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Why are terrorists so dumb?

by Brad A. Greenberg

July 24, 2007 | 12:48 pm

Tim Harford, Slate.com‘s “undercover economist,” tries to answer that question (and doesn’t do very well) in a weekend article dubbed “Dumb Bomb.”

He focuses on the recent botched bomb-plot in London and Glasgow, which was allegedly planned by a bunch of doctors and medical professionals. This shouldn’t be a surprise, he says, because Osama bin Laden is an engineer from a wealthy family and his lieutenant is a physician; scholars have found terrorists tend to be well educated (this too is not explained).

If there is a link between poverty, education, and terrorism, it is the opposite of the one popularly assumed. We should not be surprised to find that terrorists can add up, read, and even write prescriptions.

What is more surprising is that the attackers in London and Glasgow were so incompetent. Claude Berrebi and Harvard economist Efraim Benmelech studied—there’s no nice way to put this—the human-resources policy of Palestinian terrorist groups. They found that older, better-educated terrorists secured more important suicide missions and killed more people. Having more than a high-school education doubles the chance of escaping capture, for example.

If the terrorists in this case do turn out to be the doctors and other professionals who are, as I write, suspected of the crime, it would demonstrate that even years of education and experience do not guarantee a successful attack. Blowing up innocent people is obviously harder than it looks, and for that we can all be grateful.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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