Paul Pillar

Al Qaeda and the Unabomber

Two package bombs sent from Yemen have touched off the latest flurry of commentary about the nature of terrorist threats currently facing the United States and from whence those threats come. A couple of features of earlier rounds of commentary have also been prominent in this round. One is the tendency to think in territorial terms—to focus on country X from which the latest threat has come, and to regard counterterrorism as a problem of crafting policy toward country X. Afghanistan has been—and still is, in terms of being the focus of U.S. attention and resources—the principal country filling this role. With the attempted bombing of a U.S.-bound airliner last December and now the package bombs, Yemen is challenging Afghanistan for this role in American thinking about thinking, although it still has a long way to go. The challenge is salutary insofar as it reminds us that Afghanistan is not in fact the alpha and omega of transnational terrorism, or anything close to it. But similarly narrow country-specific thinking is now characterizing much of what is being said about terrorism and Yemen.

The method used in the latest attempted attack ought to remind us that terrorism is transnational and not limited or defined by territorial boundaries. Bernard Haykel, a professor of New Eastern studies at Princeton, made a pertinent observation that one does not need to be a Middle Eastern expert to make: that “in Yemen, you can walk into a local branch of FedEx and mail something to the U.S. You can't do that in Somalia or in rural Afghanistan.” True, and if the availability of FedEx and UPS outlets is a measure of terrorists' operational opportunities, be aware that we have a whole lot more of them in the West, including the United States, than in either Yemen or Afghanistan.

The method used in the latest incident also puts into perspective another persistent feature of the commentary, which is to focus on groups and especially known groups, and above all on that most familiar of terrorist group names, Al Qaeda. Terrorist threats get framed overwhelmingly in Al Qaeda terms, regardless of what any one incident says about our vulnerabilities and who might exploit them. The center of suspicion in the current case is a mostly Saudi group known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. That name alone gets our attention even though the group seems to operate quite independently from the Al Qaeda that is led by Osama bin Laden and mostly holed up in South Asia. But the perpetrator whom the package bomb technique should most bring to mind is not a group at all but instead Theodore Kaczynski, the “Unabomber”—the disturbed recluse who from his primitive cabin in the Montana mountains waged a terrorist campaign from the late 1970s to the 1990s by mailing package bombs of clever design.

Cleverness in the design and conduct of terrorist operations is a concept that often comes up in the commentary and is implicitly a reason to focus on well-established groups. The devices sent from Yemen are said to have been “sophisticated” and designed by “professionals”. It's hard to see any more sophistication in this operation, however, than what Kaczynski did. British Prime Minister David Cameron stated, and White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan sort of agreed, that the packages sent from Yemen were probably intended to detonate in flight and to bring down the aircraft carrying them. If so, they failed (even though they did make it onto several flights before being intercepted), just as the December operation failed. Another failure associated with the purported bombmaker of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was an attempt to kill the Saudi counterterrorist chief by hiding explosives in either the underwear or the rectum of the bombmaker's brother, who pretended to be a defector. The brother was killed but the intended target was only slightly injured.

One also has to wonder about addressing packages from Yemen to synagogues in Chicago, which seems almost designed to raise suspicion. Unlike Kaczynski's devices, the bombs sent from Yemen were reportedly not designed to detonate when the packages were opened. What did the perpetrators expect to happen if a bomb did not detonate inflight and addressees in Chicago opened a package and realized they had not ordered a printer from Yemen?

Possibly the terrorists in this case were trying to do one of two other things that would imply they were not necessarily as unimaginative as might appear. Perhaps this operation was intended to smoke out, and learn about, security procedures, with the knowledge to be applied to later and deadlier operations. Or perhaps, as my colleague Bruce Hoffman suggests, it was a non-lethal attention-getting exercise, possibly with the timing affected by the U.S. midterm elections. If it was either one of these, then the heavy official publicity given to the incident was exactly the wrong way to respond.

But of course to try keep the whole matter under wraps probably was unthinkable because a subsequent leak of the information would be politically damaging to the administration. That gets to how such incidents get publicly perceived as counterterrorist success or failures, a subject on which I will have more to say soon.