New York City Mayor Bloomberg got it exactly right when he told a group of firefighters that the attempt in Times Square "was an act that was designed to kill innocent civilians and strike fear into the hearts of Americans. And I'm happy to say that it failed on both counts." This calm, candid appraisal helps to reduce unwarranted fear, strengthens public resilience, and denies terrorists a victory. The same could and should have been said following the foiled Christmas day attempt. Instead, the focus last winter quickly turned to assigning blame in an environment that created more fear, undermined the resilience of the American public, and turned a terrorist failure into a success, with potentially devastating consequences for our counterterrorism efforts. The scene is now being set to repeat those mistakes.
After the initial recognition that the Times Square attempt was amateurish and the police and intelligence work exemplary, politicians are now suggesting that we were simply lucky and the hapless perpetrator is actually too dangerous to be handled in our criminal justice system. This kind of rhetoric after the bungled underwear plot turned that failed effort by an al Qaeda wanna-be into a success that Bin Laden was happy to claim.
Prior to Christmas, experts detected no real operational relationship between al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), the group believed to be behind the attempted underwear bombing, and AQ Central. In the immediate aftermath of the failed effort, no one claimed responsibility. Then the political recriminations started. Seeing that we were reacting as if the plot had succeeded, AQAP let it be known that they were the "masterminds." When the "soft on terror" charges seemed to sway the Senatorial election in Massachusetts, Bin Laden released a tape praising AQAP. Most experts now agree that the result is a stronger relationship between AQAP and AQC, posing a greater threat to our national security.
The military has a tradition of "after action" reports to ensure that lessons are learned through careful assessments of what was done and how it could be done better. These reports are not about assigning blame--and certainly not about winning political points. As NYPD Commissioner Kelley has stated, no investigation goes perfectly. A careful examination is appropriate but it should not turn into an excuse to reignite the "who's tougher on terrorism" battle that depends upon turning bungled plots into catastrophes that threaten our existence.
New Yorkers and tourists were back in Times Square within hours of the bombing attempt. As one of the street vendors put it, "This is what I do, and I'm going to try to keep on doing it... I'm just out here showing my colors." This refusal to be terrorized reflects the inherent resilience of the American people and is a powerful counterterrorism weapon. Unfortunately, it is undermined by the politics of fear.
Both the Times Square and underwear attempts were deeply flawed plots. They could have caused serious loss of life if they had succeeded, but the odds were against success from the outset. Al Qaeda remains a deadly and determined adversary. They may yet mount a successful and devastating attack. But these bungled attempts seem to reflect a weakened operational capability, a perception we should encourage rather than undermine. Let's not over react to these foiled plots and thereby allow the terrorists to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.