It was front-page news for the this week: a security victory for the U.S. as officials announced that the CIA had stopped an ambitious plot by al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen. The plot? To destroy a U.S.-bound airliner using a bomb with a sophisticated new design around the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.
The real reason why this was a victory is that the bomb was stopped "en route," meaning that it never had a chance to be placed aboard the aircraft. It never got near an airport. Details have emerged that the man who had volunteered to smuggled the underwear bomb was actually a double agent. Instead of taking the bomb on a plane he got it out of Yemen and into the hand of U.S. intelligence.
The scary part is that the actual bomb was considered an upgrade of the crude underwear bomb that failed to detonate aboard a Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam on Christmas day, 2009. What was different about this bomb? A better detonation system. And what was somewhat frightening is that the device did not contain metal, meaning that had it been carried to an airport, there's a reasonable chance it might have passed through airport metal detectors.
This raises a point that I've discussed for years. Terrorists don't look for the path of most resistance, they aim for the path of least resistance. This bomb -- literally -- had all the makings of that approach. And that raises another big issue: the best security and terrorism intelligence is the system that can intercept a bomb, a weapon, or any threat way before it ever gets to its intended target.
Airport security remains -- in my opinion -- ill-equipped to deal with these bombs, weapons or threats. The loopholes are just too many. But most government agencies still depend on airport security, naively believing it is an effective tool in the anti-terrorism arsenal. Or a deterrent. I disagree. The real deterrent is the kind of sophisticated intelligence gathering that allowed officials to intercept this bomb before it ever got near an airport. That's where we should be spending most of our resources. So, hats off to the CIA for this victory.
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