When I was quite young I came across a very old edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Just-so Stories, written in 1902. For those not familiar with this book – you really should be – it is a collection of fantastic accounts of how certain animals acquired their distinctive traits. Among the tales concocted by Mr. Kipling were:
- How the Camel Got His Hump
- How the Leopard Got His Spots
- How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin
and ten others. I remember reading these repeatedly as a child and marvelling at the imaginative tales.
Today a ‘just-so story’ refers to any ‘unverifiable narrative’ (according to Wikipedia) although it also used to mean ‘a speculative story or explanation of doubtful or unprovable validity ‘ (according to Merriam-Webster). Here I want to tweak it a bit to refer to any unbelievable account and narrowly apply that to terrorism attack planning. Bear with me a bit.
I read a tweet today from a colleague of mine, UK criminologist at the University of Kent Simon Cottee, that led to this blog. He noted that a young man who recently pleaded guilty to plotting to attack the 2015 ANZAC parade and behead a police officer also had a plan B: to paint a kangaroo with the Islamic State symbol, pack its pouch with C4 explosives and set it loose in the city (I am NOT making this up). Sevdet Besim was all of 14 years old when he thought up this plan.
Before I go on it is important to note that the less fanciful parts of Mr. Besim’s plan were very doable. He intended to drive a vehicle into the parade, striking God knows how many people before singling out an officer for decapitation. This of course has already been done in several places, including last fall in Edmonton (although the terrorist only succeeded in stabbing a police officer, not severing his head from his body). Other combined ramming/stabbing events include Woolwich, London, and Ohio State.
But getting back to the ANZAC parade scheme, packing a kangaroo pouch with C4? Seriously? I know that kangaroos are not hard to find in Australia – I was rudely awakened to that during my first visit in the early 1990s when I saw dead kangaroos on the sides of the road everywhere just outside Canberra – but I am pretty sure that kangaroos are either very shy or very ornery and certainly would not take kindly to having C4 shoved in their pouches!
This ‘plot’, as farfetched as it may seem, is not that rare, at least in my experience. When I was at CSIS we would regularly, in the course of our counter terrorism investigations, come across individuals who came up with, shall we say, unworkable terrorist plans. I cannot talk about most of these, for obvious reasons, but a few have been made public thanks to court cases, and here they are:
- the Toronto 18 wanted to take over Parliament and behead the Prime Minister: they also mused about attacking a nuclear power plant (NB I used to brief nuclear security on threats and learned that any terrorist who tried to breach the fences would have been met with a withering response: many of the guys I spoke to were former police and/or military and not in the mood to treat attacks lightly).
- John Nuttall and Amanda Korody, found guilty in 2015 of a plot to attack Canada Day revelers in Victoria, BC before a judge inexplicably (and stupidly to my mind) threw out the charges, wanted originally to attack the Esquimault naval base (this would not have ended well for the couple).
- Chiheb Esseghaier, found guilty also in 2015 in a bizarre plan to derail a passenger train in the Niagara corridor (not as easy as it sounds by the way), had devised an even more bizarre plot to poison ‘Canadian troops through a jihadist military chef’ (seriously, you CANNOT make this shit up!).
Such is the life of a counter terrorism agency! The problem, of course, is that no matter how outlandish some plans are at first blush what is important is the intent/zeal to act and not necessarily the feasibility of what is being suggested. No matter how ridiculous a plot may seem, a person who really wants to do harm can unfortunately do so very easily: we are seeing this far too frequently these days with ramming and stabbing attacks, all of which are very hard to predict or stop. If plan A is too hard or just plain dumb, there is always a plan B (and C and D and…).
When you work in this business you are constantly challenged to separate fact from fiction, potential attacks from real ones, serious perpetrators from useless wannabes. In this business the margin for error is zero. No one wants to hear in the aftermath of a successful terrorist attack “but we thought he wasn’t serious!’. Sometimes even the incompetent get lucky. And we are indeed fortunate that our security services do an excellent job of getting most of these terrorists before they act. Even the stupid ones.