January 5, 2002 | Airplane crash into Bank of America building in Tampa, Florida

We know that terrorist attacks can inspire others to act in similar ways but sometimes it is hard to tell if a given action is indeed terrorist in nature.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If someone chooses to follow what someone else did that serves to multiply the effect of the original act. It is as if a person says “hey that was really neat: I wanna do that!” The first act lives on in the reflection of later versions.

In this vein, we often see what are called ‘copycat’ crimes, where offences seem to build on earlier ones. An example I found online was a series of ‘subway slashings’ in New York City which, according to the media, were inspired by initial crimes in December 2015. Whether or not there was such a link is not that important: once that seed is planted others can pick up on it.

39 CRPF jawans were killed in the blast in Pulwama
Aftermath of an IED attack in Kashmir in February 2019 that killed 40 soldiers (Photo: The Print)
Terrorist attacks also appear to follow certain well-worn trends.

These may not be ‘copycat’ per se but rather a decision to use tried and true methods of causing as much death and destruction as possible. After all, an IED is an IED: they are often easy to manufacture, hard to detect and cause damage vastly disproportionate to their size.

Aftermath of the ‘attack’ (Photo: BBC)

On some occasions, however, we do see what is very much an attack perpetrated by someone who really wants to emulate an earlier event. A case in point was the flying of a small plane into the Bank of America building in Tampa, Florida on January 5, 2002 by a teenager who left a suicide note crediting Al Qaeda (AQ) leader Usama bin Laden for the attacks and praising 9/11 as ‘a justified response to actions against the Palestinians and Iraqis.

The youth in question, 15-year old Charles Bishop, claimed he had offered to join AQ but had been rebuffed.

Authorities dismissed the link and the mother blamed the incident on the after effects of an acne medicine her son was taking. In the end the whole thing was labelled a ‘suicide’.

But there is that note the young man left behind, shown here:

I have prepared this statement in regards to the acts I am about to commit. First of all, Osama bin Laden is absolutely justified in the terror he has caused on 9-11. He has brought a mighty nation to its knees! God blesses him and the others who helped make September 11th happen. The U.S. will have to face the consequences for its horrific actions against the Palestinian people and Iraqis by its allegiance with the monstrous Israelis—who want nothing short of world domination!

You will pay—God help you—and I will make you pay! There will be more coming! Al Qaeda and other organizations have met with me several times to discuss the option of me joining. I didn’t. This is an operation done by me only. I had no other help, although, I am acting on their behalf.

15-year old is not your average AQ terrorist

What do you think? Sounds pretty clear to me. If we say categorically that evidence like this is not relevant what then do we do with all the ‘manifestos’ left by other terrorists? Are they equally ‘irrelevant’?

I agree that a 15-year old is not your average AQ terrorist. Then again, in my time at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) I saw dozens of very similar ‘atypical’ terrorists. In the end, whom do we believe: the terrorists themselves or government authorities weighing in after the fact? If we are not dealing with a clear case of mental illness where the perpetrator has no sense of the real world I lean towards taking people at their word.

After all is said and done, if this indeed was a terrorist attack it was a poor one. The young Mr. Bishop succeeded in killing only himself. Not very ‘AQ-like’ was it?

P.S., speaking of copycats, some have suggested that 9/11 itself was based on an earlier 1994 plot by Algerian terrorists to fly an Air France aircraft into the Eiffel Tower. Flattery indeed.