Faisal Shahzad, French terror arrests, and drone strikes: evidence of a working strategy?

Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, was sentenced today as French police arrested alleged militants. Policing and intelligence-sharing has improved dramatically since 9/11.

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters
A soldier walks near tourists Tuesday as he patrols near the Eiffel Tower in Paris as France continues its high alert. Anti-terrorist police arrested 11 people in several parts of France early Tuesday in swoops on suspected Islamic extremists, a police source said.

In New York today, a smirking Faisal Shahzad was sentenced to life in prison for trying to bomb Times Square, while across the Atlantic in France, a counterterrorism operation resulted in the arrests of 12 men.

That followed a US drone strike in Pakistan yesterday that killed eight German citizens, all Muslims allegedly hoping to return to Europe and murder civilians in the name of their faith.

Those men, in turn, were connected to a British national and alleged co-conspirator killed by a US drone strike in Pakistan in September. Their plan, which appeared more aspirational than likely, given that all of the alleged plotters identified so far were thousands of miles from Europe at the time of their deaths, was allegedly to roam the streets of a major European city with small arms, similar to the attack in Mumbai two years ago that left 168 people dead.

Reason for fear, or optimism?

All of this and more has once again put a spotlight on fears that Al Qaeda is successfully reaching out to Muslims resident in the West, training them in Pakistan, and sending them home to carry out terrorist attacks. The US and European governments have fretted for years that so-called homegrown terrorists, with passports and language skills that make it easier for them to get around, could be behind the next major terrorist attack in a New York or London.

Those concerns are reasonable, since the last major attack in the West – the bombing of the London subway system in July 2005 – was carried out by British Muslims who'd received training in Al Qaeda-connected camps in Pakistan's lawless border region.

But Pakistani-American Mr. Shahzad was captured after his incompetently constructed bomb failed to explode, and was fingered by a Times Square vendor (himself a Muslim) as he bungled his way to a life sentence in jail, much like the failed British "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid (Mr. Reid had sought to detonate a high explosive with a match, something that is practically impossible).

The arrests in France – it isn't yet clear if the men were allegedly planning attacks themselves or were simply in the arms smuggling business and had ties to militants – followed an arrest of a French-Algerian in Italy. The police there then shared what they learned from that suspect with the French authorities. And the drone strikes that killed the alleged German and British plotters in Pakistan followed the detention of another man by the authorities in Afghanistan.

Fruits of improved intelligence

All this points to a picture of unsuccessful would-be jihadis on the one hand, and the dramatically improved policing and intelligence sharing that Europe, the US, and other states have developed since 9/11. In the US, Shahzad has been convicted for his crime, while the trial of four American Muslims who plotted to destroy a New York synagogue (using fake weapons supplied to them by the FBI in a sting operation) is in its closing stages.

Since the 2005 attack in London, Western law enforcement has been repeatedly successful in uncovering would-be attackers. Take the case of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan resident of the US who went home to fight in 2008 and received training at an Al Qaeda camp in Pakistan, then returned home on a mission to bomb the New York subway system.

He purchased chemicals from a beauty supply company that could have been used to assemble a bomb, but was arrested in September 2009 thanks to a tip-off from British intelligence agents who intercepted a communication between him and his Al Qaeda handler. Mr. Najibullah pleaded guilty to planning to attack the subway, and has since been cooperating with authorities.

None of this means that some day an attacker won't get through the net. As the old cliché goes, a terrorist only has to get lucky once. But given the scores of young Muslim men who have gone from the US, Europe, and across the Middle East to fight in Afghanistan, Iraq, and smaller wars in Somalia and Yemen, Al Qaeda's desire to reexport terrorism has largely been a failure so far.

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