Here’s another unbelievable anecdote: Before Abdulmutallab’s underwear bomb at Christmas 2009, our officials thought Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula didn’t have the ability to attack us in the homeland. We did know that they wanted revenge for our attacks in Yemen, but we assumed that they could mount only regional responses. As John Brennan, President Obama’s counterterrorism czar, would admit later, “We didn’t know they had progressed to the point of actually launching individuals here.”
But why didn’t we know? Isn’t that precisely why we’ve spent tens of billions since 9/11 and established the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC)? The aim was to figure out not just the aspirations of terrorists but also their capabilities. Obviously, we’re not going to go on high alert for something we’re convinced they can’t do. You’ll recall that Rick Rescorla was proved right within a year of his warning about those garage support pillars.
How many failed attempts by inept jihadists will it take to make us realize that the enemy is already here?
That’s at least one lesson of Faisal Shahzad’s Times Square bomb attempt in the spring of 2010. That time we were blindsided by the Pakistani Taliban, who wanted payback for our killing of their leader Baitullah Mehsud in the summer of 2009. As with the underwear bomber, we didn’t see that one coming. Same excuse, believe it or not: Officials explained haplessly that they hadn’t believed the Pakistanis had the ability to attack us at home.
Abdulmutallab’s ineptitude in trying to ignite his underwear bomb or Shahzad’s dumb move of locking his getaway car’s keys in the vehicle he meant to explode might remind us of Karl Marx’s warning: History repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. Comparing the 9/11 tragedy with the two recent farces could be misleading, though. We view these terrorists as “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight” at our own peril. Any laughter is not real mirth, since we should remember that at any time, perhaps on another clear blue September morning, the line between farce and tragedy could be revealed to be as thin as a skillfully placed detonator cord. Not all of these radical zombies will be as stupid and inept as the “fruit of the loon” bomber or the “propane tankmeister.”
Even when terrorists fail so miserably, we have to take them seriously—gravely seriously. They’re like cockroaches. For every one we see, we should assume that there are many more lurking in the darkest corners. We have to race forward—against time, partisan sniping, bureaucratic infighting, and political correctness—to get to them before they get to us, and before they once again get it right.The Warning Signs Are There
The story isn’t over yet, and unfortunately, the more you dig, the worse it gets.
Prior to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow up that flight to Detroit, we had been given specific intelligence that Al Qaeda was planning an attack using a Nigerian. To be fair, there are lots of Nigerians, so that’s not much help. But wait. Abdulmutallab’s father appeared at our Nigerian embassy to report that his son had become a religious extremist and had moved to Yemen. Hello! I don’t have formal training in threat assessment, and you might not either, but I think we can agree that when a guy’s own father fears that he’s a threat, we should consider him a threat. Nor was his son just any old Nigerian: He had a visa that allowed him to enter the United States. Do you see a problem here? These are neon-bright dots just begging to be connected. They weren’t.
Just a few months later, Faisal Shahzad’s capture as he tried to flee the country after his Times Square fiasco further illustrated the need to build as much redundancy as possible into the system. A Customs and Border Protection center in Virginia double-checked Shahzad’s name on the final passenger list for his intended getaway flight, but he did not yet appear on the no-fly list of Emirates Airline. It seems that whenever there is a close call like this, we discover things that don’t make sense—like airlines being given twenty-four hours, an absurdly long time, to check flight-list updates. The rule was immediately changed to two hours, but when a high-priority name is added, the window should be no more than fifteen or twenty minutes. It was also inexcusable, and I was amazed to see reported, that the government, so long after 9/11, had not yet assumed responsibility for checking the no-fly lists kept by airlines. When Shahzad was arrested, this takeover was still in its test phase for domestic airlines and hadn’t even begun for international airlines.
We nabbed Shahzad only because of a phone number he had given customs officials when he returned from Pakistan in February 2010. Because the number was put in a database, he was pulled aside under a government policy—instituted in response to Abdulmutallab’s failed bombing attempt the previous Christmas—requiring stepped-up screenings for all passengers from fourteen countries, including Pakistan. Amazingly, that program was quickly canceled. Would Shahzad have been questioned anyway, or was he caught only because of that policy? I don’t know, but it seems to me that that short-lived program should have been a keeper. It was pure luck that Shahzad returned from the Middle East not long after the Abdulmutallab event. Eventually, luck runs out.
New York Times
profile of Shahzad contained a tantalizing nugget: A man who bought a condo from the Times Square bomber in Norwalk, Connecticut, back in May 2004 reported that the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force interviewed him soon afterward about Shahzad. What exactly did the government know about him six years before his failed attack? More specifically, why was he on their radar screen in the first place, and why was he then (apparently) taken off it? How in the world was he allowed to slip through the cracks, very nearly at the expense of innocent lives?
Is this just an extremely rare occurrence? Hardly. On May 18, 2010, just two weeks after the Times Square attempt, the unclassified summary of a report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence revealed fourteen points of failure related specifically to Abdulmutallab’s attempted Christmas bombing. They included “human errors, technical problems, systemic obstacles, analytical misjudgments, and competing priorities.” I find this a sad and sobering assessment of how much our government had still not fixed more than eight years after 9/11.
The committee spread the blame around. It faulted the State Department for not revoking Abdulmutallab’s visa and the FBI for not being able to access the reports about him. It found that the CIA, the NCTC, and the National Security Agency were responsible for various failures in collecting, distributing, and analyzing information. To take just one example, both the CIA and the NCTC ignored our Nigerian embassy’s recommendation to put Abdulmutallab on the no-fly list. Meanwhile, the former Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam, was driving wherever he went, having been deported from the United States after being caught on the no-fly list. And sweet little Alyssa Thomas, a six-year-old girl from Westlake, Ohio, remains on the list for reasons unknown, despite her parents’ repeated appeals of that status. Curiouser and curiouser.
In conclusion, the committee report noted that the entire intelligence community had so narrowly focused on the threat Arabian Al-Qaeda posed to U.S. interests in Yemen that it had virtually ignored the potential for an attack on the homeland from there.
Two days after the unclassified summary was released, director of national intelligence (DNI) Dennis Blair resigned. Three strikes—Hasan, Abdulmutallab, Shahzad—and he was out. At least that’s one step in the right direction.Turf Battles
News analysis of Blair’s resignation highlighted a serious security problem. Just as there were crippling conflicts between the FBI and the CIA before 9/11, turf battles among many intelligence agencies are ongoing. This remains true even though Blair’s DNI position was established in 2004 specifically to head up and unify all sixteen agencies, including the CIA. In the beginning, Blair asserted the right to choose the top intelligence official in each of our embassies overseas, a decision traditionally made by the CIA station chief at each posting. When CIA director Leon Panetta objected, the White House sided with him against the newly appointed DNI. You can bet the heads of other agencies read a message there, a message that said that the White House would be calling the shots.
Meanwhile, the creation of several new bureaucracies has in no way cleared up exactly who is responsible for what. (Does anyone really expect bureaucracies to clear up rather than obfuscate?) The NCTC, also established in 2004, was intended to coordinate intelligence, mostly from overseas. Now it is seeking Obama’s nod for increased authority to do analysis domestically, thus putting it on FBI turf. At the same time, officials at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) seek greater authority to train local law enforcement and citizens to spot indications of potential violent extremism. Such an emphasis on a more local, decentralized approach could conflict with the NCTC’s national effort.
Yet another approach has been suggested by Michael Sheehan, former counterterrorism chief for the State Department and the New York Police Department (NYPD). He would take the basic idea of the DHS plan but make it more structured, powerful, and independent. Essentially, he wants other cities to do what the NYPD has done: set up its own intelligence and counterterrorism units that use informants and undercover officers, much as other units fight drugs and organized crime. The NYPD is flexible enough to work with the FBI on occasion but often works on its own.
I say, since we need as many working channels as possible, let’s work both top down and ground up. There’s a potential for stepping on one another’s toes, maybe, but I’d rather have the good guys bumping into each other than missing leads because everyone was more focused on protecting their own turf. Washington officials might be in the best position to connect the dots coming from all over the world, while locals can concentrate on providing as many dots as possible. It’s better to have different perspectives and skill sets with overlapping jurisdictions than dangerous gaps in our coverage—better to have plots uncovered by several means than by none.We Must Look in Other Directions
In addition to the threat of terrorists shooting us or blowing us up, like the three radical extremists we’ve been discussing, the true stuff of nightmares is that all sorts of other scenarios for attacks on our homeland abound. For example, as former CIA officer Charles Faddis has written, there is a real threat to our nuclear power plants. He cites the example of Sharif Mobley of New Jersey, who worked at five plants before allegedly joining Al Qaeda in Yemen. Since he was a maintenance worker, you might think he doesn’t have information that would help terrorists mount a successful attack. You would be very wrong.
As Faddis explains, to destroy a plant you don’t need access to its core, just to its cooling system, in which most components are unprotected. If a cooling system is disabled, heat will rise and melt the reactor, causing a partial meltdown of the plant. Think
The China Syndrome
. Since the security at all of our nuclear power plants is pretty much the same, Faddis warns, we now have to change the protocol at all of them, not just those where Mobley worked.
Another threat—the risk of cyberattacks that could turn our own technology against us—has been outlined by Richard Clarke, counterterrorism czar to Presidents Clinton and Bush 43. While noting that both the Pentagon’s Cyber Command and the DHS are taking strong steps to defend the government against such attacks, he warns that they are not doing enough to protect our civilian infrastructure. He also believes that the Pentagon has focused too much on its offensive war capacity to the detriment of its defensive capabilities.
Clarke predicts that America would fare far worse than Russia or China in a cyberwar. Apocalyptically, he imagines that our banking system, power grids, and air and rail systems could be completely shut down, while our oil pipelines and chemical plants could be destroyed in explosions. All it would take to inflict absolute chaos on our lives and economy, in this scenario, would be some clever computer hacking. (I’m a believer: If I ever lost the use of just my ever-reliable MacBook, my life would certainly be chaos!)
Since we are a vast, rich, technologically advanced society, there are many other avenues of attack here for creative terrorists; we have a lot to defend on many levels. To date, for example, we haven’t done nearly enough to guard against chemical and biological attacks, to protect our drinking water, or to secure our ports. Every school, shopping mall, sports stadium, place of worship, and means of public transportation offers a potential target.The War Abroad
But the threats to the homeland, even as we remain on alert, will not go away unless we eradicate them at their source. We cannot give up on the wars in the Middle East until we’ve definitively finished the job there.
In Afghanistan, we seem to be darned if we do, darned if we don’t. Some Afghans support the Taliban against us because they believe the propaganda that the United States wants to occupy their country long term. Ironically, others fear just the opposite: that we’ll leave, allowing the Taliban to return to power. For them, working against us means eventually being on the winning side. That’s kind of like paying “protection money” to the Mafia in the neighborhood; you don’t want to, but not doing so would wind up being most costly.
Then there’s the complicating factor of Obama’s announced time-table. In Iraq, it made sense to set a timetable because it forced the Iraqi government to pull itself together and function, knowing we were going to leave it to its own devices. But that tactic can’t work in Afghanistan, because there isn’t enough of a central government to prod. Nor is there the infrastructure and educated middle class that exist in Iraq. Many of our troops in Afghanistan write home that life around them is so primitive they feel as if they’re back in biblical times. In 2005, when I visited both countries, I was shocked by the obvious contrast. Despite the scars of war, Iraq clearly has all the ingredients in place for becoming a successful economy and nation. Afghanistan, on the other hand, reminded me of photos from the surface of the moon! In terms of the overall culture as I experienced it, I was thinking