Failed airline attack raises fresh questions about battle against al Qaeda

December 28, 2009

departuresIn the absence of a coherent narrative about the failed Christmas Day attack on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, the debate about how best to tackle al Qaeda and its Islamist allies has once again been thrown wide open.

Does it support those who want more military pressure to deprive al Qaeda of its sanctuary on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, or suggest a more diffuse threat from sympathisers across Europe, the Middle East and Africa? Should the United States open new fronts in emerging al Qaeda bases such as Yemen and Somalia, or focus instead on the fact that the attempted airline attack did not succeed, suggesting al Qaeda’s ability to conduct mass-casualty assaults on U.S. territory has already been severely degraded in the years since 9/11?

The evidence so far about the attempt by 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to set off an explosive device on the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit can  pretty much be stacked up in favour of whatever argument you want to make.

Abdulmutallab was from a wealthy family in Nigeria, where al Qaeda and its Islamist allies have been trying to make inroads, by and large unsuccessfully so far. Residents in his family home town said they believed he was radicalised during his studies abroad, which included education at a British boarding school in Togo, followed by a course in engineering at the prestigious University College London.  He would not be the first educated young man to be inspired by Islamist radicalism in London — among those who came before him was Omar Sheikh, convicted for the kidnapping of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.

Does this mean Britain has been too soft about allowing radicalism to flourish in its universities, as the conservative Daily Telegraph argues?  Or has Britain’s own support for U.S. policies, including wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a security crackdown at home, so alienated its Muslim community that a tiny minority will turn to terrorism? (If you ask ordinary Muslims in London what should be done, they are just as likely to give you a lecture about the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, civilian casualties in Afghanistan, and Washington’s failure to insist on an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.)

Abdulmutallab’s name had been placed on a British watch-list, suggesting security is already very tight in a country which is on alert for any repeat of the London bombings in 2005.  How much tighter can it get, without a further erosion of civil liberties?

The trail from London then leads to Yemen, Osama bin Laden’s ancestral home, and a country which U.S. officials say is emerging as an attractive alternative base for al Qaeda, after it was largely pushed out of Afghanistan and has since come under growing military pressure in Pakistan. In U.S. questioning, Abdulmutallab said al Qaeda operatives in Yemen supplied him with an explosive device and trained him on how to detonate it, according to a U.S. official.

The New York Times reports that, “in the midst of two unfinished major wars, the United States has quietly opened a third, largely covert front against Al Qaeda in Yemen.”

“A year ago, the Central Intelligence Agency sent several of its top field operatives with counterterrorism experience to the country, according to a former top agency official. At the same time, some of the most secretive Special Operations commandos have begun training Yemeni security forces in counterterrorism tactics,” it quotes senior military officers as saying. “The Pentagon is spending more than $70 million over the next 18 months, and using teams of Special Forces, to train and equip Yemeni military, Interior Ministry and coast guard forces, more than doubling previous military aid levels.”

Yet Yemen is already home to a dangerous mix of insurgencies, including an intensifying conflict between the government and Shi’ite rebels in the north. In an echo of the proxy wars fought over Afghanistan in the 1980s, (whose legacy in terms of Sunni-Shi’ite tensions is still being felt in Pakistan to this day), Saudi Arabia has intervened against the northern rebels, while Iran has been accused of backing them.

And its insurgents have links which according to some reports stretch deep into the Horn of Africa,  already destabilised by Islamist insurgency in Somalia, piracy off its coastline,  and long standing rivalry between Ethiopia and Eritrea — which has seen the former intervene to oust the Islamists and the latter accused of supporting them. In short, as the United States has already discovered in Afghanistan, trying to contain al Qaeda and its Islamist allies by concentrating on one country is to ignore the non-state nature of militants who can shift elsewhere when the pressure on them becomes too intense.  Is the United States going to pursue them from Yemen, through the Horn of Africa and into the Maghreb region of North Africa?

So where does that leave the campaign against al Qaeda? The answer — at least as a response to the failed Christmas Day attack — appears to depend on where you stood before it happened.

From arguing against blowing the failed attack out of proportion (See Matthew Iglesias’ “Not so scary ‘terror’” or Juan Cole’s “Hare-brained Terrorist Attack Above Detroit“), to a counter-attack from the American right about alleged Democrat softness on security – perhaps the only real conclusion you can reach is that opinion about how best to respond to al Qaeda remains as polarised as it was during the Bush years.

“President Barack Obama’s administration has edged away from the phrase ‘global war on terror’. But we wonder if the White House appreciates how well that Bushian notion of a long and widespread struggle helps to justify Obama’s decision to further escalate U.S. efforts in Afghanistan,” the Chicago Tribune says in an editorial. “Many Americans want to be done with these terror concerns and overseas engagements. But those who weave plots against this country would love nothing better than an isolationist U.S. that waits, supine and patient, for attempted attacks …”

“Right now, in far-off lands, other plotters scheme to hurt and humiliate America. Whether any of us likes the phrase ‘global war on terror’, that’s what it is — and how it needs to be fought.”

 In a post called “al Qaeda’s Desperate Bid for Relevance”, Spencer Ackerman says the failure of the attack showed how far al Qaeda’s capabilities had  been degraded since 9/11 and argues for a more limited approach contained to finishing the task the United States has set itself in Afghanistan.

“We have a credible approach in place to break al-Qaeda’s strategic depth and core operational capability; box it into a situation where it can’t export significant acts of terror against us or our allies; and we can do this along a reasonable timetable of the next several years, prompting us to significantly draw down our military presence in Afghanistan,” he writes.

“And then the ‘Long War’ is… over. And by over, I mean that we can restore our security posture to one where terrorism is primarily an intelligence and law enforcement preoccupation, not a military one, since al-Qaeda will be the 21st century version of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a once-fearsome and now-marginal enemy. If we stop now, we risk unnecessary metastasis of al-Qaeda, giving them a new lease on life at a moment when it really looks like if we fight somewhat further we can be done with this awful problem and this painful legacy of a miserable decade.”


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Here’s an exclusive photo from the “Underwear Bomber’s” monthly issue of ‘Al-Qaeda’s Secret” catalog. 68661&id=94583383726

Posted by mikedudical | Report as abusive

@In a post called “al Qaeda’s Desperate Bid for Relevance”, Spencer Ackerman says the failure of the attack showed how far al Qaeda’s capabilities had been degraded since 9/11 and argues for a more limited approach contained to finishing the task the United States has set itself in Afghanistan.”

In his article Spencer Ackerman says:

“First, al-Qaeda’s signatures are redundance and simultaneity. Think 9/11, Madrid, London: all used multiple operatives focused on multiple targets, acting in unison. ………. The inescapable if preliminary conclusion: al-Qaeda can’t get enough dudes to join Abdulmutallab. And what does it give the guy to set off his big-boom? A device that’s “more incendiary than explosive,” in the words of some anonymous Department of Homeland Security official to the Times.

–Spencer Ackerman translates this failed act as an indication about al Qaeda’s capabilities. Is it not better to interpret that if this is an A-Q guy, then A-Q breached all the security systems and got a terrorist to enter USA with an explosive which could potentially blow a plane. Fire is enough–rest the fuel tank of the plane takes care off. Not all plane or cars blow up because of explosives. It is normally the fire making contact with fuel.

Also, how about next time terrorist sneaks into USA (might already have done so) without any such blowing up the plane attempt. Then they do terror attacks on American soil. How about if next time A-Q doe not use PETN but some biological weapons (poison/bugs etc etc…) in terrorists’ underwear and a number of things can be done with that on American soil.

Perhaps Jesus saved passengers on X-mas day :-)

I take the same connecting flight from Amsterdam while coming from India.

Posted by RajeevK | Report as abusive

The war against explosive smugglers have just begun, just like drug trafickers have evolved their transportation and drug pushing tactics. What we see now is just the begining. And Al Qaeda and its offshoot groups from Pakistan’s tribal areas to Yemen and Somali lawless regions and elsewhere are no different than those Mexican drug cartels known for violence. It is similar to the drug related violence that has plagued Mexico.

At one end are the so-called ‘Jihadists’ who have distorted islam and used violence and at the other end are the zionist-American neocons.
And as with Britain, over the years it has become a stooge at the hands of the Americans. Can everyone sit down and resolve the Palestinian dispute? can someone care to resolve the Kashmir dispute? Can someone explain the lies under pretext Iraq was invaded and later no wmd’s were found? can someone account for the inhumane Abu Ghraib prison abuses in Iraq by US military? and unless the occupation of Afghanistan ends there is no hope the insurgency there will come to an end. And Israel’s siege of Gaza doesn’t help any good either. Over last few years Pakistan has been severely destabilized. Now Uncle Sam is ‘HELPING’ Yemen target millitants and bolstering-read (destablizing Yemen) the Yemeni military. And there is no stopping Al Qaeda, today it is claimed the group is weak no one knows what happens in future.

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive


Don’t kid yourself, again. icle/ALeqM5gMmng3iDhfoHBGIjmh6PC-DsLItw

Sunni Taliban claim Karachi bloodbath as a statement to protect prophet Mohammed’s honor.

Sounds like a Saudi Wahhabia inspired, funded and mentored train of thought and philosophy. It seems the Sunni and Shiite empires are possibly on the verge of a type of war that humanity has never seen nor contemplated.

Posted by G-W | Report as abusive

@At one end are the so-called ‘Jihadists’ who have distorted islam and used violence and at the other end are the zionist-American neocons.”
Posted by Umairpk

–Then you will also understand that there are other “Jihadists” (LeT, JeM, Afghan Taliban) who have distorted islam and used violence and at the other end is Pakistan.”

So both zionist-American neocons and Pakistan hardliner generals fall in the same category.

Isn’t it?

Posted by RajeevK | Report as abusive

A very happy 2010 to everyone, can only be an improvement over 2009.

“Should the United States open new fronts in emerging al Qaeda bases….” Myra

I think that this so called war on terror is basically a US war on terror to safeguard its own property and citizens. To be effective internationally, mind you it will never be a war where victory can be declared, I think the US needs to take a fresh look at its attitude to terror.

According to US thinking it needs to garner support and partners in its fight against terror organisations only when and as American interests are threatened. Unfortunately all the Obama musings on the subject also point in the same direction – ‘with us against us syndrome’. What is needed is co-ordinated effort and commitment to overcoming terror everywhere. When Americans are involved, the US wants to go in gun blazing and expects the world to bend over backwards in support. When others get hit; Bali, London, Madrid, Mumbai etc the US offers support and expertise. This is not to decry US cooperation, but to highlight what I feel is wrong policy.

Even in Pakistan, the US is concentrating and applying pressure on Pakistan to fight against those who threaten US interests and security. The other daily terror strikes in Peshawar, Karachi, Pindi etc seem not to concern them. This is not how an international war on terror should be conducted.

Would an attempted terror strike like this one have got so many people jabbering over it, if it had occurred in Bangladesh or Sri Lanka? If the answer is ‘no’, as I think it is, then there is no international war on terror. What we have is a US war on terror which it wants to internationalise.

Posted by DaraIndia | Report as abusive

“So both zionist-American neocons and Pakistan hardliner generals fall in the same category”.

-So Rajeev you are not aware what Indian Gen. Kapoor just stated recently that India is preparing to fight China and Pakistani simultaneously? and also you must know Pakistan’s Gen. Tariq Majeed’s reply that let alone China, India even knows what Pakistan Army can and what Indian Army cannot pull off militarily. So i would call Gen. Kapoor a hardliner and foolish Indian General messing with two armies in its neighbourhood both of which have access to nukes. Lack of strategic acumen.

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive


That means before General Kapoor gave this statement, you were perfectly happy with Indian generals, right?

BTW, If you go back and read your own post and then mine, you will find that you are way off the discussion. I was specifically responding to your comment as if Pakistan is washed with milk and honey as far as “Jihadis as stooges of Britain/US” is concerned.
you said:
@At one end are the so-called ‘Jihadists’ who have distorted islam and used violence and at the other end are the zionist-American neocons.
“And as with Britain, over the years it has become a stooge at the hands of the Americans.”

Now, is there a doubt that LeT, JeM and other sisterly groups supported by PA generals. BTW, read my post and take my label of PA generals as hardliners as a compliment–meaning some PA generals are perhaps non-hardliners.

General Kapoor is just talking and not doing anything to bring a drop of blood from Pakistan’s little finger nor is any terrorist a stooge in Indian Army’s hands. Can you do a bit more search and bring me Gen Kapoor’s original comment. I have seen many versions of his comment and even Pakistan is suspicious of this statement or at least what exactly he said. Any such news, when it reaches Pakistan, wakes up all sleepy heads.

His comments are perhaps meant to keep PA generals on leash- –who in your own words feel in Pakistan’s best interests to wage small or big wars every now and then. Perhaps General Kapoor feels noticed that PM Singh is doing the job of being friendly with Pakistan and history has shown that India’s friendliness is taken as a weakness by Pakistan (Remember Musharraf, ex-Indian PM Vajpayee and then Kargil).

Now, let us get back to your original discussion and my point. Watch yourself before you accuse Americans/Brits.

Wish you, all authors and readers a happy and safe Year 2010.

Posted by RajeevK | Report as abusive

Happy New Year to all!!!

You got distracted. PLease read your and my posts again.

Also, I would request you to send me a link that mentions Gen Kapoor has given the statment you mentioned. Somehow I cannot find the original statement by Gen Kapoor although I have seen lots of reports about several statements (in various forms) attributed to Gen Kapoor. Like PA Gen Majid, I am also doubtful of the ownership of the statement. Go check again.

Back to the main point:
My post was on YOUR following specific point:
“At one end are the so-called ‘Jihadists’ who have distorted islam and used violence and at the other end are the zionist-American neocons.”

I said Pakistan itself has used Jihadists to fight its own wars by labeling it as fighting for Allah.

Did you read Gen Kayani’s statement:
“An army supported by 170 million people, with faith in Allah, is a formidable force to reckon with,”

and then you say:
“can someone account for the inhumane Abu Ghraib prison abuses in Iraq by US military?”

But can someone as concerned as you of human rights explain the gencoide of E.Pakistanis by Allah’s Army in 1971?

Come on! Abu Gharib was unfolded by none other than Americans while Allah’s Army has not even apologized for 1971 genocide.

PA with a history of killing million of its own people and the so-called Jihadis (talibans or LeT types) fall in the same category. Both (mis)use Allah’s name to achieve their unholy objectives. I think I do have a point here.

Posted by RajeevK | Report as abusive

“So Rajeev you are not aware what Indian Gen. Kapoor just stated recently that India is preparing to fight China and Pakistani simultaneously?”

People will make what they want of what they read. As far as I know these are reports, not attributed to Gen Kapoor. One report a few days ago mentioned that India was fine tuning its war plans to take on a simultaneous threat from Pakistan and China. The other was TV report which said the Indian Army is prepared to take ona two pronged threat from Pakistan and China.

To interpret this as implying that Gen Kapoor said India is ‘preparing’ to fight the two countries (as if war were imminent) is a figment of the imagination. If anyone thinks that countries do not have war plans on how to counter a perceived threat then they might as well believe that they don’t have an army at all. Crude rumour mongering?

Posted by DaraIndia | Report as abusive

[…] So will 2010 turn out to be a year of “committed incrementalism”? Al Qaeda and its Islamist allies are not exactly known for their incrementalism so such an approach could either empower or marginalise them.  And as Peter Marton at the Ministry of State Failure blog suggests here, they are likely to try to fight against such a shift in the ground rules by provoking, for example, the opening of a new front in Yemen in response to the failed Christmas Day airline attack. […]

Posted by Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2010: the year of living incrementally? | Express Pakistan | Report as abusive

The Super Power is now on the defensive Mr Obama did not have to tell the world about the systemic failures in his intelligence and security network. This was established by the independent commission set üp after the Sept. 11 attack. Anyone with a common sense should have known that the next bombers would most probably be from Africa, since after Obama’s presidency the controls in the US on Afro-americans were likely to laxed. The US war on terror ignored the Greek, who said that war is bad in that it begets more evil than it kills.

Posted by rexminor | Report as abusive

General Kyani talked about ten minutes requirement to attack Indian city. He is a fool to believe that the nuclear response would be decided by the politicians in an orderly fashion. People whose hands are on the trigger are not likely to wait for the orders from the top, but instead would start firing nuclear armed rockets as soon as they learn about any hostility from India. The ten minutes would be more than enough to completely devastate the entire sub-continent. Let us pray for sanity and peace in 2010.

Posted by rexminor | Report as abusive

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