Staying nimble to fight al-Qaeda's shifting threat
Behind the latest terrorism plots is an al-Qaeda leadership that is getting battered in Pakistan but that is determined to strike back wherever it can - using a dispersed network and new tactics that are harder to detect.
The package bombs sent last week from Yemen are one face of al-Qaeda's continuing campaign. The Yemeni operatives are nimble, adaptive and "frustratingly clever," says a U.S. counterterrorism official. "They have one main goal, which is to mess with us."
The Yemen-based operations came as intelligence officials were struggling to disrupt another al-Qaeda plot to launch Mumbai-style attacks in European cities. Officials say that plan involved roughly 25 al-Qaeda terrorists, organized into cells of perhaps three to five members who would stage roving assaults in one or more European cities. Of the 25, about 10 have been captured or killed, according to a second U.S. official.
While these operations are tactically separate, officials say they both reflect a secret mid-2009 directive from an embattled Osama bin Laden to his followers to demonstrate that al-Qaeda could still do damage.
For U.S. officials, these latest terror plots have been a grim reminder that there's a long fight ahead against al-Qaeda, with no "quick fixes" available. Defense isn't enough: The explosives sent from Yemen can't be detected by conventional X-ray screening or sniffer dogs, so stopping these plots requires good intelligence, as was the case last week when Saudi Arabia tipped the United States about the package bombs.
Nobody wants to say so publicly, but the lesson of the past few weeks, for me at least, is that one of these days the terrorists will succeed - and people should be prepared for that likelihood. The greatest damage won't be the attack itself but the public response. The Yemeni plotters saw the frenzy produced by their failed Christmas Day bombing attempt on a flight to Detroit. They must be hoping now, with the package bombs, to disrupt cargo-handling around the world and damage a fragile global economy.
As the CIA has stalked al-Qaeda over the past two years, this has been a story of punch and counterpunch, of escalating U.S. drone attacks over Pakistan's tribal areas and defiant al-Qaeda responses. As the senior U.S. official says, this is a "learning enemy" that adapts its tools and tactics as the West alters its defenses.
To understand the latest news, it helps to scroll back to early 2008. The CIA gathered intelligence that al-Qaeda leaders were regrouping, forming new alliances and planning new operations in the West. At that time, the CIA's attacks from Predator drones were sporadic, and Pakistan was consulted before each attack.
So the Bush administration escalated the drone attacks in mid-2008. Now, Pakistan was given only "concurrent" notification, which in practice meant it was informed after the drone had launched its missile. Moreover, the CIA was authorized to strike targets that had a "signature" of terrorist activity, rather than a precise identification. President Obama has increased the tempo of Predator attacks even more.
The drone attacks have pounded al-Qaeda and killed key members of its leadership. Bin Laden reacted with his mid-2009 directive, which the U.S. official summarizes this way: "Undertake operations however and wherever you can. We need to prove ourselves again." Specifically, bin Laden directed operatives to plan assaults in Europe similar to the November 2008 attacks that killed about 175 people and terrified Mumbai.
The United States and its European allies have been working hard to disrupt the Mumbai copycat operations. Since the third week of August, the CIA has conducted more than 40 drone attacks on the tribal areas, more than in all of 2008. A British national was killed in Pakistan in September, and two Germans in October. Other plotters have been arrested in Europe and Pakistan. Officials say they can't be sure yet whether the terror plans have been shelved.
A similar escalation is likely in Yemen, with soldiers from the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command working with Yemeni government forces. The JSOC sums up its lethal approach with the phrase "find, fix, finish," but a U.S. official says it has been hard to keep track of al-Qaeda targets in Yemen's tribal villages and cities.
The reality is that the adversary that declared war on the United States in 1996 is still active - morphing and mobilizing even as it is hunted by America and its allies. It's a nasty fight, and it's far from over.