Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Prelude to a Critique on the Production of Bombings By Means of Bombings

Happy New Year!

Anyhoo, while out drinking with Alex from the Yorkshire Ranter in December (top tip - any readers wishing to emulate this feat - pack the harder of your spare heads, the guy drinks quickly), I was made aware of a small weakness in the argument of my post below entitled "More From Napoleon's Golden Bridge". As nobody can be bothered re-reading things these days, I'll précis - basically, I was arguing that the government was making a mistake in its policy of shutting down jihadi blogs and bulletin boards in order to stop them being used as recruiting tools. My basic idea was that, on the basis of a few general observations about blogging, the kind of person that was likely to be recruited through this channel was exactly the kind of person that we wanted the jihadis to be recruiting - basically, opinionated, egotistical morons and Walter Mittys who were bound to end up destroying the jihadi movement from within.

Alex noted that jihadis differ from other forms of nutter political organisation in that they have a method of making use of irritating narcissists who aren't very bright. Specifically, they can attach bombs to them, a disciplinary procedure which is not currently available to the BNP and SWP and which certainly does look like it's analytically important. It's certainly a point worth making and requires taking into account.

Thinking about Alex's point brought home to me the extent to which we, the public, really don't know anything about the terrorists that we're meant to be scared of. The crucial piece of information here is the relative capital and labour intensity of the suicide bombing production function[1]. If British jihadis are labour-constrained (ie, they have a stockpile of explosives but a dearth of volunteers), then obviously this critique goes straight through. If, on the other hand, they are capital constrained (ie, they have a load of potential bombers hanging round idle for lack of explosives), then it doesn't, and it could still be the case that adding to the pool of jihadi unemployment could have the destructive organisational effects I had first considered. In fact, there could be all sorts of perverse effects on the output of terrorist attacks, depending on how the factors of production are put into use (here's a paper on this general subject via Felix Salmon - I don't actually think it's much good, because in my experience trying to use consumer theory to analyse production problems is a sure-fire way of confusing yourself, but it sort of outlines the kind of things that one can get into).

Of course, the answer to the question of whether the British jihadis are short on labour or on capital is about as operationally sensitive a piece of information as you can think of, which is why I don't think we're likely to see it in a press release from MI5 any time soon. But I think it's at least indicative that (and here we have to be careful, as in my opinion it's clear that there has been a lot of constructive obfuscation if not outright disinformation in the media reports) a number of the high profile raids and arrests have had at least an element of home-manufacture to them. Equally pertinently, the 7/7 and 21/7 bombers both seem to have been responsible for making their own explosives[2], while last year's propane cylinder attacks were operating at an even lower level. To be honest, I am very surprised indeed at how poor the British jihadi movement's access to manufactured explosives and weapons is - if we're to take published reports at face value, it seems to be substantially worse than an ordinary criminal gang.

On the other hand, this isn't conclusive at all. Even if we take it as tentatively established that British jihadis are capital-constrained because they have to manufacture their own weapons, then they could still be labour-constrained in weapons manufacture. This actually seems quite likely, as the capital requirements for the Leeds bomb factory as described in the official report were quite nugatory[3] - it was estimated that the 7/7 explosives cost no more than £8000 to produce, which is an amount that could easily be floated on a couple of credit cards.

So, low-quality internet recruits could be given jobs like stirring a big pot of boiling hydrogen peroxide on a stove[4], or losing their fingers crystallising TATP, or (perhaps more realistically) ferrying tubs of industrial ingredients round the country to deliver them to people more competent and serious than themselves. Does this mean that recruiting bored young lads through the internet is likely to assist their ability to significantly step up the number and violence of the attacks they carry out? I still think probably not, because my guess is that the actual limiting factor is human capital.

In other words, ask yourself the question - are there people out there who are such total liabilities that they aren't even any use as cannon fodder for suicide bombers? And before you answer, consider this; of the three suicide bombing attacks in the history of the UK, two of them (London 21/7/05 and Glasgow 30/06/07) ended in ignominious failure. Apparently the answer is yes.

Or rather, this points out that we're looking at a complicated production/destruction function here. Palestinian and Iraqi terrorists have access to plentiful physical capital, and so they are able to economise on human capital, making use of more or less anyone able to carry a bomb (including, of course, the absolutely unspeakable evil of using children and unwilling carriers). British terrorists have to make their own bombs from scratch, and then transport them quite a long way to the attack (the 7/7 bombs were transported from Leeds to Luton in the boot of a car and then from Luton to London in backpacks, which is no joke when you consider that we are talking about homemade peroxide explosives here). And unlike Iraqi or Palestinian terrorists, British jihadis are few in number and seemingly organised on a cell structure[5], which more or less rules out the complicated logistics inherent in any strategy based on having the top terrorists manufacture and transport the bomb before handing it off to a clueless untrained recruit to carry it the last hundred yards.

As a result, British jihadi suicide bombers are going to have to be quite unusual people, in that they need to have practical bomb-making skills (and bomb-handlingskills, as the 21/7 attacks showed), significant physical courage and enough motivation and self-discipline to keep their mouths shut throughout the planning and production process (self-discipline and keeping one's mouth shut being characteristics not typically found in abundance on the internet). This is a result of the capital scarcity which forces the British terrorists to operate on a small, artisanal scale rather than the industrialised terror prevalent in less fortunate countries[6].

So, conclusions? Well, given that this has basically been introduced as an "economist's approach" to the question, the fact that it started off with a breezy piece of cynical contrarianism then oversimplified massively and waffled around the most important question by talking unspecifically about unobservable factors, ought to clue you up to the likelihood that it's not going to end in a useful conclusion. I still think that the Lyrical Terrrorists of this world are most likely the representative recruits to jihadism from blogs and message boards. I also still think that this kind of recruit is likely to be a massive liability to the jihadis (and therefore an asset to us). They'll consist partly of Walter Mitty gobshites who will be useful as flaming radioactive beacons to the intelligence services, partly of bottle-merchants who will collapse missions at crucial stages and partly of politicians and narcissists who will divert vast amounts of jihadi energy into pointless internal feuding.

However, the percentage of morons and arseholes on the internet, while high, is not actually 100%, and it is entirely possible that there are a small number of broadly functional Muslim kids out there who could potentially get drawn into the organisation out of a mix of two parts ideology to three parts adolescent psychology (I'm particularly worried about the recruitment of ordinary criminals like Richard Reid and Jermain Lindsay). And the trouble is that "a small number" is really all that you need for something horrible to happen. So I think I maintain my original theory as having some value to it, but perhaps rather more tentatively with respect to the policy conclusions.

[1] Or more correctly, "destruction function". As I've remarked before, weapons are unusual pieces of capital equipment in that rather than assisting in the production of goods, they destroy things which have already been made; they are also generally delivered, at great expense, to people who don't want them. The purchase of weapons systems is, however, recorded in the national accounts on an equivalent basis to more normal kinds of investment.

[2] That is to say, assuming that the official reports on both bombings are correct (and I have no means of gainsaying them), and that Maghdy El-Nasry (the biochemist who rented the Leeds "bomb factory" apartment) was indeed innocent of any involvement, which is the current state of official play.

[3] One potentially significant qualification to this is that I've seen other media reports which suggest that a commercial refrigerator was needed to store the HMDT explosive used as a trigger for the 7/7 bombs. This would be a bigger capital requirement but a) this wasn't in the official report and I am not sure if it's even true and b) it is not exactly an insurmountable obstacle anyway given that it is apparently not unknown for some British Muslims to work in the restaurant trade.

[4] Which, by the way, is such a wildly stupid way of making explosives that it's caused me on at least one occasion to question whether this is not disinformation (and I am also rather sceptical about whether peroxide/flour mixture is a viable explosive too - I still don't understand why the peroxide doesn't start oxidising the flour, rather quickly). But as noted above, I'm just not really in a position to gainsay the official reports.

[5] This organisational detail might be very important indeed, on an analogy with firm size effects and industrial organisation, which can have quite profound implications for choices of production process. It's important to remember that there is no phone number for "al-Qaeda" and it is not possible to be recruited to "the jihadis". It might easily be the case that even though the jihadi movement as a whole was labour-constrained (ie, missions were not being carried out for lack of volunteers), all the recruitment was going on into cells which were capital-constrained.

[6] And even in Palestine, the uneducated or clueless suicide bomber is the exception rather than the rule; most of them have been quite well-educated and trained cadres. Iraq (with all of its unusual conditions) is just about the only place in the world where the bad guys have successfully operationalised the reduction of human beings to war pigs.

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