During his final months, the late al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden had many things on his mind. But no concern weighed more heavily than image control. Al-Qaida's brand in the global marketplace was slipping. Its offshoots and allies were making the organization he had worked so hard to build look bad. And there seemed to be little he could do about it from his hideout in Abbotabad.
Bin Laden had good reason to worry–and a brief review of some recent news articles shows why.
- "Six Taliban militants were killed and two others wounded Thursday when the roadside bomb they were building in a mosque exploded." (Associated Press)
- "A man was killed while trying to plant a bomb on a petrol tanker in the north-central Nigerian city of Kaduna yesterday, police spokesman Aminu Lawan said." (Bloomberg)
- "Eight militants including an important commander died on Saturday whilst making a bomb in the area of Bara Akahel, Khyber Agency." (Dawn News)
- "Two men were killed in the Mudiyah district of Abyan when a bomb they planned to use in an attack on government forces exploded by accident…" (Reuters)
- "Five militants were killed on Saturday when a bomb that they were preparing at their hideout in the Sarghar area of the Khyber tribal region exploded prematurely." (Press TV)
These are just a handful of many such stories from the past several months – stories that expose a darker side to the largely unregulated business of mass murder.
No official figures for the number of terrorists killed by premature detonation exist. But a careful review of the available data shows that during the past two years, an average of almost one terrorist a day was killed in a workplace mishap involving high explosives.
Officials within al-Qaida–and other large terrorist organizations such as Boko Haram, al-Shabab, andLashkar-e-Taiba–insist these are isolated incidents, that they have adopted safety procedures to prevent further occurrences. "We take every precaution to ensure that our soldiers in the war against the infidels do not explode one second before their appointed time," says Abdul Abdel-Aziz, vice president for corporatecommuniations at Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyaj. "Ensuring the safety of our martyrs for Islam has always been our top priority."
Lying in a hospital bed in Peshawar, Ali Muhammed Hussein disputes that. Hussein lost both legs, his left arm, and his eyesight when the bomb he and an accomplice hoped would blow up a preschool at a UN office building in Jalalabad detonated prematurely in 2011. "We had, maybe, two hours training," says Hussein, his voice husky from three reconstructive surgeries on his throat, his eyes haunted by thoughts of what might have been. "Like: This is the red wire, don't cross it with the black wire, now go. That was it."
Hussein is far from alone. A database compiled by this news organization shows the pace of prematuredetonations has remained largely steady and, if anything, has seen a slight uptick since the death of bin Laden last year.
"This is what happens when you have zero oversight," says Mark Baker, a former assistant deputy to the assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health in the Clinton administration, who now works as a consultant for labor groups. "People are turned into unrecognizable gobbets of moist white meat hours, sometimes even days, before they are supposed to, without taking anyone else out with them. It's a tragic waste of human resources."
An analysis of explosion data shows premature detonation has occurred in nearly every country in Middle East and Northern Africa, from the India-Pakistan border to the Sahel. Last December, for example, two would-be suicide bombers died when their bomb went off unexpectedly in the Afghan province of Farah. Terrorism officials say they ordered a stand-down so all militants could be retrained in the use of timers and fuses. But less than four days later, five more militants died in another incident in Jakarta that, safety experts say, was remarkably similar.
But there is little that can be done about the problem, says Michael Mungerford, an expert on workplace safety. Despite the increasing use of car bombs, suicide vests, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in recent years, no regulatory agency oversees their manufacture. Due to the covert nature of the terrorism business, surprise inspections are almost impossible. And terrorist organizations are reluctant to share their records and internal documents.
As a result, Mungerford says, "no one that we know of has ever been punished – no one – as the result of a premature detonation." No international standards govern the making of roadside bombs or other explosives – and even if standards were adopted, international agencies are largely helpless to levy fines or other penalties when an accident occurs.
Baker, for his part, is fatalistic. "Nothing is going to change until terrorist groups start placing a higher priority on human life," he says. "And I don't see that happening anytime soon."
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this satirical article originally appeared.