Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Sunday that the thwarting of the attempt to blow up an Amsterdam-Detroit airline flight Christmas Day demonstrated that “the system worked.” This is the same system that had been warned by the bomber’s own father he posed a threat; had tracked his movements to Yemen where he met with known Al Qaeda operatives and received training in bomb-making and delivery (for which he was placed on a terrorist watch list); passed him through airport screening without detection; allowed him to board the airplane without a passport; and let him assemble his device once onboard. Had the terrorist been sitting on the bomb rather than transporting it in a leg bag we probably today would be dealing with the first successful airline bombing in over a decade.
The system doesn’t work. One reason for this is the glacial pace at which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has moved to deploy advanced detection technologies at our borders and ports of entry. The program to monitor the northern and southern borders, SBINet, is only now out of the starting blocks. Despite the availability of an array of new sensors, we do not have adequate detection of potential biological and nuclear threats crossing U.S. borders. The Transportation Security Administration has dithered for years about deploying millimeter wave detectors at airports despite knowing that this technology would have detected a bomb being transported in a leg bag. International shippers are still waiting for DHS to decide what it wants to do about sensors that could screen cargo containers before they were loaded on ships bound for the United States.
When it comes to intelligence, the problem is equally bad. It turns out that the Fort Hood assassin had an ongoing internet relationship with an Al Qaeda leader who had fled the United States to take up residence in Yemen. Yet this was not considered significant enough to be reported to the U.S. Army. Similarly, the evidence against the plane bomber was not sufficient to deny him a multiple-entry visa into the United States, despite the fact that immigration authorities in the United Kingdom had denied him a visa.
The only thing that has saved this country on more than one occasion is the fact that Al Qaeda doesn’t work either. It is obvious that acquiring bomb-making material and getting on airplanes is not very hard to do. Yet, there have only been a handful of attempts to bring down airliners. Most have been halted in the preparatory stage. The two times individuals managed to smuggle a device onboard, the would-be bombers turned out to be incompetent in their trade. Al Qaeda has only once attempted to down a passenger plane using a surface-to-air missile, even though this is a weapon readily available in many parts of the world. Even recruiting American wanna-be terrorists is not that hard, as evidenced by the five young men recently arrested by Pakistani authorities as they wandered about that country trying to connect with Al Qaeda. But if its track record over the past few years is any indication, we may not have much to worry about from Al Qaeda.
What we ought to worry about, in fact what should scare us to death, is what will happen if a competent terrorist organization, say Hezbollah, ever decides to launch a bombing campaign against the United States. A well-trained, well-equipped terrorist organization, backed by a state such as Iran, could create a firestorm of terrorist acts in and against the United States. Against such a threat, our half-baked system to protect the country would be nearly useless.
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