In today’s Washington Post, columnist David Ignatius seems to suggests that somehow Saturday’s attempted bomb plot represents the advent of a “new generation of terrorists.”
However, the facts of the Times Square plot actually demonstrate quite the opposite—that al Qaeda’s tactics remain largely identical to previously foiled attacks against the U.S. In many ways, this foiled attack feels like a replay of the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a plane landing in Detroit. Let’s look at a few of the similarities:
- Known enemy? Check. The U.S. government has long been aware that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), whom the underwear bomber was affiliated with, and al Qaeda cells in Pakistan, have communicated that America was there enemy and have staged multiple attacks against the United States.
- Known terrorist networks? AQAP and al Qaeda groups in Pakistan are widely known to recruit would-be attackers to organized terror training camps, giving them the skills and resources to stage attacks. Ignatius seems to indicate that because some of these groups are less organized than before that somehow we have little knowledge of their structure and desire to do damage. However, authorities have long recognized that Yemen and Pakistan are staging grounds for terrorist activity.
- Known tactic? Roadside car bombs have been used so frequently against U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has ordered the creation of a Counter Improvised Explosive Taskforce to help tackle the problem. Much like airplanes, U.S. authorities are highly aware of the use of these tactics by terrorists—and nothing about should be much of a surprise.
Taken as a whole, its hard to form any other conclusion than that this was a federal failure to connect these dots together—not some sort of new and creative strategy by terrorists to throw off authorities.
The New York City Police Department, for its part, did exactly what it was supposed to do. It responded fast, neutralized the danger, and worked tirelessly to track down leads and narrow down a suspect. Without credible intelligence passed down seamlessly through the system, there would be little they could do to stop the plot before they did.
It is clear that the system, in this instance, did not work, much like it didn’t on Christmas Day. And while the dots lined up neatly, no one actually connected them. What’s more frustrating is that the system actually can work to stop these types of plots against Americans. At least 30 plots have been foiled since 9/11—28 of which were the result of good law enforcement, intelligence gathering, and/or information sharing with our friends and allies abroad. The lesson of these plots, is that being successful requires law enforcement to stop plots in the earliest stages.
Sheer luck isn’t an appropriate strategy for preventing attacks. The White House must begin to drill down on these failures of the system. Asking the right questions, but also making tough choices—ones that ensure that counterterrorism abilities are preserved and defended will have to be part of the process. Choosing to embrace this job is necessary for the safety of Americans and winning the war on terrorism is a 24-7-365 job.