al Qaeda: Extremely clever or incredibly stupid?

The recent spate of news over airport security has brought to the forefront of my mind a question that has been puzzling me for some time. Why are terrorist acts seemingly focused on attacking airplanes?

While the attacks on 9/11 were highly sophisticated, involving careful planning and almost military-level coordination of a large number of well-trained people, the more recent attempts such as the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber have been amateurish.

Furthermore, following 9/11, two features have been adopted that have really increased airplane security that make them much harder targets. The first is that the cockpit doors are securely locked and the pilots have weapons. The second is that passengers no longer are passive when someone starts behaving weirdly or threateningly or just acts up. Instead, they now fight back. As a result, it would be impossible now for a few hijackers with boxcutters or knives or even axes and samurai swords to take control of a plane. The crew and other passengers would be able to quickly subdue them with no risk to the plane. So all this effort and expense directed towards confiscating nail clippers, screwdrivers, pocket knives, etc. seems pointless and wasted.

When I was returning last year to the US from a trip to Hong Kong airport, the security person viewing the scanner saw something in my carry-on bag that aroused his suspicions but he could not find it and did not tell me what he was looking for. He repeatedly put my bag through the scanner and searched everywhere looking for secret compartments and the like and I was baffled as to what could be the problem. Finally, he triumphantly found it. It was a small screwdriver, with a blade about an inch long, that I use to tighten the tiny screws on the frame of my glasses that hold the lens in place. I have carried it in my laptop bag ever since a screw fell out once when I was attending a conference and I could not use my glasses. I had forgotten about it since the bag had gone through security many times since then without any problem until the security person in Hong Kong noticed it and confiscated it. But really, the idea that anyone could take over a plane with that instrument is laughable.

Guns are more serious. I am not sure if bullets passing through the fuselage are sufficient to depressurize the cabin and bring the plane down but security measures to prevent guns on planes seem reasonable. The next danger is whether there is something that a passenger could do in the privacy of the bathroom that could bring down the plane, and this brings us to the realm of whether chemicals can be combined to create an explosive mixture sufficiently powerful to bring down a plane. The evidence seems mixed on this.

But my main point is that it is now very hard to bring down a plane so why does al Qaeda bother with trying to do so when there are so many alternative soft targets? But so far the terrorist attempts at soft targets in the US, like the Times Square bomber, seem hopelessly inept, even half-hearted. Are they stupid, trying to carry out the same failed strategy over and over?

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross writing in Foreign Policy reports that Inspire, the English-language online magazine produced by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), its Yemen branch (who knew that they actually publish a magazine?), says that al Qaeda, far from being stupid, is pursuing is a clever ‘strategy of a thousand cuts’. They know that even weak plans that are foiled will trigger vast and expensive countermeasures by the US. For example, the recent failed plot using printer cartridges shipped as freight in packages cost al Qaeda around $4,200, but it will trigger responses costing billions of dollars. Their goal seems to be to bleed America dry and they warn that future attacks will be smaller but more frequent. Getting the US deeply involved in multiple wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iran) is also part of their strategy to bankrupt the US.

Gartenstein-Ross sums up what al Qaeda is trying to do:

The point is clear: Security is expensive, and driving up costs is one way jihadists can wear down Western economies. The writer [of the Inspire article] encourages the United States “not to spare millions of dollars to protect these targets” by increasing the number of guards, searching all who enter those places, and even preventing flying objects from approaching the targets. “Tell them that the life of the American citizen is in danger and that his life is more significant than billions of dollars,” he wrote. “Hand in hand, we will be with you until you are bankrupt and your economy collapses.”

Unfortunately, the author, and the editors of Inspire, are all too right: The economics of this fight favor the terrorists, not those seeking to defend against terrorism. Although there is a tone of triumphalism to al Qaeda’s latest statements — and a clear attempt to spin its recent failures — we would be foolish to ignore the group’s warnings and its clearly articulated strategy.

When Sri Lanka went through several decades of insurgencies and civil war, the opponents of the government did not, as far as I am aware, try to smuggle weapons on to planes. Instead attacks were made on trains and buses and marketplaces, places where large numbers of people congregated. Such targets were impossible to defend against. People got used to the idea that a bomb might go off anywhere but went about their normal business, aware of the danger that they might be unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but not letting themselves be terrorized to the point of paralysis.

Can Americans reach that same level of detachment about personal risk and thus foil al Qaeda’s ultimate goal of bankrupting the US by causing expensive over-reactions? The catch is that there is a vast counter-terrorism industry in the US that is making a killing off people’s fear and they have no interest in ratcheting terror down and every incentive to increase it. So ordinary people are at the mercy of a tag team of al Qaeda and the counter-terrorism industry, buffeting them from all sides.


  1. says

    Airplanes were good terrorist targets before the cockpit doors were improved because the they could be used as guided missiles.

    Now, that it is extremely difficult to take one over to use as a missile, a plane is just a collection of 100 or so people.

    A terrorist could do just as well blowing up a bomb in the airport security line.

    It would still kill about as many people and shut down air travel. Only a plane would be spared and some of the drama (plane bomb v land bomb).

    Likewise, a mall, bus station, concert, etc. is just as attractive a target.

  2. Scott says

    Even without terrorist threats, people are afraid to fly, and the attacks and countermeasure play on those fears. I’m really surprised that Al-Qaeda hasn’t detonated a bomb in a shopping mall at Christmas time. I guess instead of killing us, they’ll let us kill ourselves.

  3. says

    One thing I point out to people is the cognitive bias we use to justify the expense and assault on civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism. It just seems more salient and *terror*izing than other ways that people are victims of preventable death every day in the US. Drunk driving, domestic violence, not being able to afford life saving medical treatments, the list goes on.

    There is something more appealing about the good guys fighting the evil bad guys than facing the fact that our own society is often the “bad guy.” We like simple scenarios with seemingly simple solutions.

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