Bombs, Packages and UPS

Last week’s attack, while foiled, shows that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, is growing in sophistication.

To most Americans, foreign policy, war and the threat of terrorism have not been top issues in their minds during the campaign season. The economy and unemployment, for good reasons, have taken over those honors. But as the news of yet another uncovered terrorist plot demonstrates, terrorism isn’t going to magically fade away in the near future. So even if Americans are not weary of package bombs, disgruntled Army psychiatrists (Nidal Malik Hasan, the “Fort Hood shooter”) or American-Yemeni clerics inspiring western Muslims to wage jihad, terrorists of all forms are still desired to strike a blow to the United States and Western position.

Of course, fear should never dominate an electoral season, even if most of the candidates running for the Congress engage in a bit of scaremongering in their campaign ads. Voting out of a sense of fear is dangerous, both because people tend to think irrationally when frightened and because American history is full of politicians making terrible decisions from threats that are exaggerated. In fact, Americans focusing predominately on the economy can perhaps be seen as a victory against terrorism in the long run. A big objective of terrorism is attention from the public, and American citizens have refused to cater to this demand despite a number of attacks that were thwarted at the last minute.

Now that the American campaign season is over, we would nevertheless be wise to get back to reality. Despite ten years of effective counterterrorism efforts around the world, the American homeland and the West in general are still vulnerable.

A case in point is last week’s foiled plot orchestrated by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most lethal and media savvy franchise of the larger Al Qaeda movement. While the investigation is ongoing, US, European, and Arab officials are confident that AQAP’s chief bombmaking expert (Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri) was behind the plan to smuggle explosive material through sealed packages on passenger planes. Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom stated that the bombs were designed to explode while the planes were in the air. Others content that the bombs were supposed to explode once they reached their final destination, a series of synagogues in the Chicago area.

Regardless of what the target was, the plot shows that AQAP in particular will leave no tactic untouched in their quest to send the American government a message.

An American intelligence official has told the Associated Press anonymously that American law enforcement intercepted a couple of mail packages in mid September which they suspect was sent by AQAP militants. The search that was conducted did not reveal any explosives, but authorities are increasingly confident that the shipment could have been a “dry run” for last week’s attack.

Al-Asiri is an interesting case study, not only due to his high ranking in the Al Qaeda organization but also because of his operational expertise and background. According to American and Saudi counterterrorism officials, al-Asiri used a similar explosive (commonly referred to as PETN) in an attempted assassination of Saudi counterterrorism chief Prince Mohammed bin Nayef a year ago.

That attempt failed but demonstrated to the government of Saudi Arabia that the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda is quite adaptive in its techniques.  Disguised as a young repentant Muslim seeking to reach out to the Saudis, the suicide bomber approached Prince Nayef and narrowly missed his target. The plan sounds juvenile at first, until you discover where the bomb was stored: in the attacker’s rectum. Detectors missed the bomb, allowing the operation to go virtually unfettered.

Ironically, this type of attack is quite similar to the operation aboard a Detroit bound airliner last Christmas. In that plot, the same PETN was sewn into the attacker’s underwear, which again escaped the routine checking of airline security. That plot was unsuccessful as well, but only because the operator (Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab) didn’t know how to set off the explosion.

Now that the midterm elections are over, the Obama Administration needs to get back to work. And an urgent priority that President Barack Obama needs to contend with is the growing lethality of AQAP, coupled with an increased investment in Yemen’s counterterrorism machinery.