What just-so stories and terrorist plots often have in common

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:

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.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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