WASHINGTON – Successfully foiling what would have been another catastrophic attack by a terrorist cell is a mixed bag for Western security.
Stopping the recent “undetectable plane bomb” proved the intelligence community still has the ability to anticipate and prevent these terrorist attacks. It also demonstrated that luck is a significant part of prevention.
“Luck plays an important role but one cannot depend on it,” says M.J. Gohel, a terrorism expert with London-based intelligence and security think tank the Asia Pacific Foundation.
“If our luck runs out, and atrocities occur, there will naturally be demands to give security services increased powers for arrest and detention, more covert surveillance and also profiling of individuals,” he tells WTOP.
Yemen has been high on CIA’s radar before it disrupted the most recent suicide plot there. The non-metallic technology employed by this latest would-be bomber is far more advanced than the intelligence community previously thought of al-Qaida’s abilities.
Learn more about the current status of this incident from CBS’ John Miller, at right.
Yemen was also the base for the original underwear bomber, whose plot to blow up Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 failed only because his equipment malfunctioned. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had successfully slipped through security checks in Lagos and Amsterdam.
“Unfortunately, there is no longer any doubt that major intelligence failures allowed the Christmas Day bomber to almost turn our airplanes into deadly weapons once again,” said Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., in a Senate Intelligence Committee memo shortly after the attempt.
“We cannot depend on dumb luck, incompetent terrorists, and alert citizens to keep our families safe,” he said.
Counterterrorism groups have had to look outside of their own capabilities because of the enormous challenges of infiltrating al-Qaida and other terrorist networks in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Investigation trails often lead to countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen, Gohel says, where “the cooperation from local security services is not always forthcoming or wholehearted.”
The first underwear bomber is only one example of a near miss thanks to good fortune.
In 2001, British shoe-bomber Richard Reid and his co-conspirator, Pakistani Saajid Badat failed to blow up two planes bound for the U.S. because of Reid’s incompetence, and Saajid changed his mind. In July 2005, a bomb didn’t detonate in the London Transit System only because the explosives degraded due to temperature. In June 2007, vehicle bombs in London didn’t go off because an ambulance crew happened to notice a smell coming from the van. In May 2010, Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad almost set of a vehicle bomb in Times Square, but his improvised explosive device was flawed.
In 2007, then-CIA director Gen. Mike Hayden addressed the Council of Foreign Relations on the agency’s strategy.
“America hasn’t just been lucky, and it isn’t as if the terrorists have been lazy or just aren’t trying,” he said. “Our nation’s bulwark is that group of experts at CIA, the National Counterterrorism Center, across the entire intelligence community who help prosecute this war with their deep knowledge of the enemy and their tight collaboration against a shared target.”
He went on to cite the activities by CIA operatives and analysts both in warzones and at home.
“We approach this war with no apologies, and we do so knowing we must continue and earn the trust of the American people for that operational space we need to do what the nation has asked of us,” Hayden said.
Five years later, Gohel points to the hundreds of international airports from which planes fly to the U.S., and at which there are inconsistent levels of security.
“Security is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain,” he says. “One lapse could have catastrophic consequences.”
The White House claims al-Qaida is weak and degraded from a decade of battling Western forces. Documents taken from Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout and released by the Obama administration last week show the terrorist leader second guessing morale.
“Even though we were able to militarily and economically exhaust and weaken our greatest enemy before and after the eleventh,” says one letter addressed to a senior deputy, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, “the enemy continues to possess the ability to topple any state we establish.”
That doesn’t seem to be the case following this most recent attack, set to occur on roughly the year anniversary of killing bin Laden.
“They are very, very tenacious, imaginative, determined, relentless and coldblooded,” Gohel says of al-Qaida.
“It is surprising in the sense that they do have this continuing obsession with aircraft,” he says. “It shows that they are going to keep trying until they succeed.”
Western intelligence forces must now turn their full attention to Ibrahim al Asiri, Gohel says, the mastermind behind this most recent attempt as well as the 2009 attempt on Flight 253. Al Asiri, also based in Yemen, is a bombmaking “genius,” says former CIA officer Bruce Riedel.
“(Al-Qaida Arabian Peninsula) has taken advantage of the chaos to build a growing power base in the south outside Aden (in Yemen,” Riedel writes in a recent DailyBeast.com column. “There, Asiri is undoubtedly training a new generation of bomb makers.”
“He and his students may well have built more than one of the latest version captured by the CIA,” he says. “They are certain to keep trying to blast their way into American history.”
Gohel says, “this is the man who needs to be eliminated.”