Aftershocks around Yemen

Tuesday's Washington Post is juxtaposing opposite perspectives from two of its columnists on what the latest Yemen-cargo-bomb plot means. Anne Applebaum is relatively optimistic: the failed attempt—using an explosive "in use since World War I" known as PETN—shows that al-Qaeda must not have access to more scary technology like biological or nuclear weapons. The terrorists don't "pose a serious, existential security challenge to the United States," Applebaum asserts, and therefore, "we shouldn't let al-Qaeda take too much public attention, diplomatic energy and government funding from the more complicated, and more dangerous challenges of the future."

But the plot worries her colleague David Ignatius, because it shows that al-Qaeda "is determined to strike back wherever it can" with a "dispersed network and new tactics that are harder to detect." The lesson to be gleaned from the incident, according to Ignatius, "is that one of these days the terrorists will succeed." Whereas Applebaum thinks "perhaps we've already succeeded," Ignatius says the "nasty fight" is "far from over."

On the tactical level, former Homeland Security official Stephen Heifetz has an op-ed New York Times offering suggestions for preventing attacks using international cargo planes. Heifetz says the problem with the screening system for cargo planes—unlike "oceangoing cargo"—is that the law currently only requires thorough inspection of packages that ride on passenger planes. "All-cargo flights" are exempted. Not only that, but the idea that security officials can check every package even on passenger aircraft "is wildly optimistic." So Heifetz prescribes a "risk-rating system" that would "decide which packages and flights are most likely to be dangerous, and focus on them."

Reinforcing his point, the Times correspondents Barry Meier and Eric Lipton have an article detailing the tradeoffs between speed and safety, and the difficulties with inspecting every single package thoroughly. The Wall Street Journal and the Times are also reporting that security officials saw an influx of parcels mailed to Chicago from Yemen in September, which may have been a "dry run" for the latest bombing attempt. And here at TNI online, Paul Pillar observes that the incident could even have been "intended to smoke out, and learn about, security procedures, with the knowledge to be applied to later and deadlier operations."

Actually in Yemen, meanwhile, the Journal's Margaret Coker reports that Sana'a has deployed 3,000 Yemeni troops to "support" an offensive against the suspected bombers in the southern part of the country, even as Washington considers "expanded military operations." The offensive has been complicated by "the web of tribal loyalties" in a state where "the central government is weak." And in a seperate article, Coker and others note that Yemen has upped its efforts to prosecute suspected al-Qaeda members operating on its soil.

The Journal is also reporting that the "renewed global concern" may lead to a reexamination of how the United States and Europe conduct airline-passenger screening, noting that the Europeans consider many American methods "redundant," while the Americans view the EU's as inadequate.