The Next Big One?

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
Weekly Standard Online
Aug. 11, 2006

The transatlantic air plot might make us rethink a couple of stale assumptions.

THE SHEER MAGNITUDE of the foiled plot that British authorities announced yesterday was breathtaking. This may well have been “the next big one” that experts have predicted al Qaeda would attempt. As Friday began, British authorities had apprehended 24 suspects alleged to be part of a plot to blow up as many as 10 transatlantic flights with liquid explosives. As a result, some widely-held assumptions among terror analysts may now come crashing down.

One assumption that took root in recent years is that al Qaeda’s central leadership is isolated and incapable of calling the shots for terror attacks of any significant magnitude. In truth, there was good reason to doubt this assumption even before the transatlantic air plot was announced.

Osama bin Laden and his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, began 2006 with a flurry of audio and video releases. The audiotape that bin Laden issued following Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s death was emblematic. One bin Laden signature is to reference sometimes obscure current events; in his commemoration of Zarqawi, he referred to the dispute over whether the terrorist’s body should be buried in Jordan. Bin Laden’s ability to release an audiotape less than a month after Zarqawi’s death coupled with his demonstrated access to information about current events should have prompted us to reevaluate the view that he was cowering in a cave, isolated from the world. There’s no reason that bin Laden couldn’t use the same courier networks that deliver his tapes to send commands to operatives.

The assumption of a weakened central al Qaeda leadership certainly influenced media coverage of the attacks on the London Tube last July 7. Almost immediately, that attack was declared to be the work of a cell that was merely “inspired” by al Qaeda but had acted autonomously. Indeed, the British government’s official report adheres to that storyline. But the reality is more complex.

Dan Darling and Steve Schippert outlined a large number of connections between the 7/7 bombers and the al Qaeda network. These include: 7/7 ringleader Mohammad Sidique Khan meeting with senior Jemaah Islamiyah leaders; New York terror suspect Mohammed Junaid Babar identifying Khan from a photograph and claiming that they had met at an al Qaeda training camp; and British al Qaeda leader Haroon Aswat making phone calls to the 7/7 bombers just hours before the attacks.

While these connections suggest that the 7/7 attackers were not nearly as segregated from the international jihad network as some observers initially assumed, there is even less of a chance that the plot announced yesterday was conceived by a wholly autonomous, independent group. Estimates of the number of individuals involved in the foiled attack range from 50 up to perhaps as many as 150 people. It’s unlikely that a terror group this large would form organically, without an outside hand. This is especially the case since they had a support network that stretches at least to Pakistan, and perhaps to the United States and Canada as well.

Thus, some analysts may need to rethink their previously-held assumptions about the broader al Qaeda network’s inability to take part in another large-scale terror plot. One critical question concerns the operation’s command and control. Who called the shots for the plot? Who gave it the green light? These answers are not yet known, but may well provide insight into the role al Qaeda’s central leadership now plays in international terror.

A SECOND ASSUMPTION that should be reconsidered is the state of our efforts to defend soft targets. Preliminary reports suggest that terrorists involved in this plot took several transatlantic flights between Britain and the United States in order to probe weaknesses in airline security. This suggests an active enemy that is ready to adapt to the defenses we have erected.

An ABC News report on details of the terror plot reveals the extent of these adaptations:

According to sources, the suspected plotters arrested in London today planned to use liquid or gel explosives, triggered with the flash from a disposable camera. The plotters planned to leave the top of each bottle sealed and filled with the original beverage, but add a false bottom filled with the explosive. The volatile mixture would have been dyed to match the color of the beverage. Sources say the suspects believed this would guarantee them safe passage through security, even if they were ordered to sip the beverage to prove it was harmless . . . . The flash in a disposable camera, the plotters apparently believed, would have enough power to trigger the homemade explosive.

A number of analysts have argued that implementing a system of profiling in airports and other soft targets would be ineffective, and perhaps counterproductive. Former FBI agent Mike German wrote an op-ed to this effect in the San Francisco Chronicle, while journalist Richard Miniter devoted an entire chapter to this argument in his latest book, Disinformation.

The problem, though, is that while the enemy adapts to our defenses, our defenses do not adapt to the enemy. Airport security is entirely mechanical. Very little attention is devoted to determining who should be pulled aside for additional screening, and the limited questions asked of passengers serve no real security purpose. Indeed, when two of the 9/11 hijackers had trouble answering the standard security questions, the 9/11 Commission Report states that the ticket agent “had to go over them slowly until [the hijackers] gave the routine, reassuring answers.”

We have come to depend more and more on policing operations as our last line of defense: on the FBI, the MI-5, and other agencies. Yet it’s critical to ask whether, if British authorities hadn’t been able to disrupt this plot before it became operational, would airport security have had any real chance of stopping it? If not, what would have increased our odds of catching a terrorist plot in progress?

A system of behavioral profiling could move us away from the sorry status quo, where airline screeners have to be considered a virtual nullity with little chance of disrupting an actual terror plot. Certainly, moving toward such a system would cause a firestorm in the current political climate, where major newspapers feel at liberty to divulge national security secrets and the administration is so unpopular that it is publicly crucified even for programs that are minimally invasive of civil liberties. Yet of the two assumptions that may now need to be rethought, this is probably the more important. While the potential consequences of underestimating al Qaeda’s central leadership are significant, the lack of a real last line of defense against terrorism can cause us far more pain.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior consultant for the Gerard Group International. His first book, My Year Inside Radical Islam, will be published in February 2007 by Tarcher/Penguin.

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