One would think Mahmoud Maawad, a 29-year-old illegal immigrant from Egypt living in Memphis, Tenn., would lay low and stay out of trouble. But no, he defiantly did just the opposite.
He used a fake Social Security number to open a bank account, arrange for household utilities, and enroll at the University of Memphis business school. He worked off-the-books at a convenience store and in early 2005 sold alcohol to a minor, for which he was arrested. And then, in mid-2005, he ordered US$3,300 worth of airline-related goods from Sporty's Pilot Shop, including such items as an airline pilot's uniform, a flight gear bag, a radio communications handbook, and an instructional DVD titled "How an Airline Captain Should Look and Act."
To top it off, he placed the order on an overdrawn credit card.
Sporty's, not surprisingly, informed the FBI about Mr. Maawad's order and federal agents searched his apartment in September. There they found flight simulation software and detailed information on Memphis International Airport. Mr. Maawad was then indicted for wire fraud and fraudulent use of a Social Security number.
While it's far from established that Maawad had terrorism on his mind, his actions are sufficiently suspicious to enroll him as an honorary member in my newly created "Stupid Terrorists Club." He joins plenty of others.
Mohammed Salameh, the terrorist who returned to the rental agency in 1993 to retrieve the $400 deposit he had paid on a truck subsequently used to blow up the World Trade Center. His penny-pinching lead to his own capture and that of several other bombers.
Zacarias Moussaoui, thought to have been the would-be 20th hijacker of the September 11, 2001, attacks, was sitting in jail on that date because his disheveled and impoverished appearance at a flight instruction school was so discordant ("there's really something wrong with this guy") that two of its staff phoned the FBI. In April 2005, Moussaoui pleaded guilty to six counts of conspiracy to commit terrorism.
Michael Wagner, an African-American convert to Islam associated with Al-Qaeda, did not wear a seat belt and that got him stopped by the police in July 2004 near Council Bluffs, Iowa. His car contained "flight training manuals and a simulator, documents in Arabic, bulletproof vests and night-vision goggles, a night-vision scope for a rifle, a telescope, a 9mm semiautomatic pistol and hundreds of rounds of ammunition."
Zaynab Khadr, accused by Canadian authorities of having "willingly participated and contributed both directly and indirectly towards enhancing the ability of Al Qaeda to facilitate its criminal activities," returned to Canada in February with a computer chock full of documents that the authorities say "provide insights into the tactics, techniques and procedures" of Al-Qaeda and other groups.
Sami Ibrahim Isa Abdel Hadi, 39, was stopped in May for tailgating in Ridgefield Park, N.J. When a police officer called in Abdel Hadi's North Carolina license plates, he learned that Abdel Hadi had been ordered deported to Brazil in December 2001 and is listed in the FBI's National Crime Information Center database. Even more alarmingly, he had a valid temporary identity card permitting him to paint the George Washington Bridge (a high-profile potential terrorist target).
When an accused Los Angeles terror gang, the Assembly of Authentic Islam, needed money for arms, it robbed gas stations rather than obtain funds legally. One of its holdup artists dropped a mobile phone during a June robbery, which the police retrieved and used to unravel the plot and arrest the conspirators.
Other famous dumb terrorists include Yu Kikumura, a member of the Japanese Red Army whose odd behavior prompted a search of his car at a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop in April 1988, turning up three powerful bombs. Or Timothy McVeigh, apprehended in April 1995 after bombing the Oklahoma City federal building that killed 168 people, because his car lacked a license plate.
Counterterrorism is a difficult business, so it is fortunate that terrorists often act dumb.
Why can't they keep out of trouble until the big day? In part, because terrorists, like other criminals, are usually not the sharpest knives in the drawer; and in part because their ideology and hatred cause them to disdain the enemy, leading them to take unnecessary risks.
As a result, the rest of us are a little bit safer.
Oct. 4, 2005 addendum: This article is up to date but for the many more expected instances of this phenomenon, see "More Stupid Terrorists." Also, this article complements a more focused weblog entry, "In Praise of Routine Traffic Stops," that deals specifically with vehcular stupidities.
Oct. 6, 2005 update: For a discussion of the propriety of discussing this topic in public, see "Am I Helping the Enemy?"
Feb. 24, 2006 update: According to the Memphis Flyer today:
Prosecutors believe that Mahmoud Maawad, an Egyptian student at the University of Memphis arrested last year by the Joint Terrorism Task Force, was planning or participating in a potential terror attack inside the United States, the Flyer has learned.
The latest disclosures in Maawad's case are contained in a February 16th letter from assistant U.S. attorney Steve Parker to Maawad's court-appointed counsel. Maawad, who was living illegally in the U.S. for six years with a bogus Social Security number, has been held without bond since he was arrested. Federal agents have searched his computer hard drive and examined his e-mails, college records, chatroom discussions, and Western Union transfers.
Their conclusion: Maawad, whose e-mail sign-on was pilot747, "was linking to Web sites that are associated with Ansar Al-Islam, a radical Sunni Muslim organization in Iraq led by Abu Musab al-Zarquawi. Many news reports refer to Mr. Zarquawi as leading the Al-Queda group in Iraq." ...
The government has indicated it plans to introduce evidence that will show Maawad's motivation for buying flight material. "The computer indicates that the defendant was entering searches on the Yahoo search engine that indicate that he was attempting to investigate how guns and bombs could be smuggled through airports' magnetometers," according to documents the Flyer has viewed. "There are also remnants in defendant's computer indicating he had entered a search using the term 'car bomb.' Additionally, [Maawad] made specific searches seeking to purchase commercial flight uniforms."
Most disturbing, though, was Maawad's participation in an Internet chatroom that starts with a posting thanking Allah "for all your Jihad" and stating that the only legitimate regimes in Arab states are Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The posting says Iraq is standing alone in the face of "zionist-crusader aggression" and the "fierce aggression from the supposedly Arab brothers."
A posting by Maawad, identified as an engineering student in the United States, states, "i [sic] union with you and i [sic] completely agree."
If the case goes to trial, the government also plans to introduce as evidence e-mails between Maawad and the Transportation Security Administration in which he is denied permission to undertake flight training. The government says Maawad was angered by this and stated "he would violate the law."
July 14, 2006 update: Mahmoud Maawad pleaded guilty last month to fraudulently obtaining pilot materials and today was sentenced to 13 months in prison for fraud, then ordered deported to Egypt. "I don't think you appreciate the seriousness of your offense," U.S. District Court Judge Bernice Donald told him. "You've shown no remorse, no respect for the law or institutions and your attitude has been one of defiance." He will be credited with time already served.
May 31, 2007 update: For balance, I look at stupid counterterrorists at "New Frontiers in Counterterrorism Incompetence."
Jan. 20, 2009 update: For more examples along these lines, see "Instant Retribution in the Middle East."