LAST CHRISTMAS Day, the United States was just three minutes away from another tragedy of unmitigated horror. Once again, terrorists breached our security and nearly succeeded in turning yet one more passenger aircraft into an instrument of death and destruction. Had it not been for the malfunctioning of a cleverly disguised and detonated explosive device concealed in the bomber's underwear, and the alert passengers and flight crew who subdued him, America would have fallen victim to the worst terrorist attack since September 11, 2001.
The bomber, a twenty-three-year-old Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had recently graduated from University College London-one of the UK's most prestigious schools. He defied the conventional wisdom about the stereotypical suicide terrorist being poor, uneducated and provincial. Not only did he hold a degree, he was cosmopolitan-having lived abroad, Abdulmutallab was at ease traversing the globe without arousing suspicion-and he was the son of a wealthy banker and former Nigerian government official. Abdulmutallab was radicalized, recruited, trained and deployed in remarkably quick succession-a rapidity that was also unexpected and thus surprised counterterrorism experts.
How and why he joined al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remains a mystery. However, suspicions have continually focused on the role played by an American-born Muslim cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki who fled to Yemen some years ago.
Abdulmutallab's attempted attack shook the U.S. national-security structure to its foundations, prompting the most extensive government review of our terrorism defenses since the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security seven years ago and the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act that six years ago created the National Counterterrorism Center and Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
But, consider the following direct quotes from one of America's most senior counterterrorism officials, made at a closed meeting I attended in early January to discuss the Christmas Day plot and the state of America's preparedness for terrorism.
On our inability to foresee the attack:
We thought they would attack our embassy in Yemen or Saudi Arabia. The puzzle pieces didn't fit into an attack on the homeland.
There was no intelligence of an attack in the United States, despite the "noise" picked up in the Arabian Peninsula.
AQAP was looked upon as a lethal organization, but one focused [only] on the Arabian Peninsula.
We were looking at FATA [the Federally Administered Tribal Areas] as the incubator of the threat. Not at Yemen.
On the ineffectiveness of the post-9/11 reforms:
Information existed in the IC [intelligence community] that should have allowed us to identify him.
It's not a technology issue, but an untrained-people issue.
CBP [Customs and Border Protection] officers were waiting to arrest him when the plane landed because the P3B TIDE1 protocol did not exist to pull him aside in Amsterdam.
His name was misspelled by the embassy officer who flagged him, and we did not have the software to reconcile the two different versions of the same last name.
And, finally, on the state of our counterterrorism capabilities:
We have an outstanding record of accomplishment, and the American people should feel good about what we have achieved since 9/11.
It is the same line of argument other administration officials have told the media and Sunday talk-show hosts ever since. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano initially enthused that the "system . . . worked really very, very smoothly." White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs similarly assured Americans that the administration was "tak[ing] our fight to those that seek to do us harm" as if that were sufficient compensation for one of the most serious breaches of U.S. security since the September 11 attacks. And, a front-page New York Times article on January 18, 2010, titled "Review of Jet Bomb Plot Shows More Missed Clues," was still reporting weeks later that "Counterterrorism officials assumed that the militants were not sophisticated or ambitious enough to send operatives into the United States."
If Americans are dissatisfied with any of the above explanations, then they doubtless will be further discomforted by another New York Times article, recounting how Mikey Hicks, an eight-year-old third grader from Clifton, New Jersey, has been regularly subjected to secondary screening-including full-body searches and extended questioning-by Transportation Security Administration officials whenever he flies.
And if all this sounds, in the words of immortal baseball player and sage Yogi Berra, like "déjà vu all over again"-except that it's May 2010 and not August 2001-then the inevitable conclusion, of course, is that none of the government's explanations are even remotely acceptable. And even more alarming, despite Washington's assurances to the contrary, the homeland is not particularly safe.
THE FIRST cause of our current woes can be found in our geographically and tactically myopic strategies abroad. We seem able to focus only on one enemy in one place at one time. Gibbs demonstrated this in his post-Christmas-plot Sunday-talk-show appearance. "First, we're drawing down in Iraq," he explained, "and focusing our resources on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the places in the world where attacks have previously been planned, and where this planning goes on now." Putting aside the fact that there is no evidence that the Christmas Day plot was planned anywhere but Yemen, it seems clear that whether it was Iraq during the Bush administration, or Afghanistan and Pakistan now in the Obama administration, we rivet our attention on only one trouble spot at a time, forgetting that al-Qaeda has always been a networked transnational movement with an existent central leadership along with affiliates and associates and assorted hangers-on scattered across multiple operational environments. In other words, it is not a monolithic entity confined to one geographical area.
Our leaders have made matters worse by turning counterterrorism into a numbers game in their location du jour. Successive administrations now battle one another for bragging rights over who has killed more senior al-Qaeda leaders using unmanned aerial drones. The result is that, largely based on these numbers, senior Bush and Obama officials and their intelligence chiefs repeatedly trumpet al-Qaeda's demise when the evidence suggests otherwise.
In an interview with the Washington Post in May 2008, for instance, then-CIA Director Michael Hayden heralded al-Qaeda's "near strategic defeat" in Iraq and Saudi Arabia and cited "significant setbacks for al-Qaeda globally." Then, shortly after President Obama took office, senior intelligence officers were similarly quoted by National Public Radio claiming that the movement's ranks had been "decimated" and that al-Qaeda was "really, really struggling" as a result of what was described as "a significant, significant degradation of al-Qaeda command and control."
These upbeat assessments continued throughout last summer and fall when the intensified unmanned-aerial-drone attacks authorized by President Obama were credited with having eliminated over half of al-Qaeda's remaining senior leadership. "Al-Qaeda is under more pressure, is facing more challenges, and is a more vulnerable organization than at any time since the attacks on 11 September 2001," Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, declared last September.
Then came the Christmas Day plot and only days later the suicide attack on a U.S. military base in Khost, Afghanistan, that killed seven key CIA operatives. Indeed, these developments, among others, prompted the director of national intelligence, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency all to agree in response to a question from Senator Dianne Feinstein when they testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence this February that al-Qaeda is virtually "certain" to attempt to attack the United States within the next six months.
Yet within weeks the administration was back on message when the director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, returned to the familiar claim that the Predator attacks "are seriously disrupting al-Qaeda." "It's pretty clear from all the intelligence we are getting," Panetta stated in March, "that they are having a very difficult time putting together any kind of command and control, that they are scrambling. And that we really do have them on the run."
THE OPERABLE assumption, like the infamous body counts that masqueraded as progress during the Vietnam War in the 1960s, is that we can kill our way to victory. Long ago, David Galula, a French army officer and arguably still today the world's preeminent expert on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, wrote about the fallacy of a strategy that relies primarily on decapitation. In Pacification in Algeria, 1956-1958, first published by the RAND Corporation in 1963, Galula explains how the capture in 1957 of the top-five leaders of the Algerian National Liberation Front, the terrorist-cum-guerrilla group that the French battled for eight long years before giving up in exhaustion, "had little effect on the direction of the rebellion, because the movement was too loosely organized to crumble under such a blow." Half a century later, he could just as easily be talking about al-Qaeda.
Israel, moreover, has similarly pioneered and relied heavily on the use of targeted killings for more than three decades-yet Palestinian terrorism continues. It eliminated Hamas's chief bomb maker in 1996; suicide terrorist attacks thereafter escalated both in frequency and intensity. In 2004, Israel assassinated Hamas's leader and founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and then just weeks later killed the movement's political head, Abdel Aziz Rantisi. Their assassinations would arguably be equivalent to the back-to-back killing of both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri. Yet, even despite the loss of Hamas's spiritual and political leaders, the threat to Israel hardly diminished-and eventually prompted the Israel Defense Forces' massive ground invasion of Gaza in December 2008.Image: Pullquote: During 2009, at least ten jihadi terrorist plots or related events came to light within our borders-an average of nearly one a month. By any metric, this is an unprecedented development.Essay Types: Essay