David Brooks had a good op-ed in The New York Times a couple of days ago (“The God that Fails“) in which he argued that the (largely Republican) outcry over the failure to catch the would-be Christmas bomber is symptomatic of a misguided belief in the idea that technology can prevent terrorism.
“After Sept. 11, we Americans indulged our faith in the god of technocracy. We expanded the country’s information-gathering capacities so that the National Security Agency alone now gathers four times more data each day than is contained in the Library of Congress.
We set up protocols to convert that information into a form that can be processed by computers and bureaucracies. We linked agencies and created new offices. We set up a centralized focal point, the National Counterterrorism Center.
All this money and technology seems to have reduced the risk of future attack. But, of course, the system is bound to fail sometimes. Reality is unpredictable, and no amount of computer technology is going to change that.”
I think that Brooks is right on the money: there’s no way to legislate omniscience, and the nature of this kind of warfare means that neutralizing every threat is impossible. Matthew Yglesias of the Center for American Progress makes this point succinctly on his blog:
“Out of the six billion people on the planet only a numerically insignificant fraction are actually dangerous terrorists. Even if you want to restrict your view to one billion Muslims, the math is the same. Consequently, tips, leads and the like are overwhelmingly going to be pointing to innocent people. You end up with a system that’s overwhelmed and paralyzed. If there were hundreds of thousands of al-Qaeda operatives trying to board planes every year, we’d catch lots of them. But we’re essentially looking for needles in haystacks.”
So far, so good. But in a series of posts over the past week, Yglesias and other commentators have pushed a different conclusion that strikes me as intellectually dishonest and a little hubristic. In a nutshell, the argument is that the failed attempt tells us something about al-Qaeda’s diminished capabilities to project terror beyond the remote enclaves in which it operates overseas.
“Obviously, people shouldn’t be lighting anything on fire inside airplanes. That said, all the big Christmas airline incident really shows to me is how little punch our dread terrorist adversaries really pack. Once again, this seems like a pretty unserious plot. And even if you did manage to blow up an airplane in mid-air, that would be both a very serious crime and a great tragedy, but hardly a first-order national security threat.”
Here’s Spencer Ackerman:
“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.”
Here’s Holman Jenkins in the Wall Street Journal:
“If 19 terrorists (the number who carried out the 9/11 attacks) each blew himself up at one- or two-week intervals in a shopping mall or a movie theater, America likely would become a seething nation of paranoid shut-ins. That it hasn’t happened tells you something: Al Qaeda doesn’t have a ready supply of competent suicide bombers, domestic or imported, to carry off serious attacks. That it continues to pour what little resources it can command into lame airliner attacks, like shoe bomber Richard Reid’s failed attempt to blow himself up in 2001 and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt on Christmas Day, tells you something else…”
I find this line of argumentation to be unconvincing, particularly when it is coupled with the constant reports we get in the press about how al-Qaeda franchises are operating healthily all over the Persian Gulf and East Africa.
Simply put, I don’t think one can draw conclusions about the strength of al-Qaeda or any other movements on the basis of this or that failed attempt. After all, had Abdulmutallab been successful, everybody would have been coming to the exact opposite conclusion: that al-Qaeda was still as strong as ever and that the Global War on Terror had not made a jot of difference in diminishing its abilities to execute spectacular acts of terrorism.
For eight years after the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, people would have been justified — according to this logic — in concluding that the terrorism threat was greatly diminished, and that America’s intelligence services had turned the corner on al-Qaeda. And then 9/11 happened.
All this is to say that I think that these very smart commentators have fallen into an inductive fallacy. There are many ways to explain the incident besides chalking it up to the miserable state of al-Qaeda. Maybe it was a dry run, meant to test airline security. Maybe he was a decoy for a larger operation elsewhere. (Indeed, there are reports today that the U.S. is closing its embassy in Yemen.)
Or maybe Yglesias and Ackerman and Jenkins are right, and al-Qaeda is drastically weaker than it was on September 11, 2001. But even if this is true, it still strikes me as oddly irrelevant. As everyone knows, all you need to create mass panic is some explosives, someone who is willing to blow himself up on an airliner, and a little bit of luck. The only thing that the ordeal of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab proved is that al-Qaeda still has two of those three things, and it’s probably just a matter of time before it gets lucky.