explosive mixture. Domestic gas which has been allowed to spread and mix with air in a confined space such as a house or a boat can flatten buildings.
If you're very technically skilled, you can produce a fuel-air explosion without a confining container. Various kinds of "bunker-buster" weapons do this, spreading liquid fuel using a bursting charge to form a fairly-precisely-blended volume of fuel-air mix almost instantly and then touching it off with another flash. But an effective mid-air fuel bang is just for proper weapons factories, really. Even they tend to have a significant dud rate.
We used to be constantly disappointed, on the bomb teams, at the consistently rubbish efforts of the ordinary bomber. Many people seem to think that any kind of fire or loud noise will become deadly if you add nails. Your correspondent was once called out to a scene where a teenage cretin, finding that batteries would go pop if heated in a fire, taped nails around D-cells and put them on a camping cooker. Terrifyingly, some of the nails flew as much as two or three feet when this infernal device reaped its deadly harvest.
Similarly, having been trained to meet the threat from competent terrorists like the Provisional IRA (PIRA), we would then have to be re-trained out of our paranoia in order to deal with ordinary idiots like the animal-lib crowd. A typical animal-libber bomb in the old days, for instance, might consist of a bottle of deadly petrol with a petrol-soaked sponge taped to it and a pair of burning joss-sticks stuck in the sponge.
Full of worry about PIRA, young bomb techs faced with such a device during exams would often faff about for ages with robots and bomb armour and disruptors, whereas the correct response is to slip on some fireproofs, quickly trot down the road and remove the joss sticks. It's technical stuff, you know, bomb disposal.
If these guys at the weekend really were anything to do with al-Qaeda, all one can really say is that it looks as though the War on Terror is won. This whole hoo-ha kicked off, remember, with 9/11: an extremely effective attack. Then we had the Bali and Madrid bombings, not by any measure as shocking and bloody but still nasty stuff. Then we had London 7/7, a further significant drop in bodycount but still competently planned and executed (Not too many groups would have been able to mix up that much peroxide-based explosive first try without an own goal).
Now we have this; one terror-clown badly burnt and nobody else hurt at all. An event about as significant as the teenagers burning cars down my way - and don't I wish those little sods got as much police attention and jail time. The jihadi threat has seemingly sunk to animal-lib levels.
Why, it's almost as if suicide bombing was a fairly dumb tactic. The 7/7 bombers seem to have been one of very few terror groups in the UK who were competent enough to make explosives and weren't under plod/spook surveillance, and now they're all dead.
Remember, this country carried on successfully for six years with hundreds - thousands, sometimes - of tons of explosives raining down on it every night for six years, delivered by very competent Germans who often died doing that job. The civilian death toll was around 60,000 according to most sources; the equivalent of 20 9/11s, more than three for every year of the war. Civilisation was not brought down. Germany and Japan withstood even greater violence, and survived it too.
Our parents and grandparents stood that kind of punishment, not to mention four times as many military dead, and got on with life. Sad though it is to confirm the oldsters' world view, by comparison our generation - our generation's journalists, anyway - seem a bit lacking in backbone. If all we have to put up with is an occasional 7/7, that's background noise by comparison - it should merit the same sort of headlines, the same political response as motorway pileups or airline crashes.
And if all we have to deal with is clusterfucks like the one just past, it should merit the same headlines and response as my local youths; essentially none (Maybe some sort of special cop/spook taskforce with sweeping unconstitutional powers to hand out clips round the ear. Yes yes, I know, there'd be some kind of legal problem).
Move along; nothing to see here. ®
Lewis Page was an armed forces bomb-disposal operator tasked in support of the UK mainland police from 2001 to 2004. He's just bitter because only the crappiest bombers ever operated on his patch - even worse than these ones, usually - and he had to content himself with clearing up old German stuff.