A Failure to Detonate

November 1, 2010

A Failure to Detonate

Monday's newspapers (carrying over from the Sunday-morning talk shows) focus on the "narrowly averted" plot to blow up cargo planes with packages originating in Yemen en route to two Chicago synagogues. Al-Qaeda's subsidiary in Yemen is suspected behind the attempt.

While the New York Times and Washington Post focus on plot details (one of the parcels was dropped off at a UPS office; the other was FedExed and rode for a bit on a Qatar Airlines passenger plane), the Wall Street Journal takes the opportunity to ask whether Washington should put covert, CIA-controlled "elite U.S. hunter-killer teams" into Yemen.

America already provides some help to Yemen in going after militants there, but the article notes that putting the CIA in command would allow U.S. forces to strike at them "without the explicit blessing of the Yemeni government." The tricky part would be avoiding blowback: stepping up U.S.-driven operations could lead to a "public backlash against Yemen's already weak government," and spur President Ali Abdullah Saleh "to end" U.S. training of Yemen's military. But the Journal's editors are all for the plan for increasing U.S. "special forces if not drones" and long-term "involvement in some form."

The idea has bloggers a wee bit worried. Danger Room's Spencer Ackerman writes, "If that sounds like Pakistan 2.0, it should," and warns that, Washington would just be falling into the terrorists' trap. The Nation’s Robert Dreyfuss writes that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)  cares more about taking down the Saudi royal family rather than the United States, and the plan to use “unofficial death squads” would only “deal with the symptom,” not the disease. Empty Wheel says the idea of running raids and air strikes through the CIA would allow the Obama administration to “avoid the whole declare war thing–you just issue and tweak a finding, letting the Commander-in-Chief dictate the terms of the not-war.” 

Andrew Exum is concerned that the news articles about Yemen are being written by reporters in Washington, DC, instead of Doha, Abu Dhabi or Riyadh, and urges everyone to “first gather a little situational awareness before screaming for policy makers to DO SOMETHING.” But Gregory Johnsen says earlier estimates putting Yemen’s al-Qaeda membership at three hundred are “far too conservative,” and the United States cannot count on its “luck” to hold after foiling a number of recent terrorist plots emanating from the Gulf state.

Leah Farrall thinks the latest plot underscores her oft-repeated analysis that AQAP is not a separate entity from al-Qaeda’s “core,” and requires “approval” from the main headquarters between Afghanistan and Pakistan before it can make any moves. And Daniel Drezner points out that "Al Qaeda failed… again" and repeated failure "does carry strategic and operational costs."