Thursday, May 06, 2010

Space Monkeys, or, How Shahzad II Will Blow Up Broadway

Over at NRO they’ve been having a discussion over whether or not Faisal Shahzad’s goofy bombmaking reveals that he is just stupid.
He Was Stupid, They Explained [Jonah Goldberg]

A bunch of readers think the obvious answer is that he was simply stupid. I don't buy it. First, he apparently had two college degrees and worked in the financial sector. Lord knows that doesn't mean he had to be a genius. But a complete moron? I kind of doubt it. But even if he was a complete moron, So what? That's what training is supposed to compensate for, right? Was he really so much dumber than the illiterate brainwashed shmucks so often used in suicide bombings throughout the Middle East and Afghanistan? I certainly find it harder to believe he was a lot dumber than the Mumbai terrorists, one of whom is interviewed on camera in the HBO special on the attack. Of course, many of those guys are just given the bombs pre-made. But still, Shahzad was in no rush. He could have at least bought the right kind of fertilizer. You don't need to be a genius to be told to open the valves on the propane tank. Again, I'm not saying I know the answer. I simply think there's a disconnect between the sophistication of the terrorist network that allegedly dispatched him and the lack of sophistication on display in the actual attack.

Update: Another round of explanations focus on the possibility he chickened out or grew conscience or some such. That's certainly plausible. But the fact that he bought the wrong kind of fertilizer means that it had to be percolating subconsciously for a while. Otherwise, why go through with it at all?
Why not the explanation that this was a dry run? A rehearsal for placing a nuclear device, of course. I’m not saying the terrorists have one. Yet. But if I were a terrorist monitoring the Iranians’ progress towards building a bomb, vis-à-vis the complete breakdown of the West’s defensive posture, I’d expect something catastrophically lethal, and small enough to fit into an SUV, to be coming on line within two to three years.

We already know there are dry runs on airlines in and out of the United States. It’s one of the biggest open secrets we’ve got going. Back in July 2007 DU reported a TSA bulletin on suspicious events that “may indicate terrorists are conducting pre-attack security probes and “dry runs” similar to dress rehearsals.” As we noted then, with some dismay:
On at least four occasions passengers, (ethnicity passed over in silence by the too-timid TSA), were found to have checked baggage containing simulated IEDs, outfitted variously with wire coils, electric switches, 9-volt batteries, cell phone chargers, and sticks of modeling clay or block cheese, which share similar consistency to plastic explosive. That makes it ideal for testing x-ray detection of the working models. (“I’d Like an Aisle Seat, and Could You Hold the Cheese?”).
Do you know what the air marshals and the FBI and Customs and Border Protection officers always say when they let disruptive groups of Muslim males go after they’ve terrorized a crowded airliner with their provocative behavior? They say, “They didn’t break any laws, like interfering with the flight crew.” And what was that the 9/11 Commission said about a failure of imagination? Maybe it’s not every Jihadist’s mission to interfere with the flight crew. Just like it’s not the mission of a dry-run pilot to actually release a bomb over the target. They’re just trying to prepare the way for the next guys. We’re still supposed to shoot those ones down.

Even when a terrorist doesn’t actually commit an act of terror that doesn’t mean he’s harmless. I was thinking today of how many of the terrorists have engineering training. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab studied mechanical engineering, (okay, so he flunked his final, but that’s not the point). Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is an engineer. And Slate reports that, “two of the three founders of Lashkar-e-Taibi, the group believed to be behind the Mumbai attacks, were professors at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore.” Bin Laden is a civil engineer, and his family is heavily into construction engineering in Saudi Arabia.

Engineers are problem solvers. They’ll take a complex problem, like how to blow up New York City, and they’ll break it down into component parts, solving each problem methodically. The 9/11 bombers conducted dry runs before they finally attacked.

Jihadist strategy is probably less comparable to the Japanese planning to attack Pearl Harbor than it is to our planning of the moon shot. NASA engineers didn’t just sit down in 1961 to design a rocket that would go to the moon. First we had one program to get an astronaut into space, and from there into orbit. Then there was another program to get two astronauts into space for more than a day and have one of them get out of the capsule to spacewalk. Then there was the Apollo program, where three astronauts went up, and they learned how to rendezvous and dock with the lunar lander. When they figured that out they sent three astronauts and a lunar lander all the way to the moon again and back without landing, just to test the navigation and all the other systems. We tested rocket engines, fuel mixtures, navigation computers, flight suits, rescue procedures, space toilets, how to get lunch into a toothpaste tube. Only then did we attempt the moon landing.

And before anyone sent a human being into space, they sent dogs, and especially monkeys. (The Iranians just sent a rat). Shahzad’s just another monkey in space. The giant leap for Islam is planned for later. But not that much later.

After 9/11, (thanks in part to who was in the White House that day), al Qaeda faced a much harder time hitting us again, though they have planned to do just that. Since then, each staged incident on an airplane, each smuggled phony weapon, every dry run, garners more data for the terror engineers, even when their field testers get caught. Who cares about them? Jihad assumes its soldiers will be sacrificed in every successful mission. The point is to learn what they need to know to solve the logistical problems keeping them from their next attack. And, fortunately, for our enemies, a significant portion of the dry runners are simply detained momentarily and released, so there’s little risk that American counterterrorism officials will learn anything from them.

The ultimate mission of jihadism is to either destroy us or reduce us to slavery. But the engineers of jihad first need to solve the tactical problem of how to launch a mass-casualty attack sufficiently horrendous to accomplish what 9/11 did not -- America’s terrified withdrawal from conflicts that defend against international Islamist expansion, and our abandonment of Israel. Global jihadists are already perfectly aware that a great deal of this withdrawal/abandonment goal has already been accomplished, without the shedding of any jihadist blood, simply by the election of Barack Obama as president. The United States under President Obama has all but sanitized the very concept, let alone the terminology, of jihadism and Islamic terrorism from our national security conversation. We've embarked upon a rigidly anti-Israel foreign policy. And we have embarked as well on a rigidly anti-interventionist approach to Iran’s hot-running nuclear weapons program. Iran is now on the verge of obtaining a nuclear weapon, and the entire world, (except Israel) is resigned to it. (Speaking of open secrets, this is another one).

When the Nazis were trying to beat us to the atom bomb during World War II they had to do so against formidable obstacles, such as simultaneously having to fight off the Soviets and the Allies on two fronts, difficulties getting hold of needed bomb-building materials, and the simple fact that at that point no one had every actually figured worked out how to make one of these things. The Iranians don’t face any of these obstacles. They have all the know-how they need, they can refine their own uranium, and no one outside of Israel has any plans to stop them.

Do you appreciate how little stands between Israel and an Iranian nuclear attack, or a terrorist nuclear attack in the United States?

I have no idea whether or not Shahzad’s mission was to actually set his bomb off. I'm inclined to think his job was to see how much suspicious-looking hardware could be crammed into an SUV and parked in midtown Manhattan by a single individual. Daniel Foster at NRO remarked how Faisal’s gizmo had “two clocks and wire leads attached to. . . absolutely nothing.” The dry runs of three years ago used block cheese with wires sticking out to test airport security. I do believe Faisal’s jihadist brothers in the Taliban and Al Qaeda will take careful note of our reactions.

That TSA bulletin from three years back recognized the strategy:

Terrorists may repeat operational tests to desensitize, distract, or adapt plans for specific environments. Linking repetitious probing incidents or associated items possibly could alert authorities to future terrorist plots, tactics, and personalities.
There’s the key -- linking them. Why are federal authorities so determined to not even recognize them?

We had an episode this January when four (or five – accounts differ) Saudi Arabian males disrupted Flight 243 from Amsterdam, the very same flight the underwear bomber was hoping to blow up somewhere over Our Hometown only a week before. (“Unruly Saudis Disrupt Plane Before Being Released by U.S. Customs”). The airlines and federal authorities put the kibosh on this so fast it has all but vanished from history. Yet, as it was happening, both federal air marshals on board and authorities on the ground thought it was serious enough to require the airplane to remain on the tarmac after landing a safe distance from the terminal. All of the Saudis were released without being charged, or even interviewed by Customs officials. The airline refused to disclose what it was the Saudis were doing that led four air marshals on board to conclude that the situation posed a threat to security. The public was never allowed to learn the identities of these Saudis. It’s almost as if officials who get handed great big dots to connect stamp them “Return to Sender” and get rid of them as fast as they can. (“Linking repetitious probing incidents or associated items possibly could alert authorities to future terrorist plots, tactics, and personalities.”)

I’m aware of at least one Freedom of Information request that’s out there regarding the four Saudis, but I understand that so far the authorities have refused to disclose anything. If you know anyone who was on that flight and can shed some light on this, I’d love to hear from that person. Drop me a line here.

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