Stephen M. Walt

What last week’s bomb plot really tells us

It’s Election Day, and I’m about to go out and vote, but first a few belated comments on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s failed attempt to blow up cargo planes by shipping fairly sophisticated bombs to fictitious locations in the United States. What lessons did I draw from last week’s event? First, this incident ...

It’s Election Day, and I’m about to go out and vote, but first a few belated comments on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s failed attempt to blow up cargo planes by shipping fairly sophisticated bombs to fictitious locations in the United States. What lessons did I draw from last week’s event?

First, this incident reminds us about the perils of instant analysis. Initial news reports suggested that the targets were synagogues or Jewish community centers in Chicago, leading various pundits to speculate that this was either another sign of al Qaeda’s deeply rooted anti-Semitism, or perhaps a bizarre attempt to send a message about the influence of Chicago-based politicos like David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel. But The New York Times reports today that the addresses on the bombs were outdated and that investigators now believe that the bombs were intended to destroy the planes, not targets on the ground.

Whatever the target may have been, the more obvious point is that these groups are still hoping to make Americans pay a price for our policies in the Middle East and elsewhere. They are angry about our close ties with Saudi Arabia, by the drone attacks the United States is conducting in Yemen and Pakistan, and by our unstinting support for Israel. And even though AQAP’s main target appears to be the Saudi regime, America’s unpopularity throughout the region makes attacking the United States a useful recruiting tool.

Second, this latest episode reinforced my belief that winning in Afghanistan is neither necessary nor sufficient for eliminating the terrorist threat in general and al Qaeda or its clones in particular. There is little or no al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan today, and in the unlikely event that we defeated the Taliban completely, it wouldn’t eliminate the groups that already exist in Pakistan, Yemen and assorted other places. At this point, in fact, our costly attempts at nation-building in Afghanistan may be a distraction from the broader global effort to deal with terrorism itself. And if that’s the case, then what are we doing there?

Third, the big lesson is that this plot was thwarted not by drones or airstrikes or special operations forces, but by good old-fashioned intelligence and police work, largely conducted by the Saudi intelligence services. Because AQAP seeks to overthrow the Saudi regime, the Saudis are highly motivated, and they also seem to have done a good job of infiltrating the organization and passing the information on to us in time to thwart the attack.

One might also infer that responding to 9/11 with a "global war on terror" was a bad idea all along, because wars and occupations create conditions in which terrorist organizations can more easily thrive. Osama and his imitators are not heroic warriors and don’t deserve to be treated as such, even rhetorically. Instead, they are criminals who believe the murder of innocents is justified in order to advance a fanciful fundamentalist cause. They are best defeated by intelligence sharing and patient police work, and where appropriate, by addressing some of the underlying conditions and grievances that give rise to such movements in the first place. Toppling individual governments or waging costly counterinsurgency campaigns in one or two countries cannot eliminate a global phenomenon like this one; indeed, such actions are likely to make it worse.

Lastly, although we can all be glad that this latest attack was foiled, it is hard for me to believe that one of them won’t eventually succeed. It is impossible to inspect every single package in the global shipping system, and terrorist organizations are bound to learn more about how to exploit vulnerabilities in existing (or future) security procedures. We should take all reasonable measures to prevent them from succeeding, but we also ought to recognize that perfect security is probably not achievable. And remaining resolute in the face of that reality ought to be part of our counter-terrorist response too.

In short, although the bomb plots remind us that the terrorist danger is still with us, it also says a lot about the best way to deal with it. And one obvious step is not to go into conniptions every time a plot like this gets exposed. On that score, kudos to Jewish community figures in Chicago, who responded to the initial (and false) reports that synagogues had been targeted with an admirable degree of aplomb.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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