Practice makes perfect

Arrest of 21/7 would-be bombers

Michael Kenney’s recent article in Terrorism and Political Violence is one of the most level-headed assessments of the threat posed by so-called ‘homegrown’ violent jihadists I have read. As Kenney points out, a lot of the researchers and pundits working in the terrorism field tend to (incorrectly) associate the possession of technical knowledge ‘artifacts’ with the ability to use that knowledge effectively. Indeed UK counter-terrorism legislation makes it an offence to be in possession with items likely to be of use to terrorists. A number of individuals have been charged with merely possessing such items.

The article draws a crucial distinction between what Kenney refers to as techne, or abstract technical knowledge, and mētis, or intuitive, practical knowledge. In the context of suicide attacks, techne might relate to manuals or instructional videos which demonstrate how to construct an explosive suicide vest. Mētis on the other hand might involve knowing, based on experience, how to construct such a device with the materials in your local environment.

As Kenney notes, simply reading about how to manufacture explosives is unlikely to allow an novice bomb-maker to create an effective and useable device, and this is why in recent examples such as the 7 July 2005 suicide attacks in London the perpetrators had travelled to Pakistan to receive instruction in bomb-making. (Its worth noting that the 21 July 2005 attacks may have failed because the cell leader, Muktar Said Ibrahim, did not have sufficient mētis to construct functioning devices – he claimed to have acquired the instructions from a CD, though there is evidence that he travelled to Pakistan also). Kenney also points out that the London and Glasgow attacks of 2007 (the so-called ‘Doctors’ Plot) failed because the two perpetrators, despite a medical/scientific background, did not know what they were doing.

Another interesting aspect raised in this piece revolves around the quality of the techne which can be downloaded and accessed. As part of his research, Kenney engaged with an explosives expert and asked him to evaluate a number of the ‘manuals’ available on the web. This expert’s conclusion was that a lot of the bomb-making instructions contained in these manuals was “absolute rubbish” and that it would be very difficult for an amateur to construct a device from these.

Kenney’s conclusion is that amateurs relying solely on downloadable instructions may be able to create crude devices that can kill people, but that the quality/lethality of such devices would be constrained by their creator’s lack of technical knowledge and practical experience. This reinforces an earlier observation by Michael Taarnby, who suggested that without access to a ‘gatekeeper’ who could introduce them to more experienced individuals wannabe jihadis

“may try to participate in the jihad, but without know-how, resources or coordination with other terrorist cells… Although lethal, their operations do not constitute a serious threat to society”.

Kenney concludes the article by stating:

“The Internet contains lots of ideological information for Islamist militants, along with technical knowledge of variable quality. But at the end of the day you don’t have to be an ideologue or a chemist to make a good terrorist. Instead you need access to reliable techne, along with plenty of hands-on experience. Sometimes long articles have short lessons”.


This article helps to expose the erroneous assumption that (suicide) attacks are ‘simple’ or ‘primitive’ efforts. There is a large gap between aspiring to become involved in the ‘jihad’ and being able to execute a successful attack using explosives. It has been pointed out by the UK Security Service that there are about 2,000 individuals of concern in the UK. Of these only four have managed to plan and execute a successful attack, while a small number of others have tried to operationalise their intent but failed either due to technical incompetence (21/7, the Doctors’ Plot), poor operational security (the 2006 Heathrow Planes plot, the Crevice plot) or just downright unsuitability to pull off the simplest of attacks (Nicky Reilly). If it was as simple as downloading The Anarchist’s Cookbook, brewing up some hydrogen peroxide and walking into a crowded place to detonate yourself, we would be in serious trouble. Kenney introduces some much-needed realism into an area of research all too often dominated by hyperbole and he is to be commended for that.

Kenney, M. (2010). Beyond the Internet: Metis, Techne, and the Limitations of Online Artifacts for Islamist Terrorists Terrorism and Political Violence, 22 (2), 177-197 DOI: 10.1080/09546550903554760


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