When Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year-old airport shuttle driver from Denver, was arrested by the FBI in September, counterterrorism officials told reporters that Zazi seemed to be the real thing -- a would-be terrorist who had trained with Al Qaeda, who was planning attacks on Americans, and who had recruited a cadre of sympathizers. President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder allowed the FBI and the New York Police Department to control the flow of information to the public. It was a few days before Obama even addressed the topic, doing so in the form of telephone calls thanking FBI agents and investigators. When Army psychiatrist Maj. Nadal Hasan murdered 13 soldiers and wounded 30 others at Ft. Hood in early November, the White House was similarly cautious (not about the events -- Obama gave a moving speech at a collective funeral) but about the nature of Hasan's crime. Was it terrorism? Did Hasan snap under pressure? Was he directed by, or influenced by, Al Qaeda?
Conservatives and some less ideological terrorism analysts criticized the president for his aversion to labeling. Indeed, in the fall, the White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan explicitly criticized the "GWOT" -- Global War On Terrorism -- formulation that the Bush administration employed to describe and then justify their domestic and foreign policies.
White House officials are wary of being accused of not wanting to calling a terrorist attack a terrorist attack, but Obama wants more subtlety. He has not abandoned the means used to attack terrorists: targeted terrorist killings, aggressive foreign intelligence collection, military drone strikes in countries ranging from Somalia to Yemen. However, Obama believes that the way in which the country responds to the phenomenon of terrorism -- the way we try find the joints of an amorphous subject and cut at them -- is integral to the efficacious of counterterrorism policies.
Today, within a few hours of the Delta/Northwest Airlines flight touching down in Detroit, a senior administration official telephoned and e-mailed members of the White House press pool. This incident was, this official said, an "attempted act of terrorism." No caution there: either the suspect admitted as much (though his admissions are and must be taken with a few grains of pepper) or his identity turned up in what has to have been an urgent search of every major intel database in the world. Obama has so far held two secure conference calls with his top officials.
Terrorism means something different to this administration though. Al Qaeda provides its most visible manifestation, and networks in Yemen, India, Somalia and elsewhere that've been influenced by Al Qaeda's ideology probably pose the most acute threat, but it's safe to assume that, if the identity of the bad guy turned out to be a white guy named Joe Smith from Schenectady, New York who read a few Web sites and then put together an explosive device, they'd call it "terrorism" too.
We almost always never get the details right the first time: apparently, this guy had some sort of liquid-powder combination and an ignition device -- apparently, it is more complicated and different (according to Rep. Peter King, speaking on Fox) than similarly confiscated devices; the guy apparently has told the FBI that he works for Al Qaeda.
The apparatus of government is in high gear now; the airline terrorist threat alert level has been raised remains at "orange" unspecified (but obvious) security enhancements are going into effect; there will be more random "Secondary Security Screening Selection" selectees; presumably, the FBI's legate in Holland is coordinating the investigation in Amsterdam, trying to figure out whether that country's notoriously rigorous airport security screening process broke down. (The New York Times reports that the suspect's name is Abdul Mudallad, and his name is on a no-fly list, and he was somehow allowed to fly. If true, the good news is that we knew about him; the bad news is that the flight manifest somehow never managed to get to the TSA intel shop or the National Counterterrorism Center, which runs international flight manifests against terrorist databases.)
I am sure that, in the minds of Obama's top counterterrorism officials, they are trying to figure out whether it is worth putting a name to what might be three loosely connected events. Is it sufficient to say that Zazi, Hasan and this Nigerian are all part of the same circle, the same fundamental structure? Do they represent a phase change (a human heuristic, to be sure, and always arbitrarily defined) in the nature of terrorism? These are harder questions to answer and pose harder questions to solve than the questions of who, what, when, where and how. We'll fix the security flaw, or patch it up as best we can. What the Obama administration lacks now is a theory of terrorism. Maybe one doesn't exist in the real world; maybe the Bush administration's theory of terrorism exacerbated the problem. It is this administration's challenge to explain how their approach keeps us safer, and then to demonstrate that their approach keeps us safer.