December 29, 2009

Textbook Terrorism

The “Nigerian Terrorist,” as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is now known to the world, left a jumble of clues and mystery behind his attempt to blow a US airplane on Christmas Night. At least before al-Qaeda claimed responsibility, but everyone still wants to know how, why, and where.

Though Abdulmutallab’s narrative is important in itself, he serves as the tip of al-Qaeda’s spear, fusing the full spectrum of terror for maximum effect.

How Abdulmutallab managed to sneak his explosive device remains unknown, to the public at least, but our focus is on the aftereffects; a mystery device that permanently changes airport security will be discussed as details permit. For now, since US and airport officials lack a clear definition of the threat, they were forced to expand security measures beyond the desired level.

And it is better to be safe than sorry.

Still, a balancing act is gauging how much security is too much and too little, how much to let terrorism effect every day life in America. How much to let the terrorists win. The how of Abdulmutallab is as much a question of how much he costs the US taxpayer and economy.

TSA’s new security rules drew immediate scrutiny for their severity. Multiple hour delays resulted from planeloads of passengers being patted down. Passengers weren’t allowed to go to the bathroom an hour before landing or have items on their lap. TSA quickly relaxed its orders and only minor delays are being reported, though international travel to and from America is said to be slow.

Business Week ran an article
suggesting no revenue will be lost during the Christmas travel season, a staple in the US economic cycle. But economic statistics are different from the total slush of money rippled by Abdulmatallab, and especially those before him.

In the near term, delays cost dollars that add up quick in America. Canadians carryon is being restricted, possibly shortening vacation plans. Ultimately millions, or billions if the system is overhauled, will be spent or wasted because of one man with $5,000 in plane tickets and a $100 bomb.

Long-term, as the NYT reports of the ongoing investigation, “A review of government audits and interviews with experts inside and outside the government also shows that the system has been slow to make even bigger changes because of a balky bureaucracy, fickle politics and, at times, airline industry opposition. It has also squandered tens of millions of dollars on faulty technology, like high-tech “puffer” machines that repeatedly broke down and flunked the most basic test: they failed to detect some explosives.”

This is textbook al-Qaeda economic warfare.

How leads to why. A lone wolf theory is being ruled out in favor of a direct al-Qaeda attack, though both options would extremely dangerous and prove how lethal al-Qaeda remains. But assuming al-Qaeda just plotted an attack from Yemen, President Obama’s Afghan strategy just dropped five points.

Obama interrupted his Hawaiian luau to assure Americans they were safe, but his main task was to appear tough on “terrorism.” He needed to explain himself. For starters, “terrorism” is back in use in the White House. Tough stuff.

But Obama has a problem. States like Yemen and Somalia poison his “necessary” war theory. Maybe Afghanistan isn’t so necessary, because every conflict is “necessary” exterminate al-Qaeda. His rational for Afghanistan is dying unless he can contain the spillover, but maybe 2% of America and Europe would support military operations in every state that al-Qaeda operates in.

It’s all becoming too much.

Obama’s grand strategy to defeat al-Qaeda remains a work in progress. Exposed to media scrutiny and doubt among his supporters on Afghanistan, his homeland defense is now under fire. Homeland Security director Janet Napolitano admitted on NBC’s today show of a total security failure one day after taking fire for saying “the system worked.”

But Napolitano doesn’t look as bad as who appointed her, and uou can tell when Obama’s embarrassed because he gets mad. Denis McDonough, chief of staff of the White House National Security Council, sent the White House scattering: “The president is looking for answers on this.”

Security investigations, political investigations, public embarrassment, a possibly unemployed Napolitano- all from one Nigerian college student. This is textbook al-Qaeda political warfare.

Here’s where it gets scary though. Obama began his Yemen air-strikes on December 14th. This may be enough time to activate a cell, but the plot was likely in the works beforehand. Nevertheless, plotting an attack from Yemen suggests al-Qaeda is trying to draw America to Yemen. So is Obama going to play al-Qaeda’s game?

Initial evidence points towards yes.

The NYT reports, “A direct attempt by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to stage an attack on American soil raises the question of whether the United States would have to take broader and more clearly visible retaliatory military action. One government official said the topic was likely to come up before the National Security Council.”

Because of a security lapse and political embarrassment, Obama is being tempted to respond with overwhelming military force. This would be a huge mistake. Force is necessary in counterinsurgency, but not to look tough. The world knows America is tough. Obama needs to act tough while the US military doesn’t - that’s the problem.

The US military needs to stay quiet, partner with whatever local authorities it can on the ground, and pressure Yemen’s government to initiate political and economic reform. Bombs make food distribution and hospital building possible when paired with full spectrum counterinsurgency.

Alone they’re counterinsurgency steroids, a quick fix now with long-term consequences. Provoking “more clearly visible retaliatory military action” is textbook al-Qaeda military strategy. Anger locals, draw in US forces, put up temporary resistance, move on to next conflict zone. Obama would be wise to retaliate with small covert units and an emphasis on regional peace.

But Obama appears fatally close to the trap. Take a look at his brief address and this notorious statement:
"I've directed my national security team to keep up the pressure on those who would attack our country. We do not yet have all the answers about this latest attempt, but those who would slaughter innocent men, women and children must know that the United States will more -- do more than simply strengthen our defenses. We will continue to use every element of our national power to disrupt, to dismantle and defeat the violent extremists who threaten us, whether they are from Afghanistan or Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, or anywhere where they are plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland."
Nothing about the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, or Nigeria, a collective group pushing 70% unemployment. No diplomacy, no economic aid, no reference to their people’s plight. “Keep up the pressure” is code for drones and $100 million in US arms. Obama is papering over grimy counterinsurgency with glamorous counter-terrorism.

Exactly the response al-Qaeda is hoping for.


  1. "Lone wolf theory". What we have now are global wolf packs. Many are A/Q so and so, in name only.
    Intelligence on the ground can help to solve the "terror" problem. Most big Corps have a human resources dept. Our govt. needs a human resources dept. not a war dept.
    Drones in the air, Gitmo, invasions, and occupations only serve as further recruiting tools. We keep getting deeper and deeper into the A/Q trap.