News & Politics

Six Lessons from the London Airline Bombing Plot

The foiled bomb plot in the UK offers us and the Bush administration some pointers about the true nature of terrorism and its causes.

What we now know about the London-based plot to destroy ten civilian airplanes points to six conclusions. 

First, what stopped this plot was law enforcement.  Law enforcement.  Not a military invasion of Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, or Iraq.  Old-fashioned surveillance, development of human sources, putting pieces together, and cooperation with foreign police and intelligence services. 

Second, the conspiracy — if it resembles the London bombings of last summer — will likely be home-grown, another of the growing jihad "fashion" in Europe that comprises the new street gangs of this world.  It is not a religious movement, it is not fundamentalism. These are thin veneers. It is at root sheer violence undertaken by young men resentful of many things (not least the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Lebanon) and ready to kill in return.  Under different cirucmstances, it could be Tamils or Red Brigades or Michigan Militiamen, and has been. 

Third, if al Qaeda was involved (allegedly from Pakistan), we can thank the failure of the war in Afghanistan and the cozying up to Musharraf to destroy them. 

Fourth, there was no involvement by any American-based “cells,” according the FBI Director Robert Mueller.  As many of us have been saying for nearly five years, and as the 9/11 Commission Report showed, there is virtually no plausible American jihad organization at work, and never has been. 

Fifth, the plot again reveals how ill-equipped the U.S. Government has been in anticipating plausible attack scenarios and taking steps to prevent them.  Liquid bombs were so hard to figure out? Al Qaeda already tried it.  DHS has almost completely missed the threat, just as they are missing the vulnerability of cargo holds and God knows what else. Thomas Kean, the former GOP governor and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, called this liquid bomb error “appalling” and wondered, on an NBC program four months ago, why no progress had been made.  What are the tens of billions being spent on?  This is Katrina II.

Sixth, and most important, we must end our involvement in Iraq and sharply refocus our presence in the region.  The war president’s approach is not working.  It’s a diversion from the real threat.  It’s a spur to bitter revenge.  It’s a big feedback loop that will endanger us for years, if not decades.  Our lives are now at stake because the Bush catastrophe has created thousands of new terrorists. 

Naturally, the politically expedient are trying to gain an edge.  Defeated Senator Joseph Lieberman immediately attacked his victorious primary challenger Ned Lamont, saying that Lamont’s leave Iraq policy is somehow connected to this.  It’s the opposite — the war distracts and inflames.  We will see the crowing from the Bushies now, when in fact they were again asleep at the wheel, only this time the Brits saved the day.  The war enforcement contrast — remember how John Kerry was ridiculed by Cheney for uggesting that aggressive police work and human intelligence were anti-terror linchpins? — is now buried by conflating the “war against terror” in Iraq with this Scotland Yard and MI5 success.

Reversing America’s colossally destructive series of interventions in the Middle East — a cause, a trigger, a recruitment fountain, and a charity for jihad — will require an entirely different mindset, not just an adjustment or a measured retreat.  When America responded, after being prodded, to the tsunami victims in Indonesia early last year, it profoundly changed Indonesians’ views of the United States.  New attitudes of support and cooperation suddenly sprang forth.  This “natural experiment” should be examined to learn from, possibly to emulate, in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. 

We’re now viewed as destroyers, and destruction is the retort.  This is the “new Middle East” that is aborning — one of relentless violence — if we do not end our own relentless violence there.  The would-be bombers in London are a reminder of how close it is. 

John Tirman is Executive Director of MIT's Center for International Studies. His most recent book is 100 Ways America Is Screwing Up the World (Harper Perennial, 2006).
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