Flying the Unfriendly Skies

Last week, British authorities thwarted a terrorist plot to blow up passenger planes flying between the UK and America by smuggling on board chemicals in liquid and paste form to create bombs, which is a grim reminder that airplanes are still a tempting target for terrorists. It also shows that the obsession with security to prevent 9/11-style hijackings almost blinded us to other serious threats. Indeed, to the extent that airplane security focused on the threat of explosives, it was largely for screening checked baggage. However, even though 100 percent of passenger luggage is checked for explosives, air cargo shipped in the baggage compartment is not (about 60 percent of all air cargo is carried on passenger aircraft).

Bombs on airplanes aren’t the only threat to aircraft we need to worry about. Another glaring vulnerability is the threat posed by shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles [.pdf] – also known as man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS. MANPADS are a known clear and present danger because they are known to be in the possession of non-state actors including al-Qaeda (al-Qaeda is reported to have both first-generation former Soviet SA-7s and second-generation U.S. Stinger missiles – the latter supplied to the mujahedin by the CIA to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan and yet another example of blowback). Although the loss of life from a single MANPADS attack would be considerably less than 9/11 (perhaps several hundred killed rather than thousands), the terror spread by such an attack could be just as profound. Even an unsuccessful terrorist attack against a U.S. commercial aircraft would likely have a chilling effect on airline travel with ripple effects throughout the economy. Currently, commercial passenger aircraft are defenseless against a MANPADS attack. Although the Department of Homeland Security has finally issued contracts to equip aircraft with onboard defensive systems, it could take as long as 20 years to outfit the airline fleet.

But the uncovering of the liquid-chemical bomb plot raises issues that go beyond the threat to aircraft and airport security. Almost immediately, President Bush used the opportunity to use the incident as a rationale for “why we have given our officials the tools they need to protect our people.” Although he didn’t specify which tools, it’s worth noting that neither the PATRIOT Act nor the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program were instrumental in uncovering the plot. Instead, it appears that it was the work of good old-fashioned police work and a bit of luck: it all began when British authorities received a phone call from a member of the Muslim community who was worried about the suspicious behavior of an acquaintance. This tip led to a yearlong investigation involving hundreds of investigators on three continents, which underscores that the war on terrorism – the un-war – will not be fought primarily with military force of arms, but through cooperative intelligence-sharing and law enforcement.

The success of the investigation was also due to the ability of the British to infiltrate the group hatching the plot, which highlights the importance of human intelligence and not relying on technology such as satellites and data-mining to find terrorists and learn what they are doing. As Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) said in the movie Spy Game, “Technology gets better everyday. That’s fine. But most of the time all you need is a stick of gum, a pocket knife, and a smile.”

Speaking of luck, this incident should be a reminder of what the IRA said after a failed attempt to kill then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: “We only have to be lucky once, you will have to be lucky always.” This time, we were lucky. But no matter how hard we try and how good we are, playing defense means that our luck will eventually run out. The paradox of homeland security is that we must build defenses against possible terrorist attacks, but defending against terrorism is a Maginot Line because a determined terrorist will find ways to circumvent the barriers we put up. Indeed, this plot demonstrated that the terrorists sought to exploit a weak link in the security system.

Since we cannot expect to always be lucky and be able to uncover every terrorist plot and stop every attack, trying to defend against terrorism is ultimately a losing proposition if we don’t also deal with the root causes of why Muslims are radicalized and why they would become terrorists. For countries such as the United Kingdom (with a population of 1.5 million Muslims), the single most important issue may be how the Muslim population is assimilated into society. For the UK and many European countries, Muslims tend to live in tightly knit urban enclaves – more apart than a part of their adopted countries – which is a sharp contrast to American Muslims, who seem more integrated into the larger fabric of society.

The lesson for American Muslims – particularly those who are newly immigrated to the United States – is to not fall into the same trap as Muslims in Europe. The more Muslims separate themselves from their community, the greater the likelihood that they will be susceptible to radicalization, and the more likely it is that they will be viewed with suspicion, however unwarranted. It is worth noting that the Lackawanna Six – six young men who attended an al-Qaeda training camp and pled guilty to terrorism charges (though were not found guilty of plotting any attacks) – were from a tight-knit Yemeni community and lived within blocks of each other.

And the lesson for America is to not engage in policies and actions that radicalize Muslims – such as casting a wide net targeting the whole Muslim community, or racial profiling. Unfortunately, President Bush’s use of the term of “Islamic fascists” probably does not help. Indeed, many Muslims criticized the president for his remarks, claiming the phrase unfairly associated Muslims with Nazism and fueled hostility toward Muslims. And we have to be careful about rushing to judgment when Muslims are accused of being terrorists. This appears to be the case with the Arab Americans in Michigan and Ohio who were arrested with hundreds of disposable cell phones that authorities initially thought could be used as bomb detonators in terrorism attacks – rather than being terrorists, it’s likely that they were just buying cheap phones to resell. At least in once instance, even a conviction was a rush to judgment. In June 2003, three Detroit-area Muslims (all Moroccan immigrants) were convicted of being a terrorist sleeper cell, which was hailed by the administration. However, a year later, a U.S. federal judge threw out the convictions due to widespread prosecutorial misconduct. According to Judge Gerald Rosen, the Justice Department’s overzealousness to obtain a conviction “overcame not only its professional judgment, but its broader obligations to the justice system and the rule of law.” In fact, the Justice Department admitted, “In its best light, the record would show that the prosecution committed a pattern of mistakes and oversights that deprived the defendants of discoverable evidence (including impeachment material) and created a record filled with misleading inferences that such material did not exist.” In a retrial, the worst the suspects may be guilty of is document fraud.

Finally, we can’t ignore how U.S. foreign policy can contribute to domestic Muslim radicalization. Part of the genius, if you will, of bin Laden has been his ability to find some core issues that many Muslims can agree with him about in principle, even if they do not condone the killing of innocent people. This explains why many American Muslims identify with and are sympathetic to bin Laden’s grievance regarding U.S. support for authoritarian and oppressive regimes in the Muslim world – in no small part because many left those countries to build a better life for themselves and their children in the United States. But the more American foreign policy and actions look like the United States has embarked on a war against Islam instead of targeting the terrorists who attacked America on 9/11, how long can American Muslims be expected not to defend their religion and cultural roots? The carte blanche support by the Bush administration for Israeli military action in Lebanon – seen as coming at the expense of innocent Lebanese civilians, many of them Muslims – is one such action.

We are fortunate that British authorities were able to stop this most recent plot before it materialized into an actual attack. But there are as many as 25 more plots that still being investigated, which only underscores the imperative of understanding the roots of Muslim rage – including U.S. foreign policy and the Iraq war. If we don’t, we will be like the Little Dutch Boy trying to plug all the holes in the dike and eventually run out of fingers.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.