This week's package bomb attempt, if it was hatched by Al Qaeda, lends support to the notion that the terrorist group is focusing on relatively simple and even small-scale attacks in its efforts to fight America and the West.
Authorities said that parcel bombs bound from Yemen were addressed to two Jewish places of worship in Chicago, although the bombs may have been intended to explode aboard cargo planes and bring them down. The British newspaper the Guardian reported Saturday that one of the devices was linked to a cell phone, while the other was attached to a timer. In any case, the threat is very different in scale and complexity from the 9/11 attacks nine years ago, in which nearly 3,000 people died.
Yet on Saturday, US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the evidence is consistent with the idea that Al Qaeda may be behind this latest terror threat.
'All the hallmarks of Al Qaeda'
"I think we would agree with that, that it does contain all the hallmarks of Al Qaeda and in particular Al Qaeda AP," the group's Arabian Peninsula affiliate, Ms. Napolitano said in an interview on ABC News.
The Obama administration has been increasingly focused on the Al Qaeda affiliate, and on Yemen as a high-risk breeding ground for Islamic extremism. Authorities have said Al Qaeda AP was behind the failed Christmas Day bomb attempt last year by a Nigerian airline passenger with explosives hidden in his underwear.
In broadcast interviews Saturday, Napolitano said the parcel bombs appear to include the same explosive used in the Christmas Day attempt, pentaerythritol trinitrate or PETN.
If the latest terrorist plots are less spectacular than 9/11, or the failed 2006 Heathrow plot against several trans-Atlantic jetliners, that doesn't mean that Al Qaeda has become less dangerous, terrorism experts say.
Waging traditional urban warfare
Rather, Al Qaeda may have pivoted and be "slowly raising a new army designed to wage traditional urban warfare," Steven Simon of the Council on Foreign Relations said recently, in a commentary co-authored with Jonathan Stevenson of the US Naval War College.
Writing in the Washington Post earlier this month, they pointed to recent attacks such as the commando style raid targeting Hindus in Mumbai in 2008, a failed Times Square car-bombing in New York this spring, and the recent terror alert regarding possible machine-gun attacks against groups of US tourists in Europe.
"There are indications that Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are growing less attached to the kinds of spectacular attacks they once seemed to prefer," a US official told Reuters Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They're looking more and more to less sophisticated, less costly, and perhaps less detectable operations."
The new Al Qaeda, Mr. Simon and Mr. Stevenson argue, seems to understand both its own limitations and the potential effectiveness of attacks that, while modest in scale, can still do considerable harm on a global scale. Such attacks may achieve an important side goal, they add: avoiding Muslim casualties that have been criticized by jihadist dissenters.
Despite an ongoing search for more potential bomb parcels from Yemen, President Obama continued on Saturday with a scheduled campaign travel day including stops in Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago.
On Friday, John Brennan, the president's counterterrorism assistant, issued a statement thanking the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for aid that "helped make it possible to increase our vigilance and identify the suspicious packages in Dubai and East Midlands Airport" in Britain.
British Home secretary Theresa May said Saturday that the bomb could have brought down an aircraft. But she voiced skepticism that the perpetrators could have known where the device would be when they planned for it to explode.
Even an attack on a cargo plane can be deadly, putting not only pilots' lives at risk but also potentially others as well.
Cargo not screened like passenger bags
"Cargo travels on both cargo-only and on combi-aircraft, which have passengers and cargo," Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International, told the Associated Press. "And cargo is not subject to the same screening requirements as passengers' baggage."
A cargo-plane explosion at an airport or while flying above a city would also put non-crew lives at risk.
At the very least, dealing with heightened terror threats is financially costly. And the new focus on cargo comes, coincidentally, as the US Transportation Security Administration is also implementing new pat-down procedures for air travelers.
"Passengers should continue to expect an unpredictable mix of security layers that include explosives trace detection, advanced imaging technology, canine teams, among others," the TSA said in a statement Thursday.
[Reuters reports that Yemeni security forces have arrested a woman thought to be involved in sending explosive packages headed to the United States after surrounding a house where she was hiding in the capital Sanaa. Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh said earlier that security forces had surrounded a house at an undisclosed location where a woman believed to be involved in the apparent plan to attack targets in the United States was taking refuge.]