October 29, 2010

Initial thoughts on Yemen and the terror threat

CAVEAT: More and clarifying information will come out - this is my assessment on what was available today.

Yet another security threat is traced to Yemen. Two air cargo packages were intercepted overseas, reportedly based on information provided by the Saudi intelligence service. The two packages did contain explosive devices and were bound for Jewish facilities in the Chicago area. The packages were discovered on aircraft in the United Kingdom and Dubai (United Arab Emirates), and both originated in Yemen.

Yemen is home to al-Qa'idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP and one of its leaders, American-born radical cleric Anwar al-'Awlaqi have been very active over the last few years. This makes at least the fourth attempt on the United States since President Obama took office. Before today:

- November 5, 2009: U.S. Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan killed 13 and wounded 30 others in an attack inspired by al-'Awlaqi.

- December 25, 2009: Nigerian 'Umar Faruq 'Abd al-Mutallab, trained by AQAP and inspired by al-'Awlaqi, attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear while on board a Detroit-bound airliner.

- May 1, 2010: Faysal Shahzad, a Pakistani American inspired by al-'Awlaqi, attempted to detonate a car laden with explosives in New York City's Times Square.

The explosive in the devices discovered in the UK and UAE today contained the same explosive materials, PETN (a favorite of al-Qa'idah) and RDX, as those used in both 'Abd al-Mutallab's underwear and "shoe bomber" Richard Reid's shoes.

The question everyone is asking now is, "How many other devices were involved in today's attempt and where are they?"

Saudi intelligence, the source for the information that led to the discovery of today's attacks, is quite capable when operating in their own backyard. Since 2004, the Saudis have been absolutely lethal to al-Qa'idah elements in the Kingdom. Of course, they are not hamstrung by the oversensitive civil liberties charlatans in the United States; they actually get results. (See my earlier piece,
Saudi intelligence warnings - seriously?) In any case, I tip my hat to the Saudis. I have often been critical of them in the past, so when they perform, I feel it is incumbent on me to recognize that as well.

Of course, we all abhor al-Qa'idah tactics to kill innocents in the furtherance of their goals. That said, one must analytically appreciate the skill with which they have approached attacking the United States. Over the years since the attacks of September 11, 2001, al-Qa'idah has patiently observed American security procedures and identified vulnerabilities. After determining where we had not spent hundreds of millions of dollars on defenses, they adapted their method of attack. It appears they have assessed (correctly, in my view) that cargo aircraft are not subject to the same scrutiny as passenger aircraft.

How is al-Qa'idah able to mount operations against the United States in 2010 after years of being assaulted in Afghanistan?

The United States has deployed almost 100,000 troops to south Asia to, as President Obama keeps telling us, "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qa'idah." Despite that, they are able to put at least two (that we know about) explosive devices that would be delivered to Jewish facilities in Chicago?

The reaction from President Obama's terrorism advisor John Brennan that it "may have been more than a dry run." You think, John? Actual explosives in multiple packages designated to be delivered to Jewish targets in the United States? I am going out on a limb here, but I am guessing that there is a real threat here, and your "I don't know" response does not engender confidence in our counter terrorism capabilities.

Maybe we are fighting the wrong war. Even CIA director Leon Panetta concedes that there are only a few hundred al-Qa'idah fighters left in Afghanistan. Most of the "true believers" have moved to Pakistan or Yemen. In Pakistan they survive under the protection of the Pushtun tribes in the FATA, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which is "Paki-speak" for "we don't want to try and impose law and order there because they will kick our butts." Bottom line: the real war is not in Afghanistan.

In response to today's attacks, let's at least face reality and call them that: attacks. President Obama said the United States will continue to work to destroy al-Qa'idah. Great, Mr. President. So why have you committed much of our offensive military power to a venue where we know al-Qa'idah is not a threat? Is your mandate to rebuild Afghanistan or to defeat al-Qa'idah? I think you know the right answer but have not figured out how to explain it. Let me help. If you want to, as you claim, "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qa'idah," start taking them on where they are. That is in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, not Afghanistan. Today's events provide you the perfect opportunity. Move against the threat.

Ah, but President Obama is a political animal. That is not a condemnation, but simply an observation. He cannot help but wonder why al-Qa'idah would be conducting these attacks within a week of the American elections. The conventional wisdom is that if al-Qa'idah is attempting to influence the elections, it wants to ensure that the new American political landscape favors al-Qa'idah. For most observers, that means a Democratic victory. Then again, a Republican victory means a commitment to continued American troops presence in Afghanistan, taking the pressure off where the real al-Qa'idah presence is, that being Pakistan and Yemen.

Yemen is emerging as the key locus for the fight against terrorism. As then-Secretary of State Colin Powell did in 2001 with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, we need to approach Yemeni President 'Ali 'Abdallah Salih and explain that the fight happens one of two ways. One is cooperation between our intelligence and security services, and the other is crippling air and missile strikes where we deem appropriate. Remember, this is the same government that stymied an American investigation in to the attack on the USS Cole, allowed (and possibly fostered) the mysterious escapes of al-Qa'idah operatives, the continues to refuse to extradite indicted felons to the United States - it goes on and on.

The real fight is not in Afghanistan, it is in Yemen.