The attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a fanatical wealthy Nigerian mechanical engineering graduate, to bring down a trans-Atlantic Northwest flight with 290 passengers on approach to Detroit's Metropolitan airport with a PETN bomb on Christmas is the latest example of the mutation of the goals, connections and methods of terrorists. It also represents a significant failure in our national security apparatus to act decisively against an identified individual and a known method of attack. Before looking at the macro-picture, there are several noteworthy details.
First is the apparent connection to Yemen, and specifically to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) -- a group in the midst of a fierce struggle against both the Saudi and Yemeni governments. AQAP issued a video warning earlier this month, according to analyst Peter Bergen, and was the target of a coordinated attack by the Yemeni military around Christmas Eve that reportedly killed over 30 militants. Initial reports indicating that Anwar al-Awlaki, the Internet spiritual advisor to the Fort Hood shooter, was among those killed are currently in dispute. Yemen, an unstable country on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula along with Somalia and the Pakistan/Afghanistan tribal areas, is considered one of the most important contemporary breeding grounds for radical Salafists. It was also the location of the 2000 attack on the Navy ship USS Cole that killed 17 sailors as well as the ancestral home of the bin Laden clan and many Guantanamo detainees.
The device in the airplane plot is similar to one used earlier this year by AQAP. On August 28, Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, director of the nation's counter terror service, was slightly injured in a Jeddah bombing. An AQAP member from Yemen on Saudi Arabia's most wanted list who requested to see the prince to enroll in the government's highly touted amnesty/rehabilitation program blew himself up, after passing through security with a PETN explosive device lodged tightly against his rectum (not within it, as first reported). PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate, is an extremely powerful high explosive that can pass through metal detectors.
This summer's attack was important for several reasons. It was the most brazen failure of the Saudi rehabilitation program, and the first time in recent years that an attacker got so dangerously close to such a high-ranking member of the royal family. It also showed the willingness of AQAP to use lone attackers armed with hard to detect bombs in sensational attacks. These devices can be secreted on the genitals or near orifices. Abdulmutallab apparently hid part of his PETN explosive device against his crotch to pass through security checkpoints. If AQAP is involved it is a troubling sign that it is seeking to escalate attacks outside the region, using sophisticated devices that can easily pass through metal detectors and casual physical inspection. Regional al Qaeda organizations sometimes try to branch out, as Iraq's affiliate did earlier this decade with strikes against American-branded hotels in Jordan, before its leader Abu Musab al-Zarkawi was killed.
Aviation As A Focus of Evolving Terrorism
The government must address apparent information sharing and operational deficiencies that allowed an extremist, whose father had already warned American authorities, to walk on board an airplane with bomb components. Passengers, flight attendants and terrorist ineptitude should not be the only thing standing between us and a catastrophe.
Over the past century young idealists, mostly culled from their own areas, fought against colonialism in regional struggles for national and ethnic autonomy. To the extent there were transnational influences, they were usually political rather than religious in nature. Today, extremists like Abdulmutallab fight around the world, not for independence, but for God. What makes this troubling is that their enemies and allies are more ethnically and geographically diffuse. A worldwide struggle by a transnational movement aided by the Internet and social media enables would-be "lone" fanatics anywhere to market themselves to terror groups as potential recruits. Their fanaticism in many instances, rather than their fighting skills, their ethnic or organizational pedigree, can be key in their selection for missions. Sometimes, however, fanaticism alone is not enough, as was the case with the recent rejection by al Qaeda of five DC-area young extremists arrested during in an unsuccessful foray to Pakistan.
From the 1960s through the early 1980s, terrorists were more likely to be engaged in more secularized regional political and nationalistic struggles, though they often had a religious subtext. Thus, hijackers often undertook forced negotiation tactics such as the release of "political prisoners," territorial concessions, publicity or ransom. While lone suicide bombers are nothing new, those who targeted aviation frequently were carefully cultivated team members who usually had a lengthy history with the group that sent them. In recent decades, there has also been a dramatic increase in the frequency of "super-terror" attacks -- that is, events with more than 100 casualties. In the last decade there were almost as many terrorist attacks with over 100 casualties than in all of the twentieth century. The most people killed in a single attack in Northern Ireland for example was 29. Today, authorities must be on guard for terrorists who want dramatic destruction and body counts. While aviation has become somewhat hardened as a target, it remains one that if successfully attacked can result in dramatic high body counts that can also severely affect commerce.
It used to be enough to hijack, rather than commit mass murder. When Palestinian nationalists coordinated four hijackings of Western aircraft in 1970 (three successfully, as the El Al one was thwarted in flight), they were content to land the three remaining planes at the Dawson field desert airstrip in Jordan. After some time, they removed the passengers and sequentially blew up the empty planes for the evening news cameras. The struggle for Palestinian statehood was now firmly on the world's radar screen. The problem is that in the world of terror, escalation is currency, and killings are among the surest way to dramatically make sure your message is heard.
Transnational Religious Warriors
By the 1990s a global religious terrorism insurgency was a reality, and aviation was one of its targets. In 1994 Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, the highest ranking member of al Qaeda, set for trial in the United States, went to the Philippines to work on a plot with his nephew Ramzi Yousef to bomb a dozen airliners while they were flying over the Pacific Ocean. Another bombing target was Pope John Paul II, who was set to visit the country for World Youth Day Celebrations. Like the Christmas-day plotter, Mohammad, had attained a degree in mechanical engineering from a Western University-North Carolina A&T State University.
Yousef, who was also a key player in the February 26, 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, left a bomb on a Philippine airliner on December 11, 1994 as a test run for the larger airline plot. He left an explosive device on an aircraft in an underseat life vest after departing the plane during a brief stopover en route to the flight's final destination in Tokyo. While the bomb did not take down the aircraft as planned, it killed Japanese businessman Haruki Ikegami and injured 10 others.
In early 1995, shortly before the Pope's visit, authorities broke up the plots. The various attacks were foiled with computer and bomb evidence seized from a Manila apartment near the Vatican Embassy after a fire broke out there. Yousef was captured in Pakistan in February 1995 and later convicted in the United States on various charges including ones related to his role in the 1993 World Trade center bombing.
Khalid Shaikh Mohammad became a key al Qaeda leader and went on to other plots including the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people when 19 hijackers took over four American commercial aircraft.
Travel, particularly aviation and passenger rail, as well as hotels and religious shrines, have been frequent bomb targets for al Qaeda and other terrorists for many years. In December 1988, 270 people were killed in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland by a Libyan agent acting in a non-religious retaliation for a previous American military strike against Libyan leader Gaddafi.
A decade later, in 1999, Algerian Ahmed Ressam targeted Los Angeles international Airport for a New Years Eve "millennium" al Qaeda bombing that was thwarted by an observant customs officer at the Port Angeles, Washington border station. 100 pounds of explosive material was found in his car's trunk. Ressam had been affiliated with an Algerian extremist group that five years earlier hijacked a French plane in an unsuccessful attempt to crash it into the Eiffiel Tower. Two years later, on December 22, 2001, "shoe bomber" Richard Reid made an unsuccessful attempt to bring down a transatlantic American Airlines flight with a PETN explosive. In November 2002, an Israeli charter plane in Kenya was fired at by suspected religious terrorists using a missile. Over the last decade and a half Chechen nationalists, including a woman who reportedly hid the explosive in her bra, have killed scores of Russians in attacks on civilian passenger aircraft.
In 2006 UK authorities thwarted plots led by middle class al Qaeda-linked British Pakistanis, some with university education, to blow up transoceanic flights with liquid peroxide bombs, prompting a change in security screening policy.
Crucial Crossroads: Most Active Year Since 2001
According to Rand Corporation analyst Brian Jenkins there have been 32 terrorism "events," including thwarted plots, involving America since 9/11. In 2009 there were 12 events, excluding the Northwest incident-the most since 2001. In late 2008, a Minneapolis college student became the first American to kill himself in a suicide bomb when he detonated himself in a crowd in Somalia. What is so interesting for analysts about this year's events is not only their frequency, but the diversity of the cast of extremists and the seeming lack of a solid defining common thread between them, other than their fanaticism. Ethnically, they include Anglo whites, Somali-Americans, an African-American, a South American, Pakistani-Americans, a Jordanian, a Palestinian, Afghan-Americans, and a Canadian. They include citizens, legal residents and a visitor. Terror movements from places like Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen influenced some of the extremists. Others became radicalized more indirectly. Many used social networks and the Internet. Included in the list are a coffee vendor, physician, funeral director, dental student, college students, truck driver, businessman, and former military among others who are remarkably middle class.
All Faiths Need to Work Cooperatively And Within Their Own Ranks
While the accused radicals were not all linked to one another organizationally, this increased activity, including various operational plots against military personnel, trains and planes, represents an extremely disturbing development. One thing we know about al Qaeda is their ability to cultivate young radicals around the world. And while Islamophobes will ignorantly and mechanistically condemn all Muslims or Islam as a faith, their myopic hatred causes them to miss crucial points.
Many fanatics of any faith who murder also attack their moderate co-religionists. Gandhi, Sadat, Rabin and Bhutto were all assassinated by co-religionists with more restrictive worldviews. Next, according to a 2007 Pew survey, American Muslims by a wide margin reject extremism and see no conflict between devotion to faith and living in a modern society. Unfortunately, blatant Islamophobia has not only infected political discourse, it has hampered our counter-terror efforts too. The political challenge going forward will be to isolate the religious bigots of both stripes (including those in the Christian and Jewish communities) who refuse to recognize the presence and role of moderates across faiths.
While this effort requires the complete repudiation of bigots like Geert Wilders and his compatriots, and adjustment to law enforcement policies, it also requires a greater effort by some Muslim institutions and leaders to go beyond convenient press releases and sound bytes in their own work. While some groups like MPAC have recently and laudably reinvigorated dormant efforts that had been shifted to back-burner status, others have not. If groups are meaningfully going to prevent extremism in their own communities they must make greater efforts to reject the falsehood of masking extremism as merely being innocuous exercises of political, religious or policy dissent. When Hussein Ibish and I invited Muslim groups to publicly repudiate a religious "expert" and frequent purveyor of hate and conspiracy theories on college campuses last spring we were met by resounding silence.
While the Pew survey found only five percent of American Muslims view al Qaeda favorably, some young adult Muslim-Americans expressed more disturbing positions. Seven percent of 18-29 year old Muslims had favorable views of al Qaeda, with another 19% unable to answer, and 15 percent stated that suicide bombing can often or sometimes be justified in defense of faith. That response was more than double the approval rate of those over 30 years old. Young Muslims were also much more likely to see devotion to faith at conflict with modern living than older respondents. Today's young terrorists frequently operate not out of physical deprivation, but spiritual aspiration. Society and individual communities thus have an stake in promoting moderate civic and religious values.
We not only have to prevent al Qaeda from smuggling in volatile explosives like PETN, people of good will of all faiths must make efforts to unite to prevent and identify the flow of another volatile incendiary that cuts across geographic and ethnic lines -- religious based hatred and extremism, whether it be from Islamophobes or radical Salafists.
Stark Counter-Terrorism Failures
Even after 9/11, the sad fact is that bureaucracy, a lack of common sense, delay and denial in some key positions in the government's national security establishment are hamstringing the efforts of those who actually are doing an effective job. There is simply no excuse that an individual reported to authorities can get on a US bound flight with a device that analysts have already warned about. It represents a significant failure to fully utilize a system that actually does partially work. Most in the establishment are doing their job admirably, notably in both tracking and analyzing terror movements and operations and those who are responding in a series of "quiet" military actions overseas.
Some in the system, however, refuse to fully implement data collection, analysis or watchlist measures out of fears that they may be imperfect, partially leaked and then subject to heavy handed reviews by civil libertarians, business interests, political partisans, and higher bureaucrats. We are in the midst of the most activity by extremists and their overseas counterparts in years, yet we are not adequately making use of our resources, information and talents. The sad fact is that we are leaving players, the playbook and equipment on the sidelines, just as the terror threat is increasing late in the game--and in this competition real lives are at stake.