In these days of big Hollywood-style terror plots, the attempted bombing of a mere two trains may seem like small change. Compared to what seems to have been in the works for transatlantic flights between Britain and America, the intended bombings would indeed have been relatively unspectacular.
I find that merely the fact it is possible to think this way shows how grim things have gotten.
However, the train bombs in question were seriously scary constructions, and it seems that it was only because of a fault in their construction that they did not detonate as planned. (They had been planted with timers: these were not attempted suicide bombings, rather they were merely the more old-fashioned homicide-only kind.) As Der Spiegel reports:
The makeshift bombs, consisting of gas cylinders, plastic bottles filled with gas and detonators, were found in suitcases placed on regional trains in western Germany on July 31, 2006. The devices were discovered when the trains stopped in the cities of Koblenz and Dortmund. The detonators made of alarm clocks and lightbulb components functioned but failed to trigger the bombs. If the bombs had gone off they would have sent shockwaves and a fireball through the carriages and may have caused the train to derail, police said.The relative lack of international attention to this drama may have a lot to do with the restrained way in which the attempted bombing was handled here: at first, the possible terrorism angle was downplayed and a possible criminal attempt to blackmail the Bahn (rail transport agency) presented as a more likely motivation. In the meantime, we had the London bomb plot and the War With No Name in the news.
Then, a few days ago, the police showed videos of those who had left the bombs. The next day, one of them was caught. He is a 22-year-old Lebanese man who has been studying in Germany. Specifics are still hard to come by, but it may be that he became involved with the plot to express anger over Lebanese deaths the recent conflict between Hisbollah and Israel.
Why this would lead him to want to kill Germans on trains remains, however, difficult to fathom. And, moreover, it suggests the insufficiency of reading terrorism as merely a 'reaction' to any particular foreign policy.
We will have to wait a bit to see what this was really about, but it is suggested in another Spiegel article that 'Youssef Mohamed E.', as he is thus far being referred to, may not have been the brightest student.
Indeed, this may have averted a lot of death and destruction on German trains:
An East European student, who didn't want to be mentioned by name, described the young Lebanese man as having "below average intelligence." His German was not particularly good, and he didn't impress when talking to him. Jürgen Müller, who was head of the Kiel community college until the beginning of August, shares this assessment. Youssef took preparatory courses there before starting his mechatronics studies. Müller taught Youssef physics and described the student as "completely unremarkable," saying "he just muddled through." In retrospect, Müller says he is pleased by this: "If he had paid more attention, the bombs would have exploded."It is in no way comforting to think that we depend on terrorist incompetence to prevent this kind of thing...but on the other hand, perhaps this is a timely reminder that terrorists are not superhuman.
As reported on the television news tonight, it seems that his capture was made possible through another lapse: it was suggested that he called his family in Lebanon after seeing video surveillance camera footage of himself on German television in stories related to the attempted bombing. That call was intercepted by Lebanese intelligence services, who informed German authorities, allowing his capture in Kiel.
As Christopher Hitchens wrote recently, they don't make terrorists like they used to.
It seems unclear so far whether there was a larger organisation supporting Mr. E. and his companion, who is still on the run. But the suggestions in the media are that they must have had some help.
Great: first planes and now trains.
I may have to start riding my bike to Britain from now on.