While al Qaeda’s obsession with trains, planes and automobiles gets another blow - this time from what some are calling a first-ever tip from a double agent placed inside al Qaeda by Saudi Arabia - no one is noticing that al Qaeda’s recent cargo plot left out a suicide bomber. Or, at least, no one is talking about it.
Perhaps al Qaeda is just getting creative with its plots, but the information we have learned to date suggests that al Qaeda is increasingly worried about getting its fingerprints on a plot, most particularly a suicide bomber’s. Why? Operatives have fingerprints, and a lot of other biometrics. Packages do not. Operatives have histories, knowledge and networks. Packages are once removed from such information. Al Qaeda’s mounting failures are carrying operational and strategic costs to the organization and operational and strategic gains for the United States. Every foiled plot brings about lessons learned about terrorist travel, operations, actors and goals. Never before had the mainstream media or Washington been so interested in visa issuance and passenger manifest data as when the background of Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab became available in the 2009 Christmas Day plane plot. Intense obsession with our own failures inevitably brings about a honing of our intelligence capabilities, information-sharing and agreements with allies to support common goals. A win-win for the U.S. and lose-lose for al Qaeda.
A discriminating review of the cargo plot indicates that al Qaeda has learned some lessons, too. Implemented 9/11 Commission recommendations on aviation and border security are making al Qaeda think twice. It doesn’t want its bombers’ names in the Transportation Security Administration’s Secure Flight program - just now implemented internationally and domestically - or in our vast networks of immigration and law enforcement databases containing photos and fingerprints available at a moment’s notice to any federal government intelligence or law enforcement entity. It doesn’t want that operative to fail and be questioned or have biometrics link him to other terrorist or criminal activity. It doesn’t want forensic evidence tracked to hiding places and potential arrests, interrogations or deaths of other terrorist figures. Operatives known to governments thus carry risk. Al Qaeda has gotten the memo, and the cargo plot may signify a change in tactics requiring expanded vigilance.
This shift means many things, but perhaps most important for securing America are these: (1) The continued integration of immigration, aviation, intelligence and travel documents is making a big difference in the war on terror and (2) anonymity may be the new playing field for an organization like al Qaeda that can no longer risk the type of U.S. military and law enforcement blowback that comes when solid forensic evidence links its affiliates to operations.
Al Qaeda may be in trouble; it can no longer afford to lose its operatives in failed attacks. But that also may mean something more nefarious: We need to watch our borders more closely for anonymous entry. A key underlying concern caused by Mexican cartel violence on our border is possible exploitation by terrorist organizations, most particularly Hezbollah (Iran’s terrorist arm) and al Qaeda. Recent arrests of senior Hezbollah operatives working closely with cartels out of northern Mexico and al Qaeda’s interest in the Colombian FARC are just a few of the reasons for heightened concern.
What does a crisis on our borderlands have to do with a cargo plot originating in Yemen, now said to have been just 17 minutes from at least one detonation? Mounting evidence suggests that al Qaeda needs anonymity on the front end of operations - and our borders between ports of entry are a near-guaranteed way to preserve that anonymity. One way to achieve mayhem is exactly what al Qaeda tried with the cargo-plane plot - sending nearly undetectable packages filled with PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate), mailed by using a stolen identity, authorities think, through a vulnerable aviation system. Our physical borders offer something similar: likely undetected operatives using any identity (or none) through hundreds of miles of scantily patrolled, vulnerable U.S. borderlands. This affords al Qaeda the ability to use a suicide bomber without the United States ever being able to positively identify the perpetrator forensically. Anonymity means success because the United States knows nothing, can place no responsibility on al Qaeda and cannot go after the organization afterward unless al Qaeda decides to take credit. If you are al Qaeda and losing ground in the war on terror, that may look like a pretty good outcome.
There is no doubt that the battleground against terrorist operations is wide and requires constant upgrades in the areas of intelligence, information-sharing, immigration and aviation security. However, securing our physical borders has long been doable. What has been lacking has been the will to do it. If we are concerned as a nation that al Qaeda may be moving toward anonymity, that is just one more sound reason to make our border secure and stop pretending it already is.
Janice Kephart is the director of national security policy at the Center for Immigration Studies and a former counsel to the 9/11 Commission.