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The Unfortunate Evolution of Terrorists’ Bombs

The threat that never goes away

The news that that the CIA successfully thwarted an attempt by another Al Qaeda-inspired bomber to destroy a U.S.-bound plane serves as a sobering reminder that the threat many have forgotten about (as well as belittled) is never going to go away. Despite several different attempts by al Qaeda and its inspired followers, their incompetence, along with enhanced information sharing by U.S. government agencies, improved passenger screening, and actions by intelligence and security professionals, have kept the skies free of the horror that befell four planes over a decade ago. None of this has been easy, free from controversy, or without tremendous cost. Let’s face facts – when the Internal Revenue Service is looked upon more favorably by American politicians and the travelling public than the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), the people working to safeguard a traveling public – you know you have a problem.

For all of the anger and venom that is directed at TSA (and anyone who even attempts to defend them and their mission), there remains an almost incredible forgetfulness as to the threat they and many others are working to combat. There remain a group of people absolutely committed by any means necessary to seize American airliners and do the unimaginable to them. They have evolved from box cutters and utility knives; to shoe explosives; to mixing fluids; fashioning explosive underwear; creating body cavity bombs; and now, apparently, something even more challenging – improved non-metallic bombs.

The unfortunate evolution that al Qaeda and its like-minded brethren engage in is a tragic measure of the era we have inherited and will forever occupy. For every countermeasure we take, a dynamic, far more patient and ruthless adversary takes another step technologically and tactically to fulfill their goals. Furthermore, there are no limits to what they will do to fulfill their mission. Time is literally on their side. All they need is one slip up, one off day from the intel/security crowd and for everything else to go just right, and their goal will be fulfilled. That’s a gut-wrenching thing to say, but I fear it’s the truth.

As to why al Qaeda keeps coming back to attack the airlines, the answers are fairly straightforward. They are large visual targets with plenty of potential victims. Additionally, when something good (or usually bad) happens with them, there is usually some type of camera recording the “event” whether in mid-flight or on the ground afterward. That footage takes on a life of its own via broadcast media and the exponentially viral capacities of the Internet. When you can do something to a plane, the whole world can and will know about it, and if you’re the party behind its destruction, you can bet the whole world is going to turn its attention to hear what it is you have to say. Hence the insatiable desire to strike at the world’s aircraft time and again. Regardless of risk mitigating countermeasures or the incredible difficulty of pulling the attack off, they are the ultimate prize to a terrorist.

You also cannot underestimate the fact that airliners are one of the world’s great economic dominoes. If one falls because of a terrorist strike, the whole world gives pause to see what happened so as to prevent it from happening again. In turn, the cascading spray of dominoes means costs begin to mount from passengers (business and tourists) who are not buying tickets to go somewhere; cargo is obsessively screened, causing backlogs and delays, and markets slow to a grinding halt. Airlines power economies around the world, and economic disruption is not just an afterthought for terrorists – it’s a primary target. If you really want to hurt your intended target, you hit them where it counts, and in America that’s the wallet.

Bin Laden himself crowed about that goal almost from the beginning of his reign of terror. His Oct. 29, 2004 videotaped missive left no illusion to his intent – “we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. Allah willing, and nothing is too great for Allah.

Despite Bin Laden’s deserved end and elimination of many of his al Qaeda operatives, his self-proclaimed disciples have not given up on that goal either. They too have continued their evolution of sorts. They have new recruits, new technologies and means to cause murder and mayhem, and a steadfast patience and willingness to see their mission through to its end.

Our ultimate survival in this environment will require our own individual and collective adaptations to an always dynamic environment of threats. That may be a bigger challenge in some places than the threats posed by al Qaeda inspired killers, but it is part of the circumstances of today’s unsettled era.

Multiple layers of systematic vigilance, including intelligence gathering and sharing; technological know-how and deployment; operational means and mechanisms; enhanced training; and adaptive flexibility across the board are essential. So is a strong measure of good luck and patience. Along the way, we should certainly debate the various means and methods to secure the traveling public. Those are necessary and healthy, but let’s not kid ourselves to think this threat no longer exists or is not worthy of continued vigilance.

If Darwinism has taught us anything, it is the cold, calculating and oftentimes brutal and difficult transitions that species must undertake to survive. Those adaptations are never comfortable or at times welcomed but they are essential when the threat to your survival is unfortunately evolving right alongside you. We would be better off if we did not forget that fact of living in today’s world. Ignoring it or belittling efforts to thwart its potential only increase its chances at success.


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...