Saturday, November 27, 2010

So This Guy Comes Up And Says "I Know Where You Can Get a Bomb"

Forgive me for being technical; this seems to be a point that escapes many reporters and perhaps government officials and lawmen. But

A threat consists of intent plus capability.

I've bolded that, because it seems to get lost in so many stories and, perhaps, in the sting operations we keep hearing about.
"The threat was very real," said Arthur Balizan, special agent in charge of the FBI in Oregon. "Our investigation shows that Mohamud was absolutely committed to carrying out an attack on a very grand scale."
Now there are a great many young men sitting in their parents' basements, eating cheetos and destroying various individuals and segments of the universe. They are not arrested by the FBI for their intentions of destroying the universe. And yes, I know that some are saving the universe, but they are the good guys, so we'll ignore them for now.

It can be argued that those young men in their parents' basements recognize that it's not the real universe they're destroying, just bits displayed on a screen. But I'll bet that some would really, truly, like to destroy the real universe. That's adolescence at the extremes. So they are as real a threat as poor Mohamed Osman Mohamud, according to our FBI agent. All we have to do is find them.

The news reports are never complete, and undoubtedly the FBI is withholding some details for use at the trial. But it sounds like Mohamud was working alone, except for his buddies who turned out to be FBI agents. How did he meet them? Were they hanging out, offering bombs for sale? Did he seek them out in some way? Did he or they advertise on Craig's List?

It may be that Mohamud had his mind made up to cause real destruction, or it could be that his FBI buddies urged him on. It could be that he would have procured a bomb by himself. In any case, all that he had until he met the FBI was intent. See bolded definition above. Intent alone is not a threat.

Clearly Mohamud didn't know enough about bombs to recognize the duds that the FBI was offering him. So he may or may not have been able to learn enough to make a bomb. Recent bomb-makers haven't been all that adept; fusing PETN seems to be the big hangup these days. Is intent plus half-capability a threat?

We've seen stings operating to buy fissionable materials and the results labeled "threat." But, once again, the sting itself is likely to provide part of the intent, and the capability is highly questionable.

A threat consists of intent plus capability.


Anonymous said...

I was thinking about this myself and contemplating a post about it but it seems you've beaten me to the punch.

The counter-argument I've heard is that anti-terrorism laws don't require a smart or competent suspect which really just puts all the emphasis on the intent part of the equation.

Let's face it, part of that is because it's easier to find stupid terrorist wanna-bes. And, a terrorist arrest in your personnel file is a quick ticket on the career ladder for everyone involved. Hence, there isn't much scrutiny of how likely the threat was.

Anonymous said...

As an intel guy, my definition of threat is the same as yours. However, I'm not sure our definition is at all relevant here, primarily because our definition of "threat" is not one shared by the legal system.

MT said...

Or shared by the vernacular of common speech or news. This is a constant liability in speaking from an expertise to a person without it. Suggests poor skills of threat assessment not to have prepared for it, if you ask me. But then I'm a plain speech zealot.

Cheryl Rofer said...

But, MT, I don't see how something can be a threat unless it can happen.

If you're talking about a guy who has some nasty ideas but no idea of how to carry them out, how is he a threat in plain speech?

Anonymous said...


Maybe he didn't have any idea how to carry out his intentions with something as complex as a bomb. We don't really know. However, that doesn't mean he isn't dangerous. Frankly, from what's been reported so far he sounds like me might be a sociopath. In my opinion it's dangerous to simply assume the guy is too stupid to do any harm.

MT said...

If an anonymous stranger tells you on the phone or or in a letter that he or she will kill you or your kidnapped daughter, they've issued you a threat, in common speech, and by law I suppose. Maybe it's a "serious threat" or maybe it's an "empty threat" (if capability is lacking) or maybe it's an "idle threat" (if intent is lacking), but we'd expect and forgive you for feeling threatened at the time, whatever you later find out to be the facts. Threat in this sense is a kind of offense--one intended to cause fear, as opposed to, say, disgust or outrage Likewise with "danger," which may be real or imagined, and "risk" is even worse. Does "likely" necessarily mean "more likely than not"? Probably. But I'd consult a dictionary, not a statistician.

MT said...

1threat noun \ˈthret\
: an expression of intention to inflict evil, injury, or damage
: one that threatens
: an indication of something impending

(from Merriam Webster online)

MT said...

I don't know what edition that's from or how old. Still I think it's telling that it virtually excludes an actual capacity to harm from pertaining to the meaning at all.

MT said...

And don't get me started on "virtually."

MT said...

threat·en verb \ˈthre-tən\
Definition of THREATEN

transitive verb
: to utter threats against
a : to give signs or warning of : portend
b : to hang over dangerously : menace
: to announce as intended or possible
: to cause to feel insecure or anxious
intransitive verb
: to utter threats
: to portend evil


Cheryl Rofer said...

Was he a "threat(1)" before he met his FBI friends?

We'll probably never know for sure.

My point is not that he wasn't dangerous when he thought he was detonating a bomb, more that the law-enforcement and news accounts make the "threat" (word now being used differently than "threat(1)") seem more, well, threatening than it probably was.

Part of my campaign against fear.

helmut said...

MT: And don't get me started on "virtually."

Is that a virtual or non-virtual threat?