Last Friday and Saturday, the Obama administration assured Americans that they had enough advance knowledge of the latest al-Qaeda-attempted terrorist attack to stop it in its tracks. Today, the Associated Press reports that their initial assessment of the targets was probably incorrect and that AQ actually intended to blow planes up mid-air. What’s more, they came close to succeeding, because two of the packages flew on passenger jets before being discovered:
The mail bomb plot stretching from Yemen to Chicago may have been aimed at blowing up planes in flight and was only narrowly averted, officials said Sunday, acknowledging that one device almost slipped through Britain and another seized in Dubai was unwittingly flown on two passenger jets.
Senior U.S. officials met to develop a response to the Al-Qaida faction linked to the powerful explosives addressed to synagogues in Chicago.
Investigators were still piecing together the potency and construction of two bombs they believe were designed by the top explosives expert working for Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based militant faction thought to be behind the plot. Yemeni authorities hunted suspects linked to the group, but released a female computer engineering student arrested Saturday, saying someone else had posed as her in signing the shipping documents.
But authorities admitted how close the terrorists came to getting their bombs through, and a senior U.S. official said investigators are still trying to figure out if other devices remain at large.
The initial claim from the intel community was that they were aware of the threat for several days and timed their intervention to grab the packages before they could make it to the synagogues in Chicago. However, on Saturday NBC reported that more than two dozen potentially dangerous packages had yet to be found, and that the President had only been informed of the plot on Thursday night, hours before launching a global effort to find the packages. Had that effort actually begun several days before, as I remarked on Saturday, they should have stopped the packages from getting onto planes at all, let alone passenger planes bound for place like London, Paris, and Cologne.
Furthermore, the two bombs discovered made it unlikely that the targets were a delivery destination. One had a timer, the other a mobile phone for detonation systems. Given the inability to pinpoint a specific delivery time, both detonators make no sense for targeting a synagogue, where other types of letter-bomb detonation systems would work more reliably. The addresses were probably meant to send a message after the planes exploded in mid-flight, once the shippers had time to discover the paperwork for those packages.
And as the AP also reports, the failure to spot the bombs and suspicious packages beforehand also indicates a lack of prior knowledge of the plot.
Counterterrorism is a tough business, to be sure, and sometimes people can’t see vulnerabilities until terrorists exploit them. It is mainly a reactive effort in that sense, although one might think that securing the cargo industry would have taken a higher priority. The bigger question here isn’t how we missed the plot, but whether the administration gave us the straight truth in the aftermath.