al-Qaeda’s Desperate Bid For Relevance, The Failed Plane Attack & Afghanistan

courtesy of Carlos Lorenzo via flickr
circular fireworks by Carlos Lorenzo via flickr

For the sake of argument, let’s take the most expansive theory of how Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a Detroit-bound passenger jet. According to the Wall Street Journal, Abdulmutallab gets an explosive device from al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen; takes a couple of layovers to get on the plane; boards with his device; ignites it; it fizzles; passengers and crew subdue him. And we’re supposed to be scared of this?

As I said, we’re going to assume those direct ties exist for the sake of argument. The Times account is more skeptical. But go with it. What does this say about al-Qaeda?

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. That’s to ensure something blows up if and when something goes wrong. But here Abdulmutallab acted alone. There can be little doubt the operation was intended to go off on Christmas, for the obvious symbolism, so we would have seen evidence of a coordinated attack by now. 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.

And if Abdulmutallab didn’t have clear ties to al-Qaeda? That he’s part of the cohort of self-starters al-Qaeda is trying to inspire, not train and direct? That’s good news too, because his capabilities weren’t sufficient to bring down the plane. As I reported in this piece, the most salient facts about this recent slew of attempted terrorist attacks is that they either failed or they didn’t kill many people.

Combine that, as I did in that piece, with the growth in capability of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement since 9/11 and we have… a manageable threat. As Matthew Yglesias writes, it doesn’t do any good to blow this out of proportion, since blowing things out of proportion to spur an overreaction is Usama bin Laden’s explicit strategy. If the Democrats had an equivalent of Rep. Peter King, that Ersatz-King would ask whether the permanently hysterical King is actually working for bin Laden.

I want to go back to this quote again:

“Al-Qaeda’s are capabilities basically almost nothing these days,” the ex-official said. “Sure, they’ve got a couple good operatives, and maybe will try to pull something big to make themselves relevant again … If we make them appear relevant — they’re at war with the greatest country on earth — then guess what? They’re gonna be big.” Instead, the ex-official continued, “if we treat them as insignificant, small, pathetic men with nothing to do with Islam, they’ll lose their relevance.”

That’s the right context, I think, in which to view the failed plane attack: a desperate bid for relevance at a time when al-Qaeda is under external pressure both from the U.S. and Pakistanis; and even-greater pressure from its inability to inspire the Muslim world to rally under its banner.

I saw Dylan Matthews tweet that the conclusion to draw is that the Afghanistan war isn’t worth the money and the effort given the diminished scope of al-Qaeda’s capabilities. And I respect the contention, as it gets to the heart of the question. But I think it’s wrong. As I argued in this very long post, 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. 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.