As the news of last week's intelligence sting against Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula became public, there was a seemingly odd contradiction. On the one hand, the president, speaking from Afghanistan, had just announced that, thanks to US military action, Al Qaida was ‘on the path to defeat'. In the words of John Brennan, "In short, Al Qaida is losing badly." On the other hand, there was news of a new and potentially lethal plot — a perhaps undetectable bomb aimed at blowing up an airplane.
At first blush, these two facts seem incongruous. As a result, much of the editorial comment on the bomb plot has focused on the need for increased vigilance when it comes to Al Qaida. But there's a more important lesson to take away from this disrupted plot.
Since September 11, the United States has responded with a full arsenal of national security tools. All too many of these were merely shots in the dark; many were misplaced attempts to find information, with few leads and even less understanding of Al Qaida.
Whether it was enhanced interrogation techniques, or FBI stings that focused on individuals with few or no real ties to Al Qaida, or the useless expenditure of funds on fruitless and unfocused data collection, law enforcement and national security officials spent a decade struggling with, rather than mastering, the ways to detect and counter Al Qaida.
Throughout, there was a determination to find a way to place sources inside the inner chambers of Al Qaida but until this case, the payoff seemed elusive. When US intelligence services did get close to infiltrating Al Qaida, the result was disastrous — witness the trust the US placed in the triple agent who blew up the CIA team of seven operatives in Khost.
The success of this latest tactical infiltration based on wise intelligence and careful espionage work carries an important message. It did not involve secret prisons or torture. It was not a made-up plot designed to lure individuals to the cause of jihad. It was not a case of surveillance or rounding up whole groups of people to try and find one who might pose a danger to the United States.
Accordingly, it signifies the new era in counter-terrorism, one in which the threat is understood and is therefore manageable; a threat for which the lawful, legitimate and professional skills of the national security apparatus take centre stage.
The Yemeni underwear plot is not the only recent sign of the way in which law enforcement and intelligence have reached a new plateau. Recently, a verdict was returned in the federal courthouse in Brooklyn in a case where three men were accused of plotting to blow up the New York city subways.
This was a case where the accused, two of whom have pleaded guilty and the third of whom was convicted by the jury, were apprehended in the midst of a plot in which training in Waziristan, the purchase of explosives and the plot to bomb the subways was well underway by the time law enforcement became involved.
It was, one could argue, the most serious homegrown terrorist threat to the US since September 11. And it was one in which law enforcement intercepted the crime through tactical surveillance.
Less centralised enemy
Both of these cases, sobering as they may be in their potential for harm, signal that rather than flailing about to find those bent on destruction, the US has reached a new level of confidence and competence in addressing the threat of Al Qaida.
This is a welcome turn of events, one that suggests that counter-terrorism has come to rely on knowledge, on on-the-ground information, on patience and on strategic methods of investigation and pursuit.
The president was right. The age of Al Qaida, as we once knew and feared it, is dwindling. With the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and Anwar Al Awlaqi, Bin Ladenism has essentially disappeared. What remains seems to be a less centralised enemy, one that we are now able to declare can be handled by methods of intelligence that have been used against far more recognisable and far more lethal enemies.
Of equal importance, though, was the manner in which the discovery and disruption of the plot came about: techniques that were essentially by the book, without either illegal methods or overblown claims of danger.
The sobering significance of the Yemeni underwear bomb was less the plot itself than what it indicates about the way forward. In the future, a frantic reliance on torture, entrapment, and over-inclusive surveillance can give way to the more reliable methods based on knowledge of the enemy, on-the-ground intelligence, global cooperation and strategic planning to make us safe.
If only American efforts at apprehending terrorists had trusted these tried and true methods early on in the ‘war on terror'. Perhaps, then, they could have avoided the lapses of law and morality that have marked the era.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Karen Greenberg is director of the centre on national security at Fordham University law school.