Have Al Qaeda and associated Islamist terror groups become incompetent?
After all, the car bomb used in Saturday’s failed Times Square attack was a fizzle. FBI Deputy Director John Pistole on Tuesday said the bomb “does not appear to us to be the most sophisticated device.”
Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-born US citizen arrested and charged with the attempted attack, appears to have had little real training in explosives technique, according to US officials. And the Times Square bungle was preceded by the Christmas Day incident in which a Muslim Nigerian man on a Northwest Airlines flight tried, and failed, to ignite plastic explosives sewn into his underwear.
Are these twin flops evidence of systemic ineptitude? Perhaps. But it is at least as likely that they show Al Qaeda and its allies have moved towards a new, more decentralized, method of targeting the US and other Western nations.
A new terrorist model
“The new terrorist model might be lightly trained individuals deployed as quickly as possible in hopes they succeed,” says Juan Zarate, senior adviser at the Transnational Threat Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Despite the apparent low quality of the bombing equipment, the Times Square bomber presented a clear and present danger to the people of New York, according to law enforcement officials.
“He clearly had the intent to do harm,” said Pistole at a Tuesday afternoon Justice Department press conference.
The Times Square plot was a serious attempt to sow death and destruction on New York’s streets, said Attorney General Eric Holder. The reality is that there are many terrorists in the world who wish the US ill, said Holder. The nation should not forget that, even as months and years pass without a successful attack.
“The most dangerous impression we can draw is that this threat no longer exists,” said the attorney general.
Al Qaeda would love to mount another spectacular, 9/11-style attack on Western interests, note terrorism experts. But the counterterrorism efforts of the US and its allies have made the organization and deployment of multiperson terrorist teams much more difficult.
Trained in Pakistan
There may still be plots out there that reflect a more patient approach. Najibullah Zazi, the Denver airport shuttle bus employee arrested last September and charged with plotting to bomb the New York subway, appears to have received fairly extensive training in explosives while at an Al Qaeda training camp in Pakistan in 2008, for instance.
US authorities allege that Mr. Zazi was planning to use hydrogen peroxide-based bombs, and had amassed a stock of raw material in preparation for the assault. He had cased the New York subway system as well.
Zazi fled New York last September after he became aware he was being watched. He was arrested in Denver on Sept. 16 without incident.
Mr. Shahzad recently also spent five months in Pakistan, according to news reports. It’s not clear whom he met. But the gasoline-and-fireworks bomb allegedly made by him was much more amateurish than Zazi’s approach, note experts.
In a way, what the US is seeing now may be judged a return to more usual terrorist tactics.
After all, terrorism, by definition, is an attention-getting strategy employed by those without the ability to mount conventional military attacks.
“Terrorism is a tool of the less-powerful, and they use what they have at hand,” says Gary LaFree, a professor of criminology and director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland in College Park.
The deadly successes of the 9/11 attacks perhaps have made Islamist terrorists appear more competent than they are, in general. Mr. LaFree counts some 50 or 60 thwarted attacks linked to Al Qaeda or its allies since 2001.
“Terrorists use readily available, low-tech weapons, and they often screw up,” says LaFree.