No Drama Counterterrorism
Yesterday U.S. officials announced that a plot by al Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen to use an explosive device on an airliner had been disrupted by the CIA and overseas intelligence partners. The event highlights al Qaeda’s continued desire to strike U.S. targets – but also points out, with its early failure and re-use of unsuccessful technology from a failed 2009 attempt, al Qaeda’s relative weakness. In his final days, Osama bin Laden himself recognized that the group had been decimated by U.S. counterterrorism efforts and its own willingness to kill Muslims. Yesterday’s news is a good example of the strength of U.S. intelligence professionals and of the American spirit. There was no drama or overreaction to the news, which is what terrorist acts seek to achieve.
Al Qaeda plot disrupted; national security professionals ensure “the device did not pose a threat to the public.” The New York Times reports, “The Central Intelligence Agency, working closely with foreign partners, thwarted a plot by the branch of Al Qaeda in Yemen to smuggle an experimental bomb aboard an airliner bound for the United States… The intelligence services detected the scheme as it took shape in mid-April, officials said, and the explosive device was seized in the Middle East outside Yemen about a week ago before it could be deployed. It appeared that Qaeda leaders had dispatched a suicide bomber from Yemen with instructions to board a flight to the United States with the device under his clothes, but that he had been stopped before reaching an airport.” The Washington Post adds, “the CIA and other agencies tracked the plot for about a month before moving to seize the device.”
The Times further reports, “The plot was disclosed a day after an American drone strike in Yemen killed Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, who was wanted for the bombing of the destroyer Cole in Yemen in 2000 and had replaced Mr. [Anwar al] Awlaki as the external operations chief for the Qaeda branch. Though the device was seized close to the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Qaeda founder, officials said they had picked up no intelligence suggesting that the plot had been timed to the May 2 anniversary or motivated by revenge. Officials would not explain the delay in revealing the plot, saying that discussing the case in too much detail could endanger counterterrorism operations.” The Washington Post reports that, “President Obama was made aware of the threat in April, U.S. officials said, and the plot was stopped before any aircraft or passengers could be put in danger. Obama ‘was assured that the device did not pose a threat to the public,’ said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council.” [NY Times, 5/7/12. Washington Post, 5/7/12]
Plot serves as a reminder of the reality and diminished scope of the threat from al Qaeda. Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism fellow at the New America Foundation and expert on al Qaeda, told PBS’s News Hour that “The organization, especially the central core, has been decimated. But the organization still does have some strength. When you think about al-Qaida, it’s really trying to do two things. On the one hand, it’s trying to conduct attacks against the U.S. homeland and the West, and on the other hand it’s trying to build what they would call emirates or bases of support in various locales around the world. The most important of those right now is in Yemen. But there’s still an al-Qaida organization in Iraq, North Africa, Somalia and still this small group in Pakistan as well. I think that what’s really interesting about al-Qaida today is that, as much as we have decimated the group through drone strikes and those sorts of things, al-Qaida really stabbed itself in the foot, especially with its targeting of Muslims.”
Journalist Peter Bergen writes that bin Laden himself was concerned about the state of the organization: “Bin Laden wrote a 48-page memo to a deputy in October 2010 that surveyed the state of his organization. He was particularly concerned that al Qaeda’s longtime sanctuary in Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal areas was now too dangerous because of the campaign of American drone strikes there that had picked off many of his key lieutenants.” [Brian Fishman, 10/7/11. Brian Fishman via PBS, 4/30/12. Peter Bergen, 3/16/12
Continued success in diminishing al Qaeda requires, in part, building our own psychological defenses and diminishing the impact of smaller-scale attacks and attempts such as this. Audrey Cronin, a terrorism expert and professor at George Mason University, writes: “Terrorist groups typically lack the strength to confront adversaries directly. Instead, they try to use the shocking nature of attacks on noncombatants to enhance their relative power. Attacks against civilians are targeted for strategic effect, to transform a campaign toward the group’s political aims… Terrorism’s point is to employ symbolic tactics to draw power from the state and then use that power to benefit the group or its cause. It is the passionate reaction by a populace to terrorism—be it fear, anger, intimidation, awe, inspiration, or another emotion—that gives the tactic its efficacy… As long as ‘success’ is defined as never having another successful terrorist attack, the enemy has the initiative and the U.S. approach is destined to fail… in conjunction with taking intelligent measures to prevent that, a crucial element of our grand strategy must be to strengthen American psychological defenses in advance.” [Audrey Cronin, Orbis, Spring 2012]
What We’re Reading
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz, chairman of the opposition Kadima party, reached a surprise agreement to form a national unity government.
International envoy Kofi Annan plans to brief the United Nations Security Council on the Syrian crisis following UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s call for an end to the violence.
Egypt prepares to ramp up security in response to increasing violence in Sinai.
Interpol called for the arrest of fugitive Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi at the request of Iraqi authorities.
After the conservative New Democracy party failed in a few hours, head of the Left Coalition Alexis Tsipras began his efforts to form a Greek government by renouncing the terms of an international bailout and threatening to nationalize banks.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel rejected French President Hollande’s vow to renegotiate a continent-wide fiscal treaty to curb public debt.
The United States and India urged Pakistan to step up its anti-terrorism efforts and promised to maintain pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.
Tensions between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea escalated, with China proclaiming it is ready to respond to additional accusations.
Japan and South Korea plan to sign an agreement share military intelligence and foster cooperation.
More than half of Morocco’s judges signed a petition requesting that prosecutors be permitted to work independently of the executive branch in an attempt at reducing judicial corruption.
Commentary of the Day
Martin Indyk, Kenneth Lieberthal and Michael O’Hanlon assess President Obama’s foreign policy to be relatively nonideological in practice and informed by a realistic overarching sense of the United States’ role in the world in the twenty-first century.
Moeed Yusuf warns that attempts to exploit the civil-military divide in Pakistan will backfire for American interests.
Douglas Cassel asks why not try the alleged 9/11 planners before the same civilian courts that try homegrown terrorists.
Tarak Barkawi maintains that despite the international community’s efforts to resolve the conflict in Syria, violence in the country will only continue.