The Department of Homeland Security is increasing security at airports in the Unites States and at select airports around the world that have direct flights to the U.S. Why is Washington so concerned?
First, al-Qaeda affiliates have a particular fetish for blowing up airplanes. Second, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has a highly talented bomb maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri. Third, the intensifying chaos in Iraq and Syria provides fertile ground from which to launch a terrorist attack by way of airplanes and bombs.
According to the BBC, intelligence services are especially worried that the Al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate) may have linked up with al-Asiri to build an undetectable bomb specifically designed for use against a Western airliner. The other possibility, as reported by NBC News, is that al-Asiri may have sworn allegiance to ISIS. It’s probably one or the other: Al-Nusra and ISIS are at war with each other. Whichever is the case, there’s a good reason why al-Asiri is at the top of the U.S. strike list: He’s extremely dangerous. And with Salafi Jihadists holding power across vast swaths of Syria and Iraq, American officials fear that al-Asiri’s constantly evolving product line could find new avenues of delivery.
As I argued before the current Iraq crisis began, ISIS poses an especially severe threat. In its ranks are hundreds of fighters who hold European passports. All this means that ISIS has the access, skills, and strategic direction to cause havoc. Ultimately, counterterrorism is a game of probabilities. EU passports, less-detectable bombs, and terrorists who understand operational security tilt the odds against the West. Still, this doesn’t explain why the U.S. government seems more concerned than its British counterpart.
To answer that question, we need to consider the different approaches to counterterrorism in the two countries. While the U.S. “special relationship” with Britain is characterized by cooperation on intelligence matters, the countries diverge when it comes to network penetration, interdiction, and monitoring. One major difference is the role of political leadership in designing counterterrorism tactics. UK officials largely trust their intelligence community — forged in a long and brutal struggle against the IRA — to make the tough operational calls. The UK Security Service, commonly known as MI5, is today renowned in security circles for its covert monitoring of many very dangerous individuals (too many, in fact). In contrast, the Department of Homeland Security is renowned for being a bureaucratic mess. It fears political backlash if it fails to respond to specific threats in overt, tangible ways, and this fear can outweigh the need for patient, durable intelligence operations. Another consequence of this political discomfort is DHS’s troubling habit of leaking specific tactical-intelligence information to politicians — who then leak it to the press. This isn’t so much a failure of DHS leadership as it is the wholesale failure of DHS as an institution. It’s designed to tick a box, not confront capable adversaries. Unfortunately, while the counterterrorism officers, agents, and analysts of the FBI and CIA are astute, talented, and relentless, DHS hampers rather than helps them.
Given the cultural divide over how best to conduct intelligence, the British government is probably upset about the media frenzy that DHS has recently set off by issuing airport alerts. British officials will worry that instead of deterring any planned attack, the released details will help al-Asiri and other jihadists adapt their tradecraft to find new cracks. This is the greatest challenge of domestic post-9/11 counterterrorism. The American public expects to be fully informed, but they aren’t the only ones watching — and learning.