Exploding The Bomber Myth

Zeenia Satti writes

The Faisal Shahzad episode has exposed two myths at the heart of the discourse on threats to America’s security. The first myth is that sanctuaries, located on the Pakistani-Afghan border, are training terrorists for launching lethal attacks on US soil, a la 9/11. Faisal Shahzad, we are told, has been trained in one of these sanctuaries. The extent of his preparedness to launch a lethal attack on America is as follows:

a) Shahzad gave his correct email address to the man from whom he bought the SUV, to be used as a mass-murder weapon;

b) Shahzad boarded the Dubai-bound plane approximately 40 hours (two days) after he must have, or should have, learned that his device had failed and his smoking vehicle discovered.

c) Knowing (or not knowing) that the vehicle’s registration number would lead to the dealer he had bought the car from, he chose to escape by positioning himself in a plane where he would remain for the next 14 hours, after which he would disembark at a predictable destination, where he could be easily nabbed.

d) His dedication to his trainers can be fathomed by the fact that though he had bought a 9mm handgun with four hundred dollars in cash, during the period in which he was supposed to be preparing himself for the terror attack. When push came to shove, he chose to seat himself inside an airplane, where he could not carry a gun on him, instead of his own apartment, where he could have shot himself in an instant when raided by the FBI. With him dead, all knowledge regarding his trainers would be lost. You don’t need to read Le Carre to know this. Hollywood and Bollywood spy movies routinely show how dedicated agents end up killing themselves when faced with the danger of arrest.

The second myth is that the foremost threat perception faced by the US in the 21st century is Islamic terrorism.

Reality. After the investigatory trail had led to Faisal Shahzad, the FBI decided not to call all the airlines on May 3rd to inform them that an important name had been added to the No Fly list. The list purportedly carries 3,400 names. According to an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the FBI asked the Transportation Security Administration (TSI) not to make the call to international airlines. In critical situations, investigators call all the airlines themselves on emergency basis. Such a move puts a name on the airline’s radar, making it impossible for the suspect to slip through the system.

So far so good.

The CIA has an extensive presence in the Arabian Peninsula, augmented by the US military presence that dramatically increased since the Christmas bomber announced his ties to Yemeni terrorists. The UAE in general and Dubai in particular, is a hub of US intelligence agencies. So is Pakistan. Hence one would think that the CIA chose to watch Faisal all the way to his destination and keep him under surveillance in Pakistan, as the CIA has extensive experience in overseas surveillance. Tapping Faisal Shahzad could have led it all the way to the den where he was “trained” and his gurus. It could have led the US authorities to discover entities the amateur wanna be terrorist himself may not have known about.

But that’s not what happens. After a US customs officer recognises Faisal’s name on the manifest list, 30 minutes before the plane is scheduled to take off, the FBI storms into the plane and nabs Faisal Shahzad, in the manner of the NYPD nabbing an ordinary suspect at the crime scene. Later, they interrogate him in the same manner. The US government, resurrecting the Bush-era abhorrence for civil liberties, starts worrying about whether or not Shahzad is entitled to his Miranda rights, instead of worrying about their intelligence system’s manifest incapacity to pursue an amateur and unearth his source.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, seems in place within the gigantic US intelligence system for tackling what is the most dangerous security threat to America in the 21st century–i.e., Islamic terrorism operating from “sanctuaries” on foreign soil. Five thousand US soldiers have died in Iraq and 35000 have been critically wounded. Over 2000 NATO troops have died in Afghanistan and tens of thousands have been maimed. Millions of civilians have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost of these wars has gone into trillions. All to take out foreign sanctuaries that nurture terrorism. Yet, after nine years of involvement in this endeavour, the US intelligence cannot come up with one decent intelligence operation that can trace an amateur terrorist all the way to his training grounds, in a place that is feared as the foremost threat to American security!

Faisal’s mission failed due to his own failures, and the alertness of a Muslim vendor from Senegal named Aliou Niasse, a hero whose name no one heard. Nothing in this averted disaster shows the terror-hunting prowess of the FBI or the CIA. No foreign sanctuary is required for the likes of Faisal. In fact, the whole notion of sanctuaries is questionable. Can the FBI prevent an individual from using his home inside America to make an improvised explosives device or to plan a terror attack? The Timothy McVeigh risk prevails anywhere.

Foreign sanctuaries are neither required for performing domestic acts of terror, nor do the ones that are hyped seem capable of catering to their so-called professional purpose. Training in a sanctuary in Yemen led a man to burn his bottom and half a seat on an airliner. Training in a similar sanctuary in Waziristan led a man to design a floozy and leave a trail of easy traces to himself. Timothy McVeigh masterminded an attack that killed 168 people sitting all the time in his own apartment, inside the United States. Domestic terror attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India have shown similar ferocity.

The threat of Islamic terrorism is projected more than it is perceived. Despite nine years of costly multilateral wars fought in the name of this threat, the US has not felt the need to energise a system of intelligence for nabbing networks that are supposedly threatening its existence. The US intelligence still continues to maintain its Cold-War era special relationship with the British intelligence, despite maintaining that the source of threat to US’ existence has shifted from Europe to Asia.

The writer is an energy consultant based in Washington DC. Email: zeenia.satti@ post.harvard.edu

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