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Failed Bomb Plot Shows Strategy Shifts by Both al-Qaeda and the West

JOHN J. XENAKIS

On Saturday, Yemeni police arrested a college girl and her mother in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, a day after parcels containing bombs sparked a global security alert, according to Al-Jazeera.

Printer plot bomb: Explosives were hidden in toner cartridge (Telegraph)Printer plot bomb: Explosives were hidden in toner cartridge (Telegraph)

The arrests were confirmed by Yemen president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who said, “Yemen is determined to fight terror but will not allow anyone to intervene in its affairs.” This 16 word statement contained two messages to two different audiences: To the West, the message is that Yemen will fight terrorism; to the local audience, the message was that Yemen’s government will not allow the United States to interfere in Yemen’s internal affairs.

On Sunday, the women were cleared and set free, and Debka is reporting that the Yemeni president is still resisting pressure to allow US special forces to land in Yemen and attack the al-Qaeda camp.

Even so, the U.S. administration is absolutely delighted that Yemeni officials have moved so swiftly and agressively, something that they haven’t always done in the past.

The package bombs were found after a tip from Saudi Arabian intelligence services. One package was found on a UPS cargo plane at East Midlands Airport, north of London, the other in a FedEx facility in Dubai (United Arab Emirates), according to Haaretz.

According to the al-Jazeera article, the Dubai bomb contained the same explosive that was found in the underwear of the “Christmas bomber,” who tried to blow an airplane over Detroit on December 25 of last year, and it’s believed that the same al-Qaeda group is responsible for both.

These events illustrate the shift in the center of gravity of the al-Qaeda organization from Pakistan’s tribal area to Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), headquartered in Yemen. This shift in the past has been credited to the bombing of terrorists in the tribal areas by American unmanned drones, which has caused fighters to flee to Yemen, as well as to North Africa.

That’s only part of the change in strategy of al-Qaeda, as the west’s strategy must evolve as well, in the wake of the failed bomb attempt

It’s ironic that this failed bomb plot occurred just two days after the Chairman of British Airways gave a widely acclaimed speech in which he attacked “redundant” security checks imposed by U.S. officials, according to the Independent.

But now, new developments in the failed bomb attempt will require that the west will have to strengthen security in some areas.

One development is that U.S. national security adviser John Brennan is expressing concern that there may be other package bombs. Associated Press reports that he said that “it would be very imprudent … to presume that there are no [other packages] out there.” He said that “We currently have put a hold on any cargo that is coming to the United States that originated in Yemen,”

In fact, the devices in the packages were very professional and sophisticated, enough so that they passed through multiple screenings at the Sanaa airport. The devices would not have been detected at all, had it not been for the tipoff by Saudi intelligence. This means that western airlines could be targeted with these package bombs at any time.

The second development is the discovery that one of the packages was in the cargo hold of a passenger flight for part of its journey, and that the bomb was designed to blow up passenger jets and threatened “another Lockerbie,” according to the Telegraph.

The result is that airline security procedures will have to be updated and strengthened, rather than relaxed as some people had hoped. In particular, new procedures for package delivery will have to be implemented.

On the other side, al-Qaeda’s strategy is changing as well, and this goes beyond the shift in the center of gravity from Pakistan to Yemen, resulting from the merger last year of the Saudi and Yemen branches of al-Qaeda into Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, al-Qaeda’s basic long-term strategy has not changed. The two most important events for the Muslim world in the last century were the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922 and Iran’s Great Islamic Revolution of 1979. Al-Qaeda’s objective, masterminded by Osama bin Laden in the 1980s, has been to replicate the Iran’s revolution to create a Sunni Muslim government in another country.

This has now been tried in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere, and has failed so far. In fact, since the Taliban were defeated in the war following 9/11, it could be said that al-Qaeda has actually lost ground in the last ten years.

Thus, it’s not surprising that al-Qaeda is making some dramatic changes in strategy.

According to Jonathan Stevenson, a professor at U.S. Naval War College, and Steven Simon of the Council on Foreign Relations, writing recently in the Washington Post, al-Qaeda has decided that it lacks the capacity “to mount sophisticated and coordinated attacks that would match, let alone exceed, the innovation or shock value on display on Sept. 11, 2001, or even in the USS Cole operation the year before.”

Thus, the new al-Qaeda understands its limitations, and is adopting “more realistic means of achieving its grand objectives.” According to the authors:

“With the help of these so-called “cleanskins,” who are difficult for Western security services to detect, al-Qaeda’s opportunistic, pragmatic leadership has embraced urban warfare of the sort pioneered by terrorists decades ago: low-intensity, IRA-style operations in densely populated areas, using both conventional military weapons (such as assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades) and standard terrorist weapons (such as improvised explosive devices). This, not simultaneously blowing up airliners or destroying skyscrapers, was the mode of jihad envisioned by Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin, the late leader of the jihad in Saudi Arabia and the author of the appropriately named turn-of-the-century al-Qaeda combat manual “The War Against Cities.”

This change in strategy to “low-intensity, IRA-style operations in densely populated areas” should exclude blowing up airliners, according to the writers, but in fact, shipping UPS or Fedex packages with bombs fits the objective of creating IRA-style chaos without spending much money or resources. Thus, the new strategy is even more dangerous than the previous strategy:

“The long-range implications of this evolution are sobering. Al-Qaeda’s leaders are realizing that they can panic and disrupt Western society the old-fashioned way — but on a global level. If they succeed, their new strategy will inspire increasingly rigid security measures and rising paranoia, which will almost inevitably drive a wedge between Muslim and non-Muslim Americans. Given our increasingly rancorous, polarized politics and the politicization of counterterrorism, al-Qaeda’s foray into urban warfare could make effective governance and the preservation of constitutional norms much tougher propositions than they have been so far in the age of terror.”

This brings us back to a theme that I’ve been emphasizing for years: the political confrontation and xenophobia that have been increasing in all forms around the world for the first time since the 1930s, and are leading to a new world war,

The growing mutual xenophobia between Muslims and non-Muslims serves al-Qaeda well. As long as American and European armed forces have a presence in the Iran and Afghanistan, doing everything from fighting Taliban terrorists to helping Pakistani flood victims, and as long as Islamist terrorist activities are killing far more Muslims than non-Muslims, there is little chance of triggering the kind of Iran-style revolution that’s the objective of al-Qaeda.

If Stevenson and Simon are correct, then “IRA-style” terrorism or bringing down an airplane with a mailed package bomb will meet al-Qaeda’s objectives by dividing Muslims and non-Muslims at little cost. If al-Qaeda is really successful, then these kinds of activities will force American and European armed forces to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving al-Qaeda free to bring about the kind of revolution that that Osama bin Laden envisioned over twenty years ago.

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