Ramtanu Maitra is a regular columnist with the Executive Intelligence Review (EIR), a news weekly published from Washington DC. He writes columns for Asia Times of Hong Kong, Frontier Post of Peshawar and some other newspapers in Asia on South Asian political economy and Asian security. He has written on terrorism in a number of publications in the United States and India.
The December 25 incident, when the Nigerian-origin student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow himself up over the Detroit Airport inside a passenger jet ready to land, has brought back in full fury the fear of murderous al-Qaeda in the American people’s mind. While the mainstream media is busy trashing the nation’s security system, a series of questions bother the mind of attentive observers.
The line of inquiry goes like this: It was certainly a planned operation. He was surely guided by others who helped him to board the aircraft with explosives stitched into his underwear. As it happened, they did not detonate. But why did he wait till the plane was getting ready to land in Detroit instead of trying to blow himself up while the aircraft cabin was fully pressurized? No doubt, a fire and explosion in a fully pressurized cabin at a height of 30,000 feet-plus could cause a lot more mayhem than in a cabin already being de-pressurized.
The Saudi Similarities
Last August, the Yemen-based al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for an assassination attempt on Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayif, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The unidentified militant, who attacked bin Nayif while pretending to surrender to authorities, used an identical explosive to that carried by Abdulmutallab - and it too, failed to detonate. Although claimed by al-Qaeda as part of their campaign to overthrow the Saudi royal household, the attack in fact did no damage. But it did serve to reinforce the belief among some that Saudi Arabia does not support the extremists. (Why would terrorists attack their benefactors?)
Subsequent information made available by Agence France Presse on Jan. 6 shows that at least two Guantanamo Bay prisoners, among others rehabilitated in a special program in Saudi Arabia following release from detention, have since rejoined the jihadists. These former Guantanamo Bay detainees, Abu Sufyan al-Azdi al-Shahri and Abu al-Hareth Muhammad al-Oufi, appeared in a threatening al-Qaeda movie earlier this year. According to the report, Said Ali al-Shahri (or al-Shahri) passed through the Saudi “rehabilitation” program for former jihadists before resurfacing with al-Qaeda in Yemen. Some reports indicate that Abdulmutallab was in contact with both these individuals.
The Saudi rehabilitation program in question is conducted under the aegis of the same Saudi Deputy Interior Minister targetted in the August attack claimed by AQAP. While the world was becoming increasingly frustrated about the Saudi royal household’s continued support for various Islamic jihadists, the so-called assassination attempt against Nayif conveniently bolstered his anti-fundamentalist image. It is obviously necessary to create some credible confusion now and then to prevent public opinion from asking why Muhammad bin Nayif has actually been “vetting” terrorist suspects and placing them back into the terrorist nests.
But what triggered the designed-to-fail attempt by Abdulmutallab? Part of the answer to that question lies in the ongoing war in Afghanistan, where the United States has recently committed another 30,000-plus troops to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” the terrorists functioning there. Another part of the answer lies in the growing frustration among the American people who expected President Obama to scale down the Afghan conflict to save human lives and reduce non-productive expenses which the debt-ridden and economically weakened country can ill-afford.
Yet another part of the answer lies in an attempt to reshape President Obama’s foreign policy which in its first year promoted diplomacy over conflict. The heating up of the Yemen situation, where jihadists have long established a solid base, has pushed President Obama to a corner. Abdulmutallab’s attempt to create mayhem inside a US-bound plane brought the issue to the fore: should we intervene in Yemen, where al-Qaeda has clearly strengthened itself? So far, the president has rejected military intervention. But one does not know if or when he may change his mind on that.
What al-Qaeda could achieve
What is evident though is that the Obama administration is keen to raise the fear level - often a precursor to arbitrary action. Ray McGovern, a retired CIA officer-turned-activist, in his column at the Truthout website, commented on a question and answer session at the White House press briefing following the Abdulmutallab incident. What transpired there indicates how the Obama administration may choose to “use” the incident.
After President Obama briefly addressed the Abdulmutallab incident and wrote “must do better” on the report cards of the national security schoolboys responsible for the near-catastrophe, McGovern notes, he turned the stage over to his counterterrorism guru, John Brennan, and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
After listening to the duo’s remarks about channeling “intelligence streams,” fixing “no-fly” lists, deploying “behavior detection officers,” and buying more body-imaging scanners, McGovern reports, the no-nonsense, 89-year-old veteran correspondent Helen Thomas asked why Abdulmutallab did what he did. Here’s the exchange between Thomas and Brennan:
Thomas: “Why do they want to do us harm? And what is the motivation? We never hear what you find out on why.”
Brennan: “Al-Qaeda is an organization that is dedicated to murder and wanton slaughter of innocents… They attract individuals like Mr. Abdulmutallab and use them for these types of attacks. He was motivated by a sense of religious sort of drive. Unfortunately, al-Qaeda has perverted Islam, and has corrupted the concept of Islam, so that he’s (sic) able to attract these individuals. But al-Qaeda has the agenda of destruction and death.”
Thomas: “And you’re saying it’s because of religion?”
Brennan: “I’m saying it’s because of an al-Qaeda organization that used the banner of religion in a very perverse and corrupt way.”
Brennan: “I think this is a — long issue, but al-Qaeda is just determined to carry out attacks here against the homeland.”
Thomas: “But you haven’t explained why.”
Brennan’s subterfuge, as pointed out by McGovern, indicates that the Obama administration was simply interested in conveying to the people is that al-Qaeda is back, and the administration is now determined, as much as the Bush administration was, to take measures, whatever is needed, to deal with the threat to ensure protection of the American people.
What preceded Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow himself up over the Detroit Airport was certainly an American system failure, or an oversight, or what President Obama calls “failing to connect the dots.” At the same time, however, we must also acknowledge that the gloss that al-Qaeda had developed as a mighty adversary of the United States had been fading. It is interesting to note that that fading was not only based on the fact that al-Qaeda has not carried out any heinous activity within the United States since 9/11, but also because as many reports indicate, the organization has been systematically decimated by the US military over the last nine years.
Citing an unnamed senior US intelligence official, ABC News journalists Richard Esposito, Matthew Cole and Brian Ross wrote on Dec. 2, 2009, that, according to the best estimate of the intelligence agencies and the Department of Defense, there were approximately 100 al-Qaeda members left in Afghanistan. That relatively small number was part of the intelligence passed on to the White House before President Obama presented his new Af-Pak policy on Dec. 1. There, Obama stated: “Al-Qaeda has not reemerged in Afghanistan in the same number as before 9/11, but they retain their safe havens along the border.”
In an October interview with CNN, Obama’s National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones had put the number at “fewer than a hundred.” And during the same month, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., cited “intelligence” in referring to “about a hundred al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.”
Other counter-terror analysts interviewed by ABC News said the actual number of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is less important than their ability to train others in the Taliban and have ideological influence. At a Senate hearing, former CIA Pakistan station chief Bob Grenier testified that al-Qaeda had already been defeated in Afghanistan. “So in terms of in Afghanistan,” asked Sen. John Kerry, “they have been disrupted and dismantled and defeated. They’re not in Afghanistan, correct?” Replied Grenier: “That’s true.”
Was al-Qaeda Weakened?
Almost a year ago, in February 2009, National Public Radio’s Tom Gjelten pointed out in an article posted on the NPR Web site, “US Officials: Al-Qaeda Leadership Cadre ‘Decimated,’” that the “CIA-directed airstrikes against al-Qaeda leaders and facilities in Pakistan over the past six to nine months have been so successful, according to senior US officials, that it is now possible to foresee a ‘complete al-Qaeda defeat’ in the mountainous region along the border with Afghanistan.” In other words, al-Qaeda was not only “disrupted, dismantled and defeated” in Afghanistan, as Bob Grenier pointed out months later in a Senate hearing, but as far back as February 2009, the word was around that the CIA drones had virtually annihilated the al-Qaeda terrorist group hiding along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas as well.
At the time, Gjelten cited another senior US official who noted that the counterattacks by US and NATO forces had resulted in “a significant, significant degradation of al-Qaeda command and control in recent months.” However, other officials interviewed by NPR, who asked not to be identified because of sensitivities surrounding the CIA campaign, were more cautious. They said it is too early to declare victory in the struggle against al-Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, and they cautioned at the time that a number of the factors that explain the recent successes could still be reversed.
Nevertheless, it was evident that the level of success should not be understated. “In the past, you could take out the No. 3 al-Qaeda leader, and No. 4 just moved up to take his place,” one official said. “Well, if you take out No. 3, No. 4 and then 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, it suddenly becomes a lot more difficult to revive the leadership cadre,” the official told NPR. The US officials interviewed by NPR attributed the success to improved intelligence on al-Qaeda operations in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, some of it gathered as a result of “human penetration” of the network.
It is somewhat confusing why Obama administration officials claimed as early as February 2009 that the US effort to annihilate al-Qaeda had met with significant success, and then, after the somewhat amateurish attempt by Abdulmutallab to blow up the Northwest Airlines plane, the same administration officials now claim that al-Qaeda is once more an urgent and mortal threat to the United States.
One can, however, see a pattern in this ambiguity. Whether al-Qaeda proper, or a group of anti-US jihadists who have been activated throughout southwest Asia, southeast Asia and Africa, are weaker, or stronger now than before is difficult to determine, since the jihadists were recruited in large numbers, thanks to the money made available by the Saudis and the explosion of opium production in Afghanistan. What was important for the administration was to claim “success.” Such a declaration is not only good for morale, but it also helped convince the US Congress to allocate more funds for the “global war on terror” at a time when the country is undergoing a deep recession.
President Obama’s decision to send another 30,000-plus troops to Afghanistan raised the war bill there by at least $30 billion to $40 billion annually. Had the administration not made public that it had met with a significant level of success in its war against al-Qaeda, the main enemy of the United States, it is likely that the plan to incur additional expenditure and deploy more troops would have met with more resistance at home.
President Obama’s Afghanistan policy has convinced only a handful that it is viable. Many in the United States are of the view that the president will not be able to accomplish what he has promised there, namely the establishment of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. It is likely that in the coming days many more Americans will demand that the President develop a better formulation to end this long war and instead increase investments at home to employ more than 20 million Americans who are out of work.
Failure to create jobs for the unemployed Americans and failure to achieve success in the Afghanistan war could surely deal a serious blow to the Obama presidency. But not having a plan that can bring back such a large number of jobs quickly may lose some of its sting in the face of evidence that the American population is again under direct, mortal threat from al-Qaeda and that Americans’ very lives are very much in danger. Therefore, the prime concern of the administration should properly be to make the population safe at home.
Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt can be seen to have accomplished quite a bit, in this view.