"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Declining Capability?

At Wired, Spencer Ackerman has a nice little article about whether or not AQAP could have managed to detonate the bombs on the cargo planes- it is tech-y, as you would expect, and provides a cool window into the logistics of terrorism, something as important as the politics behind it, and something you won't really find here.  I can hardly work my own cell phone, and it is one of those giant ones from the early 90s.  But there is something in it that I found unsettling (above and beyond the unsettling nature of terrorism).

U.S. officials have been cautious about attributing responsibility for the plot to al-Qaeda. But if al-Qaeda is the culprit, the Pentagon adviser says, the terror group is showing “declining capability.” Hijacking multiple aircraft on 9/11 is much more complex than trying — unsuccessfully — to blow up a pair of passenger or cargo planes.

This only is true if you assume an unbroken continuity between the al-Qaeda that attacked on September 11th and AQAP, and you shouldn't assume that.  While AQAP (and its previous names) didn't start from scratch in 2006, they also were not just an offshoot of the Af/Pak branch.  They had to build up their organization, and have done so at a remarkable rate.  And hijaking planes is no longer a viable option for terrorism- they have to find new ways to exploit vulnerabilities.  They seem to be learning from every success and failure.  While this was less of a success than the Christmas Day attempt- it was interdicted; the failure didn't come from bad luck- it still gave AQAP what they really want: attention and fear, which translate into a recruitment bonanza. 

Initially I thought that this was kind of a weak-sauce terror plot, and had hoped that it might mean the leadership was losing some command and control as the organization got bigger.  But subsequent revelations showed that the plot was mature, although far from perfect.  This doesn't strike me as declining capabilities as much as an ability to adapt.  We should be glad that terrorism might not have the spectacular potential it did 10 years ago, but it is troubling if that is cause for relaxation.  

There is also this. 

The logistical difficulties in setting off the bomb might strengthen the theory that the printer-bomb plot was a terrorist test run. Then again, the chief bombmaker for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, has failed to kill anyone in his two previous high-profile bombing attempts: the thwarted Christmas Day attack, which failed to detonate; and the near-miss 2009 attempt on the life of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief.

I think the first sentence is correct- if it wasn't intentionally a test run, it might be seen that way by the leadership, who are very flexible.  The second part is kind of funny, but a little too dismissively snarky- the Christmas attempt came damn close to catastrophe, and the attempt on bin Nayif was essentially a success operationally- it was only an accident of positioning that saved his life.  So let's not write them off.  I don't think that is what Ackerman was doing, of course, but I don't want it to be read that way.


  1. I commented on Waq yesterday, and will add to that a bit here today. I'm not actually sure that this attack 'failed.' Is AQAP really trying to kill a few anonymous strangers? Or is it looking to cut off Western civil engagement in Yemen, force greater involvement by the US (and consequent closer identification among Yemenis of Saleh and the US military)?

    If the latter, there might even be greater propaganda to be had from an attack that didn't even hurt anyone -- one can assume that the US/Yemeni counterstrike causes collateral damage, which would be 'revenge' for a strike that didn't hurt anyone.

    I'm no scholar of AQ, but I've always thought we make a big mistake when we think that their attacks are about us, rather than communicating/marketing to its prospects/constituents.

  2. "...what they really want: attention and fear, which translate into a recruitment bonanza."

    And they hope of a western reaction in security issues, which will cost a lot of money again. That's the strategey of Abu Bakr Nagi to drain the West!

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