Al Qaeda Spins Failed Plots as Successes Because They Ramp up Security and Drain U.S. Treasury

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
New York Daily News
May 8, 2012

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, blamed for a thwarted plot to bring down an airplane using explosives concealed in the bomber’s underpants, has emerged as likely the most potent Al Qaeda-affiliated entity.

AQAP has previously attempted two significant plots targeting the U.S. One was virtually identical to the present attempt, in which Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab sneaked a bomb past security on Christmas of 2009 by stashing it in his underpants, only to have a detonator fail.

The other was an October 2010 plot involving bombs disguised as printer cartridges that was disrupted by a tip from Saudi Arabian intelligence. American targeting of AQAP figures has intensified, including the killing last year of Anwar al-Awlaki, the group’s head of external operations.

The U.S. killed Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, whom news reports have described as AQAP’s new external operations commander, in a drone strike Sunday. Despite such setbacks, AQAP has been able to control territory in Yemen, where it has established a strict version of Sharia law, and has executed devastating strikes against the country’s military.

On Monday, attacks on bases near Zinjibar killed 32 Yemeni troops. In the past, Al Qaeda has not always seen unsuccessful terrorist attempts as true failures.

Its Yemeni branch released a special issue of the English-language online magazine Inspire commemorating the thwarted printer cartridges plot. The previous underpants bomb plot was celebrated by Awlaki. In a March 2010 video, he said that while the attempt “could not have cost more than a few thousand dollars,” it ended up “draining the U.S. Treasury of billions of dollars.”

Awlaki’s statement shows how jihadists can see success in apparent failure. Undermining the American economy lies at the heart of their strategy, and a plot need not kill anybody to have an economic impact.

The first underpants bomb attempt forced its targets to undertake costly adaptations. The full-body scanners that have been so costly, intrusive and controversial are the direct legacy. This time around no bomb made it past airport security. It isn’t yet clear how the CIA derailed the plot, but we do know the would-be bomber had not purchased a ticket when the CIA stepped in. Thus, assuming we don’t experience a successful followup attempt, this plot will find no place in the pantheon of apparent failures that the jihadists regard as advancing their objectives.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a lecturer in world politics at the Catholic University of America.

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