January 12, 2010 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Predicting the Next Bomb Plot

Muhammad bin Nayef is Saudi Arabia's chief counterterrorism official. A member of the royal family, he's in charge of fighting terrorists. That is why they tried to kill him.

Last August, a known terrorist ­-- Abdullah Hassan Taleh al-Asiri -- declared he wanted to surrender personally to the prince. Saudi officials regarded the announcement as a small victory in the war on terror.

Their policy is to actively encourage extremists to return home, turn themselves in and enter a rehabilitation program. Abdullah, they thought, was coming back to the fold. He waltzed through security and presented himself to the prince.

Unfortunately for the prince, Abdullah had a bomb on (or perhaps in) his body. The weapon was supplied by Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which operates out of Yemen and Saudi Arabia (the same group responsible for the Christmas day attack on the Detroit-bound flight). A cell phone triggered the device, hurling body parts in all directions. Luckily, the prince was only slightly injured.

The near-miss illustrates how Al-Qaida often operates:

  1. Rely on familiar tactics
  2. Introduce a new wrinkle or two to improve the tactics and keep them "fresh"
  3. Be patient, wait and attack again

The attack on the prince followed an old tradition in East Asian assassinations: Turn a royal audience into a suicide attack. Recently, the Taliban used the same trick to kill seven CIA agents in Afghanistan. Three days before 9/11 they used the tactic to assassinate an anti-Taliban warlord, Ahmad Shah Masood.

These attacks offer lessons for homeland security in the U.S. Combined with the 2006 London-based plot, they reveal a lot about what one kind of threat to expect in the future.

First, news flash: The terrorists will continue to target passenger aviation. Gravity works. Any successful attack on an airplane will likely have catastrophic results.

Moreover, when you attack a plane, you attack a network. Bring down one plane, and the whole worldwide system of passenger aviation goes into shock.

Aviation targets are also attractive because there are an almost infinite number of domestic and international entry points to the system. Odds are, though, future attacks will still pass through major flight hubs: International airports offer more flights, bigger planes and more potential victims.

Second, don't hold your breath waiting for the next shoe-bomb to drop. Al-Qaida has gone years between aviation plots. In 1995, it planned to take down 11 U.S.-bound international flights with liquid explosives. The "Bojinka Plot" failed al-Qaida. They waited until 2006 before trying to mount the next liquid-explosive attack.

In 2001, Richard Reid smuggled a bomb aboard a U.S.-bound flight from London. It was not until this Christmas that Al-Qaida tried a similar style strike, with an underwear bomber routed through Amsterdam.

Third, and most important: Al-Qaida will keep trying to improve the three types of bombs they've used so far. They will continue to refine some type of "binary" explosive -- one that uses two or more ingredients, apt to elude airport security checks, may be brought separately onto planes and then combined into a bomb.

The fact that they have tried liquid explosives at least twice shows they think it's a tactic still worth pursuing. Likewise, the Saudi strike shows that Al-Qaida retains an unhealthy fascination with body bombs.

And don't rule out another 9/11. We have to assume that Al-Qaida has not given up on hijacking planes.

No matter what security measures we throw up, Al-Qaida will keep at it till it finds a weakness to exploit.

Also, after the incident we will find out we had lots of "dots to connect." After all, we already know what they are trying to do. Most likely we will have known at least something about the attack before it happens.

That's not to say security precautions are pointless. But it is a sobering reminder that we can't win this war simply by playing defense.

Al-Qaida is the 21st century Terminator. You can't reason with it. You can't negotiate with it. It has to be destroyed and humiliated.

The war won't be won or lost at airport scanning stations. The vital front is Afghanistan. And Pakistan. And all the other places around the world where Al-Qaida affiliates plot and recruit and train for terrorist attacks.

Maybe, the White House should call it a global war on terrorism.

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First Appeared in Examiner papers