People who study terrorist organizations often say that their most crucial asset is human capital. Terrorist operations, after all, are not very expensive–9/11 is famously said to have cost al Qaeda about half a million dollars. The expertise needed to carry out a successful attack, however, is uncommon and diverse–finance, surveillance, planning, operations, and much more. These are complex skills that take time to transmit from person to person, yet terror organizations are constantly losing personnel to counterterror efforts, and those personnel that are not arrested must remain on the move and avoid regular contact with one another to reduce their chances of arrest. Thus, many experts think that the foundation of a terror organization like al Qaeda is a core group of shadowy men with the right skills. They see the war on terrorism as a struggle between two highly competent forces, engaging in careful strategic thinking and minimizing exposure. A terror planner, for these experts, is like Lex Luthor: a supervillain fending off the hero with brilliant inventions and ingenious plans.
New reports from the interrogations of al Qaeda planners suggest that they may be more like Joss Whedon’s inept Doctor Horrible, for whom even good plans backfire and fall apart–and he typically doesn’t have good plans. In confessions obtained by the media, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad mentioned a plan to attack the Brooklyn Bridge by cutting its suspension cables–except he referred to it only as “the bridge in the Godzilla movie.” KSM also wanted to hijack cargo aircraft and fly them into airport terminals–a high profile attack, no doubt, but one unlikely to generate mass casualties or serious economic damage. Recall, for instance, the low impact that the complete shutdown of air transport had on the European economy after the Eyjafjallajökull eruption of 2010.