Blowing up an airplane is not the same thing as simultaneously hijacking multiple aircraft and turning them into missiles. There’s literally an order of magnitude difference between the 300 people who would have died had the Christmas plot succeeded and the 3000 who died on 9/11. What I’m saying isn’t that 300 potential deaths are nothing. It’s that we should notice we’re not talking about a nuclear-armed al-Qaeda, or an al-Qaeda that can topple and conquer Pakistan or other scenarios that a few years ago were plausible (well, maybe the Pakistan one was never plausible). al-Qaeda isn’t beaten. And you’re never going to stop a lone-wolf self-starter who can just get a gun and shoot up a mall to exalt the greater glory of Usama bin Laden. But it’s significant that we’re not seeing al-Qaeda’s capabilities increase or even stagnate. We’re seeing them fail — even if they came too close for comfort — at attacks that start out with diminished ambitions compared to 9/11.
My original post made a very simple and narrowly-focused argument, namely that we should not read too much into a failed terror plot. To be clear, I actually believe that Al-Qaeda is indeed weaker today than it was before 9/11, but my reasons for believing this do not stem from the failed exploits of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, but rather from my knowledge of the various security measures that have been implemented since then.
The fact that Abdulmutallab tried to blow up the plane in midair rather than hijacking it and flying it into a skyscraper does not necessarily mean that Al-Qaeda is weaker or less able to develop the assets to execute such an operation. What it probably means is that they’ve realized that hijacking airliners is no longer a viable strategy, given that cockpit doors are now solid steel, bulletproofed affairs that are locked before takeoff and guarded by a plainclothed air marshal nibbling on mushroom canapés in first class. In other words, there’s not much point in training suicide pilots.
Does this mean that Al-Qaeda’s (or whoever’s) options for creating physical destruction using airplanes is diminished? Of course it does. Are 300 deaths less tragic than 3000? Sure. But as long as we’re wearing our sinister actuary hats, let’s push the straight talk a little further and admit that a law of diminishing returns applies, as far as terrorist “casualties” are concerned. Had Abdulmutallab succeeded, there would have been 2700 fewer deaths than there were on 9/11, but I have to believe that the bombing would have had many of the same repercussions. Air travel would have plummeted, the stock market might have taken a tumble, additional billions would have been spent in the whack-a-mole affair that we’ve all become so familiar with. So I think that congratulating ourselves on a dip in potential human casualties is a tad myopic.
To recap, then, yes Al-Qaeda is almost certainly weaker today than it was eight years ago, both in absolute and relative terms. But I don’t think that one can gauge its weaknesses on the basis of failed (as opposed to foiled) terror plots, particularly when they fail due to technical problems. (Would the Iranian Revolutionary Guard have been justified in believing that the U.S. military was weaker than ever because of the failure of Operation Eagle Claw?)