Not Saussure

February 24, 2007

War on Terror: mad ideas and driving people mad

Filed under: Mental Health, Spin, War on Terror — notsaussure @ 1:37 am

Via El Reg, an interesting article about the Sky TV programme ‘24‘ (not Sky’s synopsis of the programme, I think) by one George Smith, a Senior Fellow at, a defense affairs think tank and public information group who writes the Dick Destiny blog, of which I was hitherto unaware. The article itself is an entertaining critique of the show, both for its technical lunacies — of the fact that the Bush administration supposedly ‘loves’ the show he writes,

Vexingly, that would seem to indicate some people in high places believe one can carry suitcase nukes under the arm and that computerized detonators for them are put in the trust of a teenager and stored in a shoebox hidden in a wall of a ranch house in the San Fernando Valley until needed. In this season’s story, terrorists have to go through a contortion to get one nuke to work, combining two separate parts, at which point it blows up Valencia. Despite that, in subsequent episodes no one really panics and the freeways and surface streets of LA are still clear for further high-speed chases

— and for its portrayal of torture.

Of this he writes, concerning the London Ricin trial,

During late 2004 and early 2005, in the course of it, journalist Duncan Campbell, working for the defense, shared evidence from the trial with me in consultation over the provenance of the poisons recipes seized at Wood Green. While this was going on, it was made clear that the prosecution had built its ideas on the alleged plot from the statements of an informer, Mohammed Meguerba.I was told Meguerba was in Algerian who had been tortured and later recanted his confession. Therefore, he would not be brought as a witness, his testimony would not be told to a jury and the prosecution would have to link the accused to al Qaeda and a poison plot in some other manner. This the British government could not do and the ricin terror trial subsequently collapsed, with loner Kamel Bourgass committed to prison.

On the American side, the US government linked the London ricin ring to Iraq and al Qaeda in one infamous slide from Colin Powell’s presentation on the reasons for war to the UN Security Council in February 2003. The slide pictured “a detained al Qai’da operative” as the nexus for the information. This was a man named Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi who, as it turned out, was also tortured. A Senate report issued last year made it clear that not only had al-Libi been abused but also that he made up being an agent of al Qaeda in order to gain better treatment.

Between Meguerba and al-Libi, two disparate sources, the alleged London ricin ring became the center of something which appeared as a perfect storm of torture. The consequence – very bad information that wound up a useful product in the campaign to sell war with Iraq.

This is far beyond what Joel Surnow and writers could come up with for any episode of “24.” And it is not because Jack Bauer’s torture subjects crack too quickly and always give precise information, but because it would be hooted out of development as being too nonsensical, as serving nothing. In “24” torture is mercilessly logical, moving the show forward, providing key bits of information necessary for episodes to fit together in a straight line before the ticking of the clock expires, not ammo for rationalizing a meat-grinding war that has no end.

His blog is primarily a fisking, from a technical point of view, of the way terrorist threats get hyped up. For example, apparently much of evidence from the trial of Dhiren Barot is apparently to be found on the Met’s website. Despite its being heavily redacted, Smith/Dick Destiny is able to identify most of it as being the results of an internet trawl for

common articles which most scientists and reasonably educated people wouldn’t bat an eye at. They contain no information that is immediately helpful to dirty-bombing terrorists. Instead, they are forthright discussions on various aspects of radiological hazard, necessary to public understanding of the subject.

much of which Barot apparently completely misunderstood. His plan to create a dirty bomb, for example, by setting fire to 10,000 smoke detectors (!) sounds crackpot enough but, it seems, managed to misunderstand what he’d read in an article about fears about the potential radiation hazard caused by an actual fire involving 900 smoke detectors and the amount of the isotope contained in them that the Federation of American Scientists had calculated would be necessary to build a dirty bomb; consequently, he’d have needed not ten thousand of the things but ten million to get his plot to work. As Smith says,

BoratBarot, then, would have needed not just a truckload of smoke detectors. He would have needed a veritable ocean of them! A corner of the entire market, so to speak. That constitutes quite the stealthy and practical mass terror enterprise!It’s worth restating that it’s good news when al Qaeda operatives reveal in detail how utterly incompetent in such arts and sciences they are. It is even more interesting to consider what it says about the leadership and judgment of a terror organization that is swayed by the pipedreams and blandishments of a Barot (or maybe a Borat).

Other hare-brained schemes considered by Barot, who was in reality unable to lay his hands on so much as a hand-grenade, included throwing exit signs into the middle of rooms, thus releasing minute quantities of the radioisotope tritium, and extracting the same substance from wristwatches. It’s hard to argue with Smith’s assessment that

Dhiren Barot was a malicious crackpot with busy and ridiculous plans. [However] Barot was not a breathe-a-sigh-of-relief victory in the war on terror but, more accurately, a piece of detritus rightly swept off the street.

Meanwhile, combining both dirty bombs and torture, the pre-trial hearings for Jose Padilla, an American who allegedly conspired to attempt to obtain the materials for creating such things, have begun, though I’m not clear if his attempts were more realistic than were those of Barot. His counsel are claiming he’s unfit to plead as a result of his treatment at the hands of his US military interrogators over the last three years, who’ve supposedly subjected him to the most extreme sensory deprivation, leading to his psychological collapse. The judge has ordered several prison employees to testify as to his mental state and to his treatment, which is supposedly commonplace for those suspected of terrorism by the Americans and, which, if the allegations are true, sounds truly horrific. Naomi Klein gives an account at Comment is Free of how he’s supposedly been driven insane by his interrogators.

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  1. Sheesh, I’d never actually read those Dhiren Barot documents before. Amazing that people take this stuff seriously. I mean, he even specifies that he is going to light his enormous pile of smoke detectors with a cigarette! (Why not a match?)

    Comment by Dan Goodman — February 24, 2007 @ 3:10 am

  2. I’ve just finished reading The Suicide Factory,(O’Neill/McGrory) about Abu Hamza and the Finsbury Park mosque, which has a load of stuff on the ricin incident. The two men involved were uncovered as part of Operation Springbourne into Finsbury Park Mosque (fraud and false documentation production). The investigation showed the extent to which the Mosque had been hijacked by Abu Hamza and made into a centre for jihadi training, extremist propoganda and jihadi recruitment, (to the dismay of the local congregation and Trustees who kept trying to get rid of him, but got no official support or heeding of their warnings.) The ricin case was wildly overplayed by politicians and the media, but the raid did turn up a hamfisted plot by men who had recieved terrorism training. Unfortunately, the person at the centre of it all – Abu Hamza – was allowed to carry on recruiting young men and sending them abroad and giving hateful, murder-justifying sermons, unmolested.

    Comment by Rachel North — February 24, 2007 @ 9:20 am

  3. I don’t doubt for one minute, Rachel, that these plots are genuine and that these nut-jobs receive terrorist training. It’s striking, though, that so frequently their actual plans are so grandiose and that they’re so shambolic in their execution — the ricin plot being a case in point. Smith has a detailed account of Kamal Bourgass’ recipes for brewing up poisons, which turn out to be about as wildly impractical as were Barot’s smoke detector plans.    It seems difficult to disagree with Smith’s conclusion that

    Kamel Bourgass was a very bad man, a murderer, someone who should be locked up for life. But in the matter of poisoning by home chemistry, he was a half-wit. Essentially, he was convicted of being so when found guilty of conspiracy to create a public nuisance with poisons but [the jury] hung on whether or not he was guilty of conspiracy to commit murder with the same. 

    I suppose in some ways it doesn’t matter.   Even though these loons’ mad plans for dirty bombs never seem to amount to a real threat, they have to be treated seriously by the authorities and thus acheive their desired effect by causing worry, disruption and massive expense.   There’s always the danger that they one day will manage to pull off something, as, of course, they did on July 7.

    Seems to me, though, that it’s best to know the enemy and, at least here in the UK, the enemy seem to be small disorganised groups of malevolent nutters, who have lethal fantasies they’re occasionally able to act out, to devastating effect, rather than anything co-ordinated.

    Comment by notsaussure — February 24, 2007 @ 6:32 pm

  4. Ian Blair didn’t waste any time in referring to Barot’s ludicrous plans in a speech pleading for 90 days:

    “and now you may have seen this week the full horror of what Dhiren Barot was planning: a dirty bomb, for which he was sentenced to a minimum of 40 years imprisonment.”

    Comment by . — February 24, 2007 @ 8:39 pm

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