Daniel W. Drezner

I’m still waiting to be scared

I’m still waiting to be scared

Stephen Colbert’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s attempt to rally fear in the hearts of Americans through its foiled toner cartridge gambit continues to reverberate in homeland security circles. Clearly, there are still a few bugs in the system. That said, here are my quick takeaways:

1) Al Qaeda failed… again. Seriously, if al Qaeda is ostensibly the New York Yankees of terrorism, the Steinbrenners would have fired the GM and coach years ago.

2) As this New York Times round-up suggests, al Qaeda has had to adopt new tactics because its preferred tactics have been thwarted:

[It was] a rare attack aimed at the air cargo system — one of the foundations of the global economy — rather than the passenger system, which has received the most attention from governments working to avoid a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The Times story goes on to bemoan the failure to ratchet up security in the cargo system, which is a fair point. An implicit conclusion to draw from this switch in tactics, however, is that al Qaeda-affiliated groups are being frustrated on the passenger front.

3) Will Juan Williams now be fearful every time he sees a toner cartridge, even though most toner cartridges are not evil?

4) A common mantra about combating terrorism is that homeland security officials have to aim for a 1.000 batting average, while terrorists just need to get lucky once. I wonder if this is really true, however. Each time a new type of attack is thwarted, government officials learn a great deal about new tactics and methods, and a treasure trove of intelligence can be quickly generated. Failed attacks are likely to discourage some al Qaeda sympathizers, leading to more informants.

No, al Qaeda doesn’t need a perfect track record, but failure after failure does carry strategic and operational costs.

5) The Saudi counterintelligence effort is getting an awful lot of good press.

Am I missing anything?