Sunday, December 27, 2009

Multiple Readings of the Failed Terror Plot

Events like the failed incendiary device on the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit can be read in so many ways, and most reactions are entirely predictable.
  • The Right is already using this to argue that the Obama administration does not take terrorism seriously.
  • TSA is imposing a bunch of new measures to make travel more inconvenient (pat downs of everyone??) that will make a marginal difference.
 One could argue that the system worked quite well.  That is, because of the existing procedures, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, despite whatever training he had, was only able to take on the plane a device of dubious effectiveness.  He started a fire that hurt mostly himself, and, thanks to 9/11, there will always be a passenger or two or three that will react, as Jasper Schuringa did.  This means that any potential terrorist has a very short window of opportunity.

Now, I should not downplay the threat posed by such an event--this guy could have brought the plane down.  But he did not.  So, the counter-terrorism glass can be seen a half-full or half-empty.

What this also points out, given the apparent role of Yemen-based groups in this event (it really is too early to know much yet, but speculation is rampant--why not join in?), that failed states are a-plenty and that the US and its allies cannot solve all of these problems militarily.   Not only does this raise questions about the effort in Afghanistan, justified on counter-terrorist grounds, but also the plinking of individual terrorists in places like Yemen and Pakistan.

Once again, a middle class Muslim, in an advanced democracy, becomes radicalized, with the parents shocked and dismayed (just like the five guys from Virginia).  The parents do the right thing, which is pretty amazing, letting the authorities know.  This information is filed but not acted upon, and then things play out as they have.  We can criticize the government for not investigating this guy intensely and quickly and not putting him on the list of no-fly people, but one can only guess how many tips are received.

This does seem to be the face of terrorism for the near future--random individuals who become motivated, rather than folks with long AQ histories.  This is both bad news and good news.  It is harder to track all of these guys, but they are not necessarily going to be as effective.

The key here, and this is hard to do in a very politicized environment, is not to overreact (and Obama seems to have this as strategy).  Not all Muslims are terrorists or wannabe terrorists.  We cannot get guarantee 100% security, so we need to take seriously the tradeoffs when considering measures that might improve our aviation security a bit but inconvenience a great deal.

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