There are growing concerns that an al Qaeda affiliate could use a new generation of liquid explosive, currently undetectable, in a potential attack, according to two senior U.S. government officials briefed on the terror threat that has prompted the closing of nearly two dozen U.S. embassies.

Though the Transportation Security Administration has long been concerned about liquid explosives being used in potential devices — as it was during the failed Christmas Day bombing in 2009 — the new tactic allows terrorists to dip ordinary clothing into the liquid to make the clothes themselves into explosives once dry.

"It’s ingenious," one of the officials said.

That the CIA may be in possession of the world’s most highly classified vacuum cleaner blueprints is but one peculiar, lasting byproduct of the controversial U.S. detention and interrogation program.

Confined to the basement of a CIA secret prison in Romania about a decade ago, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the admitted mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, asked his jailers whether he could embark on an unusual project: Would the spy agency allow Mohammed, who had earned his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, to design a vacuum cleaner?

Read: AP Exclusive: The CIA and a secret vacuum cleaner

The employee, international terrorist Moktar Belmoktar, responded the way talented employees with bruised egos have in corporations the world over: He quit and formed his own competing group. And within months, he carried out two lethal operations that killed 101 people in all: one of the largest hostage-takings in history at a BP-operated gas plant in Algeria in January, and simultaneous bombings at a military base and a French uranium mine in Niger just last week.
@AP: Al-Qaida rips into prima donna terrorist for not filing expense reports, ignoring calls, failing on big ops - AP Exclusive: Rise of al-Qaida Saharan terrorist
The note — scrawled with a marker on the interior wall of the cabin — said the bombings were retribution for U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, and called the Boston victims “collateral damage” in the same way Muslims have been in the American-led wars. “When you attack one Muslim, you attack all Muslims,” Tsarnaev wrote.


In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, Bill Maher got himself into a great deal of hot water by opining that terrorists who flew planes into buildings might be called a great many things but “cowards” shouldn’t be one of them.

We might well disagree with Maher, thinking about a definition of cowardice that doesn’t turn entirely on someone’s actions. In that case, we could claim that even someone who risks or gives up his life for a cause is still a coward insofar as his tactics are cowardly or his targets suggest cowardice. Someone who attacks the weak or helpless, for example, very well might be deemed a coward even if he does something that, in another situation, might seem courageous.

All of this came to mind when I watched the coverage of the Boston bombings a couple of weeks ago and when I got the following question from a student:

I’m interested in the fact that terrorists and criminals are consistently referred to as “cowards.” Obviously, the actions of such people are the opposite of heroic, but does this mean these people are not courageous?

The crucial difference between the 9/11 terrorists and the Tsarnaevs is that there wasn’t anything at all courageous to point to in Boston in the way that Maher could point to the courage of the 9/11 terrorists who gave up their own lives in the pursuit of their murderous ideology.

In Boston, the bombers indiscriminately attacked people who were helpless and unaware, and they did so in a way that, at least in the moment, presented no risk to themselves. They set down explosive devices on a sidewalk full of innocent people and they walked away from them.

There’s no doubt that this is cowardice.

That said, I think it’s fairly straightforward to make the argument that terrorism is always cowardly, even if particular terrorists take actions that might appear courageous under different circumstances. The circumstances matter a whole lot.

For a very interesting discussion of courage in political theory, I highly recommend Richard Avramenko’s book Courage: The Politics of Life and Limb.