The latest terrorist arrests have revived talk that al Qaeda is inept. Richard Miniter argues that U.S. success in wiping out the group’s leaders has exposed the incompetence of its grassroots.
Are they more like Dr. No or Dr. Evil? Thursday’s arrests of three al Qaeda operatives in Norway and Germany, who are linked to a plot to bomb the New York City subway system and a shopping mall in northern England, have reignited the debate among terrorism analysts about whether our enemies are coldly proficient professionals or camel-humping imbeciles.
In “ The Case for Calling Them Nitwits,” published in the Atlantic, Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University, make the case that today’s generation of al Qaeda recruits are bumblers who “blow each other up by mistake” and “get intimate with cows and donkeys.” The more serious point that Byman and Fair are making is that today’s generation of terrorists hardly seems capable of a September 11-style attack or even a Bali bombing (which killed 202 people and wounded another 240 in 2002) or Madrid train massacre (which killed 191 people and wounded 1,800). They cite the case of the underpants bomber who couldn’t get himself to explode, as well as the Miami cell that the FBI arrested before they could get their hands on explosives.
After Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s 2003 arrest in Pakistan, the tenure of al Qaeda’s No. 3 has been shorter than that of a second lieutenant in Vietnam.
Byman and Fair’s portrayal of today’s al Qaeda operatives as comically incompetent— Dumb and Dumber meets Austin Powers—is quickly becoming a new meme among media and terrorism analysts. The Times Square bomber seems to fit this view. Today’s arrests in Oslo only add fuel to this fire.
The “bungling jihadi” meme is a triviality masquerading as an insight. In fact, al Qaeda was plagued with incompetence from its birth. Remember the 1993 World Trade Center bomber going back to the Ryder truck rental agency to claim his deposit and was arrested in an FBI sting? Remember the 1998 embassy bomber who ran away from his truck before it exploded and was later captured in a Nairobi hospital? Or the Yemeni crew that tried to sink the USS The Sullivans, whose dinghy was so overloaded with bombs that it sank before it could get near the U.S. vessel? Even the September 11 operation—which some analysts hail as the pinnacle of professionalism—was marred by incompetence. One of the key 9/11 hijackers violated orders and flew from San Diego to Yemen because he missed his wife. And anyway, he told an incredulous Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he was “bored” in San Diego.
The difference between then and now is not that the quality of the operatives has declined, but that the quality of al Qaeda’s management has declined. Byman and Fair (and others) are looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
The conventional wisdom, while entertaining, is also wrong because it misses the successes of Obama’s (and Bush’s) in the War on Terror.
Since October 2001, America and its allies have become very good at killing or capturing al Qaeda’s senior management. After Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s 2003 arrest in Pakistan, the tenure of al Qaeda’s No. 3 has been shorter than that of a second lieutenant in Vietnam. There have been at least five heads of the group’s external operations (the No. 3 job) who have been killed since 2003. Most recently, Saleh al Somali was killed by a Predator drone on December 8, 2009. Since Obama was sworn in in 2009, Predator drones have killed “several hundred” senior al Qaeda managers—more than in all previous years combined, according to the Washington Post. The number of drones available over the skies of Afghanistan and Pakistan has increased by almost 40 percent since January 2009. Human intelligence is also improving. More “actionable” leads are coming in from interrogations and from sources, said General Jim Jones, Obama’s National Security Adviser. By all accounts, when Vice President Joe Biden said in February that al Qaeda is “on the run,” he was correct.
That’s why the latest recruits seem like bunglers. With the destruction and disruption of al Qaeda’s management cadre and central command, it’s no longer able to provide long-term training in “operational security.”
The loss of training is having a major effect. When KSM masterminded the 9/11 attacks, he made sure that operatives were taught the “10-figure code” for encrypting phone numbers and other numerical data. Intercepted emails show that the new generation lacks these coding skills.
Without training, the new generation hasn’t learned effective countermeasures for communicating by phone, email, or text. The unit that once provided phone chips and calling cards from Switzerland and other European countries is long gone. Operatives are forced to buy phones in the countries in which they operate and their calls to their al Qaeda handlers allow intelligence agencies to easily map their networks.
Tradecraft is suffering in other ways, too. Without a sophisticated support network of cut-outs and dummy businesses, it’s harder for operatives to move money without detection. Also, basic bomb-making skills have deteriorated without training and managerial supervision. That’s why their bombs often fail to go off; they either received brief instruction or had to teach themselves the skills from the Internet.
Managerial quality is an important but often overlooked factor in terror operations. A seasoned operational commander will see risks before the field operatives do and sternly warn them not to do things that, while they seem innocuous to the field agents, have thwarted operations in the past.
Former CIA case officer and current terror analyst Marc Sageman divides al Qaeda into “three waves.” The first wave, which formed al Qaeda in 1989, had extensive experience with firearms, making bombs, and operating in secret through its ten years fighting in Afghanistan. But virtually all of that first wave is now gone to either Gitmo or the grave.
The December 8 killing by predator drone of Saleh al Somali is a case in point. A U.S. government official described Saleh as “part of the original al Qaeda cadre. He goes all the way back to Mogadishu," in which 19 American Special Forces were killed in the “Black Hawk Down” incident.
Significantly, Saleh was the operational controller of the men arrested today as part of the Oslo plot. The fact that European intelligence services were able to keep the three men under surveillance since Saleh’s death shows the decline in operational abilities when senior terrorist managers die.
The second wave emerged in the 1990s and saw combat experience in Bosnia, Somalia, and Afghanistan, and learned alongside their elders. The third wave emerged after the 2003 capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. It is largely inexperienced and often homegrown, either in North America or Western Europe. Al Qaeda has real trouble transferring skills to this third wave or even communicating with it. “Yes, there are still trained and quite competent terrorist trainers around, and they are more visible in Waziristan [Pakistan],” writes Sageman, “but the long-term prospect of al Qaeda Central in the Afghan-Pakistani theater is diminishing.”
Western governments have also gotten smarter. Just this week the European Parliament adopted the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, enabling the EU to better cooperate with the United States in tracking terrorist money flows. A White House spokesman said: “The TFTP has provided critical investigative leads … since its creation after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. … This new, legally binding agreement reflects significant additional data privacy safeguards but still retains the effectiveness and integrity of this indispensable counterterrorism program.”
Reporters and analysts should take their eyes off of the “comedic” aspect of thwarted terrorist plots. In addition to being morally obtuse—let’s not forget that the Oslo plotters hoped to kill tens of thousands of commuters on New York City subway platforms—they are missing the bigger picture. Capturing unsupervised terrorist bunglers is what winning the War on Terror looks like.