In gauging the efficacy of our counterterrorism efforts, it is imperative that we focus not only on the occasional failure but on our many numerous successes, too. No strategy, tactic, or policy can be methodically measured on the basis of either failures or successes alone. Both need to be taken into a balanced account. If one consistently overshadows the other, the cumulative result is a flawed assessment of our security efforts.
The problem, of course, is that bad news sells; counterterrorism failures make for far better reporting than do the successes. When bombs go off or gunmen attack, there is raw footage to watch, crime scenes to investigate, victims to bury, witnesses to interview, inquiries to hold, monuments to build, and anniversaries to mourn.
Our counterterrorism successes, on the other hand, don’t resonate nearly as much. When security officials uncover and disrupt terrorist plots, carry out sting operations, and arrest and imprison would-be terrorists, we take the good news in stride. There’s no drama in these successes. Photos of police officers carting away evidence from a suspect’s home don’t reverberate nearly as much as the obligatory picture of the charred carcass of a commuter train or city bus. Counterterrorism failures stick in our collective minds; our successes go down as near non-events.
This is partly why it’s easier to list the Western cities against which jihadis have (nearly) successfully carried out attacks – Madrid (2004), London (2005 – twice), Glasgow (2007), Exeter, England (2008), Detroit (2009), Fort Hood, Texas (2009), New York (2010), Stockholm (2010) – than it is to recall the far more numerous cases in which plots were uncovered and attacks foiled – Strasbourg (2000), Paris (2002, 2005, 2006), Buffalo (2002), Milan (2004), Amsterdam (2004), London (2004), Brussels (2004), Melbourne/Sydney (2005, 2009), Los Angeles (2005), Rockford, Illinois (2006), Washington (2006), Chicago (2006), Toronto (2006), Frankfurt (2007), Bristol, England (2008), Copenhagen (2007, 2009), New Jersey (2007), Barcelona (2008), New York (2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2009 – twice), Dallas (2009), Springfield, Illinois (2009), Oslo (2010), to list but a few. [For details, see here, here, and here]
The recent bombing in Stockholm, Sweden is a case in point. Two weeks ago, a Swedish national blew himself up in a (mildly) successful suicide attack. The bomber, Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, lit the fuse of his car bomb – which became engulfed in flames but didn’t explode particularly well – and was prepared to then detonate a suicide vest when he suffered a wardrobe malfunction. According to CCTV footage, it appears that Abdaly, after having mixed in with a crowd of shoppers, couldn’t get his device to explode. Police theorize that he may have ducked into a deserted alley to set about fixing it when one of the dozen or so bombs he was wearing prematurely detonated. Abdaly died alone. Like American Faisal Shahzad’s attempted car bombing in Times Square (May 2010), security officials weren’t watching Abdaly, didn’t realize he was a threat, and weren’t able to pre-empt or disrupt his planned attack. The Swedes just got lucky.
But keeping the Stockholm attack in proper, global perspective requires that we balance this one event with the various other counterterrorism successes that have taken place over the past few months. In the US alone, for instance, in every month since September 2010, officials have conducted dramatic operations against homegrown and foreign terrorists plotting attacks against Americans.
In September, Sami Hassoun, a US permanent resident, was arrested after he placed what he thought was a backpack bomb in a curbside garbage receptacle on a crowded street in Chicago. In October, American Farooque Ahmed, was arrested after he provided material support, finances, and scouting reports to individuals he believed were al Qaeda operatives planning attacks on metro stations in Washington, D.C. In November, a Somali-born American teenager, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, was arrested in Portland, Oregon after he tried to detonate what he thought was a car bomb at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony being attended by thousands of people. And in December, Muslim convert Antonio Martinez (aka, Muhammad Hussain) was arrested near Baltimore, Maryland after he dialed a cell phone that he believed would trigger a car bomb he had primed and parked outside an Armed Forces recruiting station.
Each arrest was the result of a lengthy, diligent, and complex FBI investigation that included the use of hidden surveillance and undercover agents posing as would-be terrorists. The official criminal complaints (see Hassoun, Ahmed, Mohamud, and Martinez) read like movie scripts. In all of the cases, security officials, using both human intelligence and signals surveillance, became aware of potential threats early on and were able to preempt potential acts of violence long before the public was at risk. As in the 2009 cases of Michael Finton and Hosam Smadi, three of the four suspects actively and willingly participated in the construction, placement, and detonation of inert explosive devices provided to them by FBI agents.
Though some controversy remains, these US cases represent the epitome of successful counterterrorism. In reading about the Stockholm bomber who very nearly managed to conduct a mass-casualty attack, let’s be sure to keep in mind the many counterterrorism successes that help balance the general score sheet.
Posted by Alex Wilner