Whenever counterterrorism professionals see punditry and media make grand pronunciations on terrorism that defy all demonstrable evidence, an unrepeatable oath is usually muttered.
That is what I did when I read Peter Beinart's Time magazine article titled "What al-Qaeda Can't Do." Beinart declared that Al Qaeda's Christmas day attack reveals an organization in serious decline. His argument is based on the fact that another 9/11-styled attack has not been effected by the group. This article reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of terrorists, their leadership and execution strategy. That it passes for serious analysis about the terrorist's ability to project terror is even more disturbing.
Like others actively involved in the war on al Qaeda I have had to personally shoot my way, numerous times, through their supposed declining capabilities since they revealed their pinnacle capacity to me on the morning of 9/11 at the Pentagon crash site. Having survived and waded through the gore of several suicide bombings, some with 100 or more dead people, Beinart can take my word for it that suicide terror that kills ten or hundreds are no less traumatizing than the one that had killed 3,000. Had 300 people died over Detroit on Christmas America would have been suitably impressed with their capacity for murderous simplicity.
Consider this. Perhaps al Qaeda has a different global terror agenda than the media narrative can handle? Perhaps AQ has not hit the United States in a mass effect, mass casualty attack since 9/11 precisely because that attack achieved what they wanted on that day. Bin Laden himself said the "Holy Tuesday" operation was to incite an American invasion of Afghanistan and spark a global confrontation where he expected our military operations would kill Muslims and degrade Islam.
Bin Laden desired a long term engagement where American forces would meet a coalition of religious fighters and be utterly slaughtered like Lord Elphinstone's British forces in 1842 and the Soviets in 1989. Eventually America would tire and finally surrender to the Mujahideen. From there al Qaeda would mobilize Islam to enter a clash of civilization against Democracy. Though his utopian conquest is fantasy, he firmly believes it and acts upon his dreams with murderous success.
In fact, with the exception of the 2002 Los Angeles Library tower plot, which was to involve Indonesian operatives skyjacking an airplane, no major plots by AQ involving the commandeering of aircraft were seriously planned after 9/11. According to Khalid Sheik Mohammed, bin Laden ordered the 9/11 plot reduced from 10 hijacked aircraft to four because he wanted to guarantee success.
The media often appears to argue that to prove AQ's viability the terrorists are required to successfully execute attacks greater than or equal to 9/11; but that is an arbitrary news driven metric of success, not bin Laden's.
Analysis such as this reveals a fundamental misunderstanding that is being repeated throughout the American punditocracy. Failed attacks should not cause us to discount the human factors in terror planning. Some call cleverness, others deviousness. I call it tactical inventiveness.
This entire discussion of Al Qaeda's supposed lack of sophistication and poor capacity belies the fact that they have done a near brilliant job of concentrating their growing affiliates to attack wherever they can, whenever they can.
Be it executing suicide donkey bombings in Mogadishu, weapons ambushes in Khost, liquid sports-drink bombs in London, intifada in Nigeria, manufacturing PETN cellphones in Saudi Arabia or designing explosive underwear in Yemen, this extremist cult's tactical sophistication is still growing in inventiveness. This virus continues to spread like a cancer to many other parts of the Islamic body.
The AQ senior leadership may appear to be marginalized as corporate strategy consultants for 4th generational warfare but, its ideology is strong enough to inspire new recruits like Abdulmutallab. Al Qaeda managed to successfully infiltrate our defenses and project terror power. He was just unlucky in his execution, not in his willingness or capacity to kill.
Journalists and pundits who transmogrify a snarling, wounded wolf (that has successfully mauled you before) into a Labradoodle, because it has lost a tooth or two while biting one's leg off do their readers a disservice.