On October 27th, two packages, each containing a Hewlett-Packard printer with plastic explosive hidden in the toner cartridge, were sent to Chicago, Illinois from FedEx and UPS offices in Sana’a, Yemen. The packages were intended to explode inside planes mid-air over U.S. soil. Instead, authorities were alerted to the bombs (likely by an active double agent within al-Qaeda), and two days later, both bombs were defused.
Some in the U.S. commentariat have claimed that the foiled attack was yet another demonstration of the danger posed by al-Qaeda, and further proof that the U.S. security apparatus needs reform.
We should, as our pundits suggest, take every opportunity to learn from attacks and improve our security, but this knee-jerk response to the cargo plane plot has missed the mark. For one, if anything, it’s the Brits that bungled things (it inexplicably took them 12 hours to discover the bombs, despite being given the tracking numbers and told to look in the toner cartridges). But more importantly, the attack was not indicative of a resurgent al-Qaeda — to the contrary, it pointed to an al-Qaeda that lacks technological competence, has failed to innovate new methods of attack, and is increasingly reliant on simple attacks from inferior bases of operation.
The explosive used in the attack, pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) has been around for over a century. Despite this, al-Qaeda doesn’t seem able to manufacture their own, and instead gets their supply from a friendly nation-state. And despite having PETN simply handed to them, al-Qaeda seems unable to achieve anything with it. The most recent plot is just another in a string of failures, including the 2001 shoe bomber and the 2009 underwear bomber. Why cant terrorists seem to get this very basic technology to work?
The modus operandi, sneaking a bomb onto a plane, is not just uncreative — it’s an obsession. Even as the West has piled resources on defending its airplanes, al-Qaeda has made virtually zero effort to adapt and strike at less defended targets. Madmen with fewer resources (like those who perpetrated the sniper attacks in Washington D.C, Ohio, and West Virginia in 2002-2003), have had more success in terrorizing the American public. Even if thinking of new ways to attack was difficult, terrorists could get more mileage just by copying the tactics of the insane.
And what of the origin of the attack? Al-Qaeda is said to be growing, opening up franchises in Somalia, southern Yemen, and northern Mali. We’re told that al-Qaeda is like a hydra, that for every head we cut off, two more will spring up. But none of these hideouts can ever hope to replace Pakistan. Very few Yemenis or Somalis have western passports, and since there is very little reason to travel to either country, westerners seeking training in these countries would face intense scrutiny by security services. Everything passing between these countries and the U.S. can be screened without creating an intolerable burden. Pakistan remains al-Qaeda’s sole reliable corridor for inserting agents into the U.S.
More to the point, the attack failed. Every failed bombing gives U.S. technical experts another piece of ordinance to examine, to discover the source of the materials (there’s quite a bit that can be discovered by looking at the pollens and contaminants on the surfaces of bombs), to track down and eliminate its makers, and to develop methods of screening and defense. Every failed bombing is a blow to al-Qaeda’s public relations and recruitment — it is, after all, an organization that must court patrons, engage in fundraising to support its activities, and convince others to follow them.
Before 9/11, the U.S. cared little about terrorism. Outfits like al-Qaeda had a reputation as the gang that couldn’t shoot straight — dangerous yes, but just as likely to blow themselves up as their intended victims. After 9/11, our perspective changed, and for good reason. If the crazies could coordinate something as sophisticated as synchronized hijacking-suicides, perhaps they could move on to other sophisticated strikes. Maybe they could acquire weapons of mass destruction.
In the nine years since, none of our fears have come true. Al-Qaeda has reverted to its hapless, bungling ways. We continue to treat them as cold-hearted professionals, but we might be better off calling them for what they are: morons. We have, through the wonders of drone technology, thermal imaging of would-be insurgents blowing themselves up with their own IED’s, and supposed morally pure mujahideen being intimate with livestock.
Changing how terrorists are perceived wouldn’t just be a blow to al-Qaeda’s recruitment efforts, it would allow us to better calibrate our response to the threat they pose. These backwater hicks and cow-lovers are not an existential threat on par with a proliferating Iran, a belligerent Russia, or a rising China.
It’s hard to tell if al-Qaeda’s bumbling would disappear if America spent fewer resources on counter terrorism. Perhaps present-day al-Qaeda is only stupid because of the valiant international effort to lobotomize it. But there is a reasonable case to be made that we should be placing more of our money and diplomatic attention on other theatres, that the intrusions on our civil liberties we have accepted in the name of counter-terrorism are no longer justified. As the 112th Congress sits down to make budget cuts, it should not devote more money to homeland security, but on the contrary, cautiously begin to roll it back.