Stratfor on the Yemen Bombing Case: The Real Goal

As a diversion from today's election news, but of course also a guide to longer-term political issues, it's worth reading the new Stratfor analysis of the thwarted cargo-bombing plan. The whole thing is interesting, but two big themes stand out.

One is the ongoing obsession of al Qaeda and allied groups with attacking aviation, for the "terrorism theater" benefits a successful attack brings. Widespread fear, further gumming-up of world travel and commerce. You could far more easily kill far more people by attacking, say, a shopping mall, but apparently that doesn't have the same spectacle value. (A reader from Norway made the same point about "terrorism theater" recently here; Richard Clarke wrote about the shopping-mall scenario in the Atlantic  here. The assumption is that future airline attacks will kill only the people on the plane, since fortified cockpit doors and alerted passengers make a 9/11-style plane-into-building mass attack virtually impossible.)

The other is the insistence that this was mainly an anti-Western rather than an anti-Jewish effort, despite initial interpretations to the contrary. According to Stratfor's Scott Stewart, the bombs were clearly intended to go off in flight, rather than ever reaching the Jewish congregations in Chicago to which the packages were theoretically being sent. Those addresses were apparently a kind of false-flag, or bonus, intensifying the terrorizing effect. (If the bombs had gone off in flight, presumably the addresses might have been discovered in post-disaster tracking and investigation.) The real objective was to kill whoever happened to be on the plane, which could of course have included Muslims, and to terrorize Westerners in general. Samples from the analysis, provided by permission of Stratfor:

>>A tactical analysis of the latest attempt suggests that the operation was not quite as creative as past attempts, though it did come very close to achieving its primary objective, which in this case (apparently) was to destroy aircraft. It does not appear that the devices ultimately were intended to be part of an attack against the Jewish institutions in the United States to which the parcels were addressed. Although the operation failed in its primary mission (taking down aircraft) it was successful in its secondary mission, which was to generate worldwide media coverage and sow fear and disruption in the West....

As we've noted before, some jihadist groups have a fixation on attacking aviation targets. In response to this persistent threat, aviation security has changed dramatically in the post-9/11 era, and great effort has been made at considerable expense to increase the difficulty of attacking passenger aircraft....

There has long been an evolving competition between airline security policies and terrorist tactics as both are adapted in response to the other. Because of recent developments in aviation security, AQAP apparently has tried again to re-shape the paradigm by moving away from suicide-bomber attacks against aircraft and back to a very old modus operandi -- hiding explosive devices in packages and electronic devices.<<

How does this assessment, and the reminder of terrorists' ongoing obsession with aircraft, affect the ongoing discussion of "security theater" here? It emphasizes the deadly serious importance of distinguishing theatrical effects from real security -- of recognizing the difference between measures that respond to the ever-evolving avenues of attack, and those that are the Maginot Line equivalent of showily fighting the last war. In that vein, today's account from the traveling public. This was a note that came in with the subject line, "Security theater, part n," and this explanation:

>>(I'm a math type, couldn't help the reference)

Just lost another folding utility knife to TSA. I discovered it just before stepping into the x-ray, so I threw out the blade and put the holder in my shoe. The idiot TSA supervisor said it couldn't go because "it looks like a knife". He further elaborated that if I held it to the throat of a flight attendant he/she wouldn't know it wasn't a knife, nor would a federal air marshall, who would shoot me. Of course, the same logic holds if I were to hold a Barbie doll to the attendant's throat, but I didn't share that thought.<<
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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