Are More Underwear Bomb Plots in Progress?

by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

Yesterday’s news that the CIA had recently thwarted a plot to destroy a plane bound for the U.S. using explosives concealed in the bomber’s underpants has been followed by the alarming news that more bombers may be out there. As ABC News reports, U.S. and European officials have said “that even though an al-Qaeda bomber was stopped before he could board a plane for the U.S., the threat is far from over– there are believed to be several other would-be bombers with similar non-metallic devices that could get through most airport security screening.” Does this mean officials think that, more likely than not, there are more plotters who may try to board planes soon?

There is often a “fog of war” effect immediately following the disruption of a terrorist plot, with information in news reports that is either imprecise or even inaccurate as multiple media outlets chase a story. Further, sometimes a source’s comments do not translate well when thrust into the public sphere.

So what is happening? When there is a claim such as this, that “there are believed to be several other would-be bombers,” the first question one must ask is: Who is the likely originating source of that information? In some cases, as in the October 2010 Mumbai-style urban warfare attacks planned for Europe, there legitimately were multiple plotters in several locations. In other cases, as with the phantom plot that made headlines around the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the warnings of a larger plot have proved false.

Here, though we don’t know for sure, the would-be suicide bomber who was dispatched from Yemen appears to be the likely source of warnings about more plotters. U.S. officials have confirmed that “he is alive,” but are not specifying “whether he was in foreign custody.” The fact that the plotter is alive strongly suggests that he has, in some capacity, spoken with authorities.

Since this information likely came from a jihadi source, it is instructive to turn to a recent time of high alert, the aforementioned phantom plot on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. At that time, U.S. officials, based on the interrogation of a jihadi figure, spoke of “specific, credible but unconfirmed” information on a threat against the U.S.

Breaking those terms down, the figure provided specific details about an alleged plot in progress, and he was assessed by his interlocutors to have credibility. That is, they believed there was a significant chance that he was telling the truth. However, when officials said the information was unconfirmed, they meant that they lacked external information verifying the source’s claims.

#more#In this instance, a DHS official has told the New York Times that the Department has “no specific, credible information regarding an active terrorist plot against the U.S. at this time.” So how should we interpret ABC’s claim to the contrary? There are four possibilities. One is that the ABC source is telling the truth, and there are other bombers out there now, preparing to strike. A second possibility is that the source is lying — attempting to game the system by scaring Americans and making the U.S. waste resources by chasing a phantom threat. A third possibility is that there may have been other bombers who were called off when the first capture occurred. And a fourth possibility is that the source believes he is telling the truth because he has been told that there are other plotters, when in fact these other plotters do not exist.

There are a couple of reasons that terrorist leaders might falsely tell an operative about other plotters. They may have wanted him to believe that he was part of something larger than he really was, a multi-pronged strike against the enemy. Alternatively, they may have told him lies to make him utterly sincere when, if he is captured, his warnings of more plotters force the enemy to expend unnecessary resources.

Which of these four possibilities is likeliest? The bottom line is that we don’t know. We can say, though, that ABC’s statement appears to be too strong. When the news outlet says “there are believed to be several other would-be bombers,” readers understandably think that means that other bombers are more likely than not out there. But when we assess the likely source of this information, it is difficult to say that this is the case.

From the perspective of U.S. officials, information about further plots has to be taken seriously. They lack the option of simply deciding to sit a certain threat out because their gut tells them that it isn’t real. And that may (or may not) have been what the officials who spoke to ABC News were communicating: that they were reacting on the assumption that more bombers were out there, because they had to take the threat seriously. But if this is the case, something was lost in translation.

Again, the fog-of-war effect always accompanies breaking news about terrorist plots: The news cycle simply encourages it. There may be further information that we lack access to that makes it even more likely that there are additional plotters. But part of building a stronger public sphere on these issues is promoting conversations where people are better able to interpret and contextualize what is happening. This article is thus meant to illuminate the claim that “there are believed to be several other would-be bombers,” and help readers to understand the actual possibilities.

But while ABC News’s claim seems overstated in the near term, in the longer term the news outlet is almost certainly right. This will not be the last bomb plot we see emanating from Yemen.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a lecturer in world politics at the Catholic University of America. He is the author of several books and monographs, most recently Bin Laden’s Legacy(Wiley, 2011).