‘We need to bring him to justice as soon as we can.” In a Fox News interview Sunday, that was John Brennan, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, talking about Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. He is the chief explosives designer for Osama bin Laden’s franchise in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Late last week, AQAP was foiled in what intelligence services theorize is the third attempt to bomb American targets in the last year. The incident is unlikely to have much impact on Tuesday’s U.S. elections, which are dominated by economic concerns. Still, Mr. Brennan’s comment seemed strangely political, a marker put down in a debate sure to intensify over the next two years — between President Obama and his Republican rivals, and between administration officials themselves.
No doubt we’d all like to see “justice” for al-Asiri. We just have very different ideas about what is just. When Obama officials speak of “bringing terrorists to justice,” they mean prosecuting them in civilian trials. So oriented is Brennan toward this line of thinking that he earned some unwelcome notoriety a few months back for favorably comparing the recidivism rate of released enemy combatants to that of felons sprung from American prisons — as if the 20 percent clip he optimistically pegs for terrorists returning to the jihad (i.e., one in five go back to mass-murdering Americans) were something to crow about.
To the contrary, for those of us inclined to view al-Qaeda as an enemy rather than a cabal of defendants, justice is best achieved with Predator drones. Missile strikes better reflect due process — the process that is due — for jihadists who target civilians in wartime.
Quite clearly, killing civilians is still al-Qaeda’s modus operandi. Last week’s operation involved two bombs secreted in packages sent from Yemen via air courier. One traveled on civilian passenger flights to Qatar and then on to the United Arab Emirates. That means it was missed by screening procedures, such as they are, in Sanaa and Doha. Though the suspect package was finally discovered in the Dubai, screening technology did not catch it there, either. The plot was thwarted by human intelligence.
We know that because of the other bomb package, which was routed through Europe. German officials say they were tipped by Saudi intelligence, whose informant reported that two bombs were being sent to the United States from Yemen. One, the Germans realized, had already come to and gone from Cologne by the time they figured out what happened. But agents were able to alert their counterparts in England that the package was headed their way aboard a UPS plane. The Brits were thus able to seize the explosive at the East Midlands airport (near Leicester). The UAE authorities grabbed the other device at a FedEx packaging center.
Both bombs featured the explosive known as PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate). More is publicly known about the device seized in the UAE. Ostensibly, it was an ordinary Hewlett-Packard printer, but PETN was secreted in the toner cartridge. It was designed to be triggered by a cell phone. But the phone component did not include a SIM card. That indicates the bombers were relying on the cell phone’s internal clock — i.e., the bomb rigged to be detonated by a timer alarm rather than a phone call.
This raises a nagging question for investigators. Much has been made of the fact that the packages were addressed to Jewish targets in Chicago, including a synagogue that serves a gay-and-lesbian congregation, the website for which received some unexplained heavy traffic from Egypt recently. Yet, if the bombs were not to be set off by phone calls once they got to their intended targets, the significance of those targets diminishes. The use of timers makes it probable that the devices were intended for detonation while on the planes en route from Yemen. British intelligence is said to be leaning toward that theory. On Sunday, Mr. Brennan indicated that he was inclined to agree.
In either event, al-Qaeda was again using airplanes to kill civilians. And PETN has become something of a signature for AQAP and al-Asiri. It was used when they trained Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in Yemen and then tasked him to bomb a plane over Detroit on Christmas. In addition, at the Washington Times, Bill Gertz and Eli Lake have raised a very interesting possibility: Intelligence officials now believe AQAP was probably behind the downing of another UPS cargo plane — one that crashed in Dubai on September 3, killing two crew members. A PETN bomb in the cargo bay rather than an accidental on-board fire was the likely cause.
AQAP also used PETN in an August 2009 suicide bombing. The target was Mohamed bin Nayaf, the top Saudi counterterrorism minister. At the time of the unsuccessful assassination attempt, the kingdom’s interior ministry had just begun a crackdown on al-Qaeda — arresting dozens of suspected terrorists and raiding their hideouts.
The use of PETN is alarming, and not just because it ties a string of attacks to a very determined, elusive enemy. PETN also combines high explosive intensity with low detection potential. It has repeatedly defeated multi-billion-dollar screening systems and other anti-terror redundancies. Until now, attacks have failed, barely, thanks to good fortune and terrorists’ incompetence. While this most recent attack was stopped, the invaluable intelligence responsible for that was, notably, the old-fashion kind: human beings with inside information who alert agencies about ongoing plots and, perhaps, enable them to target electronic eavesdropping more precisely.
This is why official commentary about “bringing terrorists to justice” is counterproductive. Some terrorists may be captured under circumstances in which trying them in court makes sense — particularly if they are part of U.S.-based jihadist conspiracies catalyzed by Islamist ideology. Because most such groups lack ties (beyond like-mindedness) to al-Qaeda, they can be prosecuted without disclosing intelligence about al-Qaeda. But when it comes to the terror network with which the nation remains at war — pursuant to Congress’s authorization of military force — the specter of trials can only discourage cooperation from the foreign intelligence services.
The latest plots against America and the West reaffirm that the threat to our security comes mostly from places — Yemen, northwest Pakistan, Somalia — where U.S. intelligence capabilities are paltry. We are deeply dependent on foreign services. Those services know full well that our civilian due-process rules make it very tough to conceal intelligence methods and sources. Our allies will be less apt to tell us secrets if they fear we cannot keep secrets.
The more savvy Obama officials know that. They also know that the history of bringing Yemen-based terrorists to justice is not a happy one. For example, Jamal al-Badawi, the brains behind the October 2000 U.S.S. Cole bombing that killed 17 U.S. sailors, is at large now — after multiple “escapes” from Yemeni custody, the last one occurring after that government purported to sentence him to death. Yemen refused to transfer him and his confederates to the United States for trial.
And wouldn’t you know it: The lone suspect thus far detained by President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s hapless regime in connection with last week’s bombing attempts has also been released. No sooner had Yemeni authorities picked up engineering student Hanan al-Samawi, whose phone number appeared on a bomb package, than they decided some unknown person must have purloined her identity. Don’t hold your breath waiting for Yemen to crack the case. Like most of our “allies” in that part of the world, Yemen has a rabidly anti-American population, and its tottering government walks a tightrope between losing lavish American aid and being overthrown for seeming too cozy with Americans.
Thus the most interesting of the weekend’s developments: President Obama may be leaning toward extending his Pakistan strategy to Yemen. That would mean covert operations designed to kill AQAP operatives, directed by the CIA and the White House, not the Pentagon and the Justice Department.
This would be good politics. It would enable the president to show anti-terror toughness, putting distance between him and his hard-Left supporters, who prefer indictments to drones. It might also remind voters that he has kept his promise to attack terror sanctuaries in Muslim countries with which the U.S. is formally at peace — a promise over which Sen. John McCain ridiculed him for showing insufficient deference to the sovereignty of fabulous allies like Pakistan, which cashes American checks while safeguarding Taliban chieftains.
Far more important, though, a covert-ops campaign could effectively address a militant threat, without trials and without enmeshing the United States in yet another thankless, ruinously expensive nation-building project in a hostile Islamic basket case where Iran is making mischief.
In bringing that kind of justice, Obama would find plenty of Republican support. Terrorists on the wrong end of a missile tend not to return to the jihad.
– Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.