Last week, the US State Department closed and evacuated 19 of its embassies, and issued a worldwide travel alert based on intelligence concerning a terrorist organization based in Yemen. Many Americans are asking what this means. Is an attack on US soil imminent?
While nothing is certain, of course, it is unlikely that such an attack would take place in the United States, or even outside of Yemen.
The intelligence seems to be reliable. But individual data points can be exaggerated or ignored, depending on the domestic political environment of the time. In this case, the State Department acted due to “increased chatter” that it monitored among terrorist groups. Intelligence officials highlighted one communication in particular, in which Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri gave his blessing to an attack proposed by Nasser al-Wuhayshi. Wuhayshi is the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—a sort of “franchise affiliate” based in Yemen, not to be confused with the central Al Qaeda organization.
Such information certainly warrants our attention. But talk is cheap, and it is critical that we don’t give terrorist organizations more credit than they are worth. In order to understand what a terrorist organization is truly capable of, we must look at its past behavior. In this case, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is a deadly organization within its own borders, but it has not demonstrated that it possesses the means to successfully carry out an attack on US soil. The one known attempt (carried out by the so-called “underwear bomber”) failed due to incompetence — the device did not properly detonate.
Let’s look at the data: AQAP has carried out 39 suicide attacks through 2012, with only one taking place outside of Yemen (just across the border in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia). Suicide attacks represent precisely the sort of attack we would fear—they are far more deadly than any other type. Now, AQAP has certainly proven itself capable of killing foreigners within its own borders, and so we should absolutely take the intercepted communication seriously with respect to our embassy in Yemen. But this is a far cry from being able to carry out an attack on foreign soil.
Consider 9/11, for instance, which obviously we failed to prevent. This failure was not a tactical one, or even a failure to “connect the dots.” Rather, it was a failure to properly assess the threat. In fact, a memo stating “Bin Laden determined to attack US” made it to the White House by early August, 2001— the intelligence was there, but it was simply not given its due credibility or seriousness. The table to the right illustrates this point.
Clearly, Al Qaeda proved itself capable of attacking the United States across multiple borders long before 2001. But AQAP has not demonstrated this capability, and “increased chatter” among its leaders, no matter how heavy, is simply not enough evidence to be overly-concerned, unless the government has not revealed other critical details. Even if Zawahiri were directing the attack—which US intelligence officials confirmed he was not—the main Al Qaeda group (now based in Pakistan) has not carried out a successful major attack on Western soil since the London bombings in 2005. Ayman Al-Zawahiri giving his blessing to AQAP leaders only proves how weak the main Al Qaeda group really is.
What does this mean from a policy perspective? Has the Obama administration acted correctly? Even if not, perhaps we should be thankful that it “over-assessed” the threat. Better safe than sorry, right?
Not exactly. While we should applaud our government for doing everything it can to keep us safe, we can still expect better. It is not a question of whether we over-prepare, but whether we use our intelligence as wisely and efficiently as possible. This means systematically using tactical intelligence by examining it through the lens of past strategic behavior.
Of course there will be some terrorist organizations that are so new that we won’t have much past strategic behavior to study. In those circumstances, we must rely on judgment of short-term tactical intelligence. But most cases are in the “muddy middle” — where there is a group that has existed for at least several years, we need to qualify the tactical intelligence based on the demonstrated attack pattern of the group. We shouldn’t assume every group is capable of a major attack on US soil.
Critics might point to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempted bombing of a passenger plane over Detroit in 2009 as an example of AQAP’s ability to attack US soil. The attack wasn’t successful, but not on account of American security — the device simply didn’t detonate.
Terrorism is not baseball, where a .333 batting average is considered successful, and where there are opportunities for multiple “at-bats.” Globally ambitious terrorist organizations thrive on the element of surprise. A single failed attempt — as in 2009 — prompts a violent response from the target nation to neutralize any future threats. That is exactly what the United States did in that case —by introducing full-body scans to airport security to detect precisely the type of device Abdulmutallab used, and by assassinating AQAP leader Anwar Al-Awlaki via drone strikes.
If the attempted 2009 bombing was so easy, AQAP would have sent another bomber in Abdulmutallab’s wake, or maybe three or four with him on the same day. The very fact that the device did not detonate does not breed confidence in AQAP’s ability to carry out a successful attack.
It is time for a thorough reassessment of our terrorist alert policies. We should absolutely appreciate our government’s ability to recognize terrorist threats. But a more specific alert policy based on an organization’s past behavior would save time and effort, while preserving peace of mind.
Robert Pape is professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism. David Schneyer is a Research Associate at the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism.