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Reg investigates case of the undertotally-pants bomber

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"The system worked" - or more accurately, it is working. Just fine

It's even remotely possible that this small, dedicated and thus unmonitored organisation may contain a few people with the technical skills or contacts to make or obtain bombs or other weapons which actually work. This is rare: more usually you'll get an embarrassing and often inadvertently-funny failure as in the cases of Richard Reid, the comically inept UK "car bombers" of 2007, Mr Mutallab this Christmas, etc etc.

Sometimes it will be 9/11, and there will be cash in good supply; sometimes it will be 7/7, and competent bomb-making will substitute for money. In neither of those cases, however, was the organisation capable enough to make an effective strike without the use of suicide tactics. Thus those two teams - two of the most serious ever seen in the West under the jihadi banner - wiped themselves out in just one operation. The Madrid bombers, another rare effective group, managed to avoid killing themselves during the operation but were subsequently caught and thus eliminated as a threat just as permanently.

So, even in the rare case where an operational jihadi terror unit is small and committed enough to avoid detection and yet has resources enough to make an effective strike, it is almost always out of play after just one operation. This wasn't true with the more effective terror groups of yesteryear, like the Provisional IRA; but their recruiting/commitment issues were easier, as they had a stated policy against mass murder of civilians (and they were riddled with informers anyway).

That's why planes and trains aren't blowing up every day; why people aren't opening fire into crowds every week (not even in Israel, quite a lot of the time). Because most people, even people who in all other respects you would describe as fanatical extremists, just aren't mass-murderer material - and those that are tend not to be the brightest or most competent buttons in the box*.

That's why the threat of terrorism in general, and airborne terrorism in particular, has been reduced to negligible levels by the measures already in place, and no more are necessary.

No, really. Don't worry about terrorism next time you take a flight. There is a very small risk, as an airline passenger, that you will die violently before you land, but it has nothing to do with terrorists. It is entirely down to the chance of an accident.

Consider this, if you don't believe it. The year 2001, which saw four entire airliners destroyed with total loss of life on 9/11, was not in fact a particularly dangerous year to go flying. More airline passengers died in the year 2000; nearly as many died in 2002. Twice as many were killed flying in 1972, despite the fact that many fewer people flew back then, because airliners were far less safe.

Terrorism simply isn't a visible factor in your chances of dying while flying, or indeed while doing anything else: it is insignificant, a problem that has been almost totally eliminated for Western citizens since its not-very-serious heyday in the 1970s and 80s, and you shouldn't worry about it. It would make absolutely no noticeable difference to your or my chances of violent death/injury if terrorism was eradicated overnight.

"The system worked," said US Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano shortly after the attack, and in the largest sense she was right. Terrorism, like polio, has been effectively stamped out in the developed world - had mostly been so before the Department of Homeland Security was even created, in fact, but that's by the by.

Napolitano was subsequently forced into an abrupt volte-face by sectarian US politics and cretinous media-pumped fear, but she was basically right first time. The free world's counterterrorism system as it stands is working as well as anyone could reasonably ask for.

In the end, the correct response to efforts like those of Mr Mutallab and his incendiary undergarments is not panic and more security, but laughter - much as one might also laugh at the idiotic bum-kamikaze whose efforts, erm, backfired so messily in Saudi Arabia last summer.

Mr Mutallab should go down in history not as the underpants bomber, but simply as the completely pants bomber. ®

*Mutallab, quite apart from having a rubbish bomb which he should have known probably wouldn't work (he didn't study proper engineering as widely reported, but "Engineering with Business Finance") committed several other blunders. He should have tried to blow the plane up at height, not at low level; doubtless the idea was to bring the plane down into an urban area, but if Mutallab had been a real engineer he'd have known his pant-bomb needed all the help it could get from decompression. Then, he shouldn't have triggered his device such that everyone could see what he was doing and that he was responsible for it. He shouldn't have told his family he was off to become an extremist and cut off contact in the first place, which is what led to him being on various security-services lists - much good though that did.

All in all, a piss-poor performance even among today's generally rubbish terrorists.

Lewis Page went through a lot of quite stressful training and preparation to battle the terrorist threat before being assigned as a military bomb-disposal operator in support of the UK police from 2001-04. He has still never got over the disappointment of finding out just how incredibly rare it is, as a bomb-disposal man in mainland Britain, to encounter a terrorist/criminal bomb of any significance at all, let alone one which has not already either gone off or failed to do so.

You get a special tie if you ever do encounter such a device.

NB: Any terrorists reading this should be aware that an essential precaution has been left out of all the bombing plans above, without which any attack is 90 per cent or more likely to fail due to a classified security tactic in use by the UK (and presumably the US).

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