New York Times columnist David Brooks talks with Diane about what he sees happening inside Washington and around the country and why he thinks President Trump represents the wrong answer to the right question.
Foiled mail bombing plots to the U.S. by extremists in Yemen has added urgency to an Obama administration review of expanded military options in that country, including increased covert operations. Diane and her guests discuss the implications of new terrorist threats from al Qaeda in Yemen.
- Christopher Preble director of foreign policy studies, the Cato Institute; co-editor of "Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It."
- Scott Shane reporter, The New York Times
- Juan Zarate a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a senior national security analyst at CBS News; former Deputy National Security Adviser for Combating Terrorism under the G.W. Bush Administration.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The U.S. has limited options to increase pressure on Islamic militancy in Yemen after a failed package bomb plot. Yemen's weak central government faces huge economic problems. And anti-American sentiment complicates its partnership with Washington. Joining me to talk about the challenges and opportunities for fighting terrorism in Yemen, Juan Zarate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute and Scott Shane with The New York Times. Do join us. I do invite your questions and comments, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you.
MR. JUAN ZARATEGood morning.
MR. CHRISTOPHER PREBLEGood morning.
MR. SCOTT SHANEGood morning, Diane.
REHMScott Shane, how much do we actually know about this particular foiled plot?
SHANEWe don't know exactly who actually sent off these package bombs. But, you know, intelligence officials are fairly confident that it's the al-Qaida branch in Yemen called Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. And we know that what someone did was put quite a bit of PETN, which is an explosive, into toner cartridges of the kind that people -- anyone who works in an office has probably changed and those who are inside Hewlett-Packard printers. And they sent them off, one through FedEx and one through UPS, United Parcel Service, from Sana'a, the capital of Yemen.
SHANEAnd they addressed them to a -- what turned out to be kind of peculiar addresses in Chicago. We're told yesterday that the addresses are outdated addresses -- former addresses for Jewish institutions in Chicago. But instead of naming the institutions, they -- the person who addressed the packages put in the name of historical figures from the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition.
REHMHmm. How would we have found out about this had it not been for the Saudis and apparently or maybe not this former Guantanamo detainee?
SHANEWell, there's no question -- according to everybody in the United States government -- that the Saudis' help was critical. The Saudi counterterrorism chief, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, on Thursday night, called John Brennan, President Obama's counterterrorism advisor, and alerted him to the general nature of this plot. And later the Saudis were told -- were actually able to provide the tracking numbers of the -- these packages. Again, anyone who sent something by FedEx or UPS knows you can go on the Web and sort of track these things and find out where they are at any given time.
SHANESo they were able to intercept the packages, one in Dubai and one near Nottingham, England. If we hadn't had the help of the Saudis, there's certainly the possibility that we would have found out if in fact they exploded, as intelligence officials think was intended, in midair and blew up these planes.
REHMOkay. Now, here's what I don't quite understand. If the Saudis could find this out, how come we didn't?
SHANEWell, there's a couple of possible answers. We don't know for sure. But the Saudis had picked up, in September, a man named Faifi -- Al-Faifi, who had spent time in Guantanamo, had been released in 2008, had joined Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and then in September had turned himself in to Saudi authorities. So there is some possibility that he alerted the Saudi's to the idea that AQAP, as they call it, was looking into the idea of putting a package on a cargo plane. However, the timing -- since he had turned himself into the Saudis in early September -- it's clear he couldn't have had the details on when the packages were mailed or what the tracking numbers were.
SHANEThe other point to make is that the Saudis who, themselves, had a big problem with al-Qaida back in 2003 in a series of attacks, sort of stepped up their counterterrorism efforts dramatically, stepped up their cooperation with the United States. And since last year, when the -- this organization, AQAP, formally founded -- was founded, many of its leaders are Saudi. And one of its goals is to topple the Saudi monarchies. So the Saudis have paid a great deal of attention to this group, including a lot of eavesdropping, a lot of infiltration, that kind of thing.
REHMScott Shane, he's a reporter for The New York Times. Turning to you, Juan Zarate, what are more investigating -- investigations hoping to find in Yemen?
ZARATEI think, Diane, first and foremost, investigators and forensic experts are going to want to confirm both the origins of the devices, who made it -- the suspicions now are that al-Ansari, the Saudi member of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, who is a technical bomb expert, has been behind, we think, the Dec. 25th failed Detroit airliner attack, as well as the cavity bomb that was the attempted assassination of the Saudi counterterrorism chief, Mohammed bin Nayef. Authorities think that he is behind this, and I think what they will do is continue to look at the forensics. And I think early conclusions are that these bombs, these packages marked the hallmarks of his trade craft. The challenge is he likely has a small cadre of technicians working around him, trying to create creative devices that can evade screening mechanisms -- X-rays, et cetera -- that they know are applied to civilian aircraft and to cargo aircraft.
ZARATEIn addition, I think what you'll see is a massive attempt to disrupt the existing Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula infrastructure. This is a group of 400 to 600 fighters, made up largely of Saudi Yemenis, but also some Western recruits. Two Americans, now well-known, I think, to most listeners, Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric, who has served as inspiration for the group, as well as a guy named Samir Khan, who lived in New York and North Carolina, who has been behind this Inspire online magazine that al-Qaida has produced out of Yemen. And so this is a lethal group, and I think what authorities are going to be doing is not only trying to figure out the forensics and the nuts and bolts of this particular case, but trying to do everything possible to disrupt and quarantine what's coming out of Yemen.
REHMJuan Zarate, he is senior advisor with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is senior national security analyst at CBS News. And turning to you, Chris Preble, how much of an immediate threat to the U.S. is this group now?
PREBLEWell, I think that the names that both Scott and Juan mentioned, you know, they have -- these names have been in the news for some time. They're also linked to Major Hasan Nidal, the Fort Hood shooter. They are linked to Abdulmutallab, the -- as I'd like to call him the underwear bomber -- the Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit, but also to Faisal Shahzad, the New York -- the, you know, the aspiring Times Square bomber, all link to al-Awlaki.
PREBLEHis name has come up over and over again. And so I think you have to count him as, you know, one of United States' key targets. But having said that, there are a number of other places around the world where U.S. counterterrorism officials are focused, and not just in failed or failing states like Yemen or Somalia or Afghanistan, but also some perfectly healthy states. And that continues to be a very broad-based effort.
REHMWell, now, the question arises, could there be more potentially lethal bombs out there even as we speak, Juan?
ZARATEI think so and that's, I think, something authorities are worried about. It's why you've seen the advisories out to local law enforcement, to emergency personnel, to be on the lookout for suspicious packages. It's why you've seen additional screening mechanisms put in place, not just by the U.S. -- for example, sending out TSA experts to Yemen to increase screening command of Yemen -- but also you've seen out of Germany and the United Kingdom additional measures put in place. And in addition, FedEx and UPS, putting in place their own additional measures, in fact, stopping shipments coming out of Yemen.
ZARATEAnd so there is a deep concern that this is a methodology that this group wants to use, in part because in the best-case scenario, it blows up a civilian aircraft. In the worst-case scenario for them, it is disruptive and causes a lot of chaos here. And I think that's the great strategic advantage for them. They've now understood that disruption vice destruction can be an effective strategy.
SHANEYes. I mean, one of the things that we learned last night, courtesy of ABC News, about this is that in mid-September, American intelligence agencies discovered a number of packages of household items -- it was CDs and books and papers and things -- that were shipped from Yemen to apparently random or nonexistent addresses in Chicago. And they managed to -- it was quite interesting that they actually picked up on this. Apparently, the sender must have been under some kind of surveillance, and they somehow linked this to the al-Qaida group in Yemen.
SHANEAnd they intercepted the packages, inspected them, found no explosives and allowed them to proceed. But only in retrospect, I think, have officials concluded that this was an attempt to study the air cargo system to understand, if you send something from Yemen to Chicago, what's the route? And when would the plane be in the air over a city, for example, such as Chicago? Because the devices -- these toner cartridges stuffed with explosive -- had cell phone parts but was not meant to be detonated by a call to the cell phone. It was just used as a timer, and the timers could have been set to blow up the planes over a city.
REHMScott Shane, he is a reporter for The New York Times. We'll take a short break now. When we come back, we'll talk about cargo and passenger safety.
REHMWelcome back. Three guests are here in the studio with me, Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. He's co-editor of "Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix It." Scott Shane is a reporter for The New York Times. Juan Zarate is senior advisor with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, senior national security analyst at CBS News. And to you, Chris Preble, how in the world are we going to examine all the cargo coming into this country?
PREBLEWell, I suppose if we conscripted a few hundred thousand American citizens to do this by hand, or even if they had some pretty sophisticated technology, or if cost was no object and our standard was 100 percent success, then I presume that we could do it. We would also slow down the flow of cargo quite considerably and, again, incur enormous costs. It really comes down to what is our standard, how high a standard. Do we expect to have 100 percent success? As both guests have already noted, even failures precipitate a reaction that is extraordinarily costly and disruptive. And Juan even used the word chaos, which I think is correct, at least in the short term. So I really think it comes down to a candid discussion about how much we are willing to spend and what we are willing to give up in exchange for a level of safety and security higher than what we have right now, which...
PREBLE...which is -- right. Well, our level of safety and security that we have here in the United States right now, thankfully, is no major attack since 9/11. I think that's a good thing. It's not a lucky thing. It is a combination of hard work and timely intelligence and cooperation with others -- which we've talked about in this case already -- but also some good luck, in that a number of our adversaries who have attempted some of the more recent attacks have been really quite inept. And I think we have to focus on that also.
REHMThis last attempt did not seem inadept, Juan.
ZARATEWell, it shows clearly that the enemy -- at least in Yemen -- is adapting. They're trying to find the soft underbelly in our system. In some ways they found it with the cargo screening because I think -- Chris is absolutely right. This is, you know, incredibly difficult. There's a mandate for 100 percent screening of cargo on civilian aircraft. That is largely in place for domestic aircraft, but the lynchpin here is overseas screening. And that really is the weak link in the chain because you can have all the procedures you want in the United States.
ZARATEThe problem is you have to contend with packages and people coming in from all parts of the world, meeting through chokepoints and then heading to the United States. And I think that's difficult. I also want to point out, Diane, there's a difference between screening, which is often the use of technology -- X-rays, et cetera -- and actual physical inspection. And one could imagine, as Chris mentioned, if you have no tolerance for any risk at all, this would mean physical inspection of each and every package that heads its way into the United States.
ZARATEThat's almost impossible. That's impossible.
REHMBecause what you're saying is nothing would have shown out of the ordinary in ordinary screening, in this case.
ZARATEI think that's likely the case here. I think they devised these bombs in a way that really hid the components, hid it in a way that allowed it to evade the baseline screening that occurs. And it actually took a couple of sort of rounds of tests for authorities, both in the U.K. and in Dubai, to actually figure out what they had in our hands, which was a lethal device set to go off perhaps with a timer.
PREBLEIf I can jump in, there is one way, especially in the short term, which has already been implemented, to ensure there is no repeat of this particular attack. And that is to shut down all cargo from Yemen, which the European officials have already done. The Brits have added to that a shutdown of all cargo from Somalia. And the Germans have prohibited travel, as well as cargo, from Yemen. So, again, you can do that for a period of time. And maybe many Americans, frankly, don't care. But I think, over time, that kind of isolation and protectionism and other -- you know, protectionism in a different context really has unfortunate side effects. No wonder that we have such a, you know, enormous tide of anti-Americanism in Yemen and throughout the entire region.
SHANEWell, a couple of points about what this case shows. It was certainly, in a way, a clever scheme that had very low risk and very low cost for al-Qaida and potentially would have made a splash, and indeed did make a splash, even though the bombs didn't explode. One thing that's interesting that when we call a guy like Ibrahim al-Asiri, the bomb-maker -- the suspected bomb-maker in this case, he's been associated with the Christmas bomb with this case and with the attempted assassination of a Saudi counterterrorism chief. The only person he's actually managed to kill so far with these bombs is his own brother, who he sent as a suicide bomber against the Saudi prince.
SHANEThe other point to make is that, you know, remember after 9/11, what we were really concerned about was mass casualties, WMD, the notion that al-Qaida, if they got a hold of a nuclear weapon, would not hesitate to explode it in an American city and so on. I mean, these are very worrisome attacks. They're diabolically clever in a way, this particular plot with the air cargo. But we're talking about some, you know, bombs that, at most, would have killed a handful of people. So you do wonder about our perception of risk in this country. We tolerate, you know, 15,000 homicides a year. I don't know what it is, about 30,000 deaths on the road. And we in the media and the government is, you know, sort of working 24 hours a day now on this possible death of, you know, a handful of people aboard air cargo planes.
REHMMy concern is that we are playing catch-up in each and every single one of these cases. We seem to come to the party of knowledge a little too late in terms of preventing things from happening in the first place. How long -- how can it be that with all the money we spend with the CIA, for military operations, for special ops, how can it be that these guys are still sort of one step ahead of us? Juan.
ZARATEWell, they're -- they exist in an environment in Yemen that provides sort of an ideal safe haven, a bit like Afghanistan and Western Pakistan. This is a tribal society with a government that is very weak, doesn't rule outside of Sana'a and Aden -- hardly the mountainous desert territory, you know, the ancestral home of Bin Laden's father. So this is an ideal territory. And al-Qaida has existed there for, now, almost 20 years. And so I don't think anyone is caught by surprise that there's an al-Qaida presence there. And in fact, there was huge concern. When I was in the White House in February of 2006, when 23 al-Qaida members, including a current leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, escaped out of Yemeni prison -- and it was both that and Saudi pressure on the al-Qaida infrastructure in Saudi Arabia that led to the ultimate formation of this group.
ZARATEBut I would say you have an environment that is conducive, actually, to a terrorist group to operate. And the one thing I would say to Scott's point and Chris' as well, you know, we do have to be conscious of the fact that we've thwarted numerous attacks over the years. This, in some ways, is a success for us. The intelligence relationships we've built with the Saudis, the Emiratis and others in the region -- a huge success here. And the fact that they're having to devise very creative things to evade scrutiny is, in some ways, a reflection of the fact that the screen mechanisms and the defenses that we've built have actually raised the bar for success on their part. And so, you know, these are very troubling developments. There's no question that we have to attend to them. But I also think, as the other guests have said, we shouldn't be too much Chicken Little on this, though.
REHMHere's an e-mail. Someone is asking, "Where is the explosives that was meant -- that was used, manufactured, and how easy is it obtainable in Yemen? Do we know?"
ZARATEI'm not sure if we know the origins of the PETN that was used. But Yemen, unfortunately, is known as an arms warehouse for the world. And so, you know, any militant group can find just about anything they need in terms of explosives or firearms. It's been one of the huge concerns in Yemen. And, of course, you know, President Saleh and the Yemenis are dancing in a snake pit. They're really dealing with not just this al-Qaida problem but the Houthi rebellion in the north, the secessionists in the South, and so you've got armed militants as part of a -- sort of a cultural norm roaming around in Yemen that presents all sorts of problems for security officials.
REHMHere's another question from Marius (sp?) who says, "Exactly how were these packages discovered?" No one has talked about this. Scott.
SHANEWell, we don't know every detail, but as I mentioned, the -- we believe that the intelligence came to the United States from the Saudis. And the Saudis were actually able to come out with tracking numbers for these particular packages. And at that point, it was possible to locate them, one in a FedEx facility in Dubai, the other aboard a UPS plane in England. And, you know, they went aboard and took these packages off and began to examine them.
REHMChris, when we talked about examination of cargo, to what extent do you believe the U.S. is willing to go to prevent that kind of dangerous cargo from getting through?
PREBLEWell, I think it's a very different question about where I think we should be willing to go and where we actually might be willing to go politically. I think that, politically, it is hard to fix costs for attacks that are foiled. And it's hard to assign kind of a cost-benefit analysis to the various different measures that we take that may or may not have been instrumental in thwarting all of the attacks that we've been talking about for the last few minutes. I think there is a real problem with a kind of searching for a needle in a haystack thing. I think we should not look past the fact that the reason why we're able to locate these packages where we did was because we had the tracking numbers. Those tracking numbers were given to us by good intelligence by a sometime ally -- a troublesome ally -- but in this particular case, one that was extremely important.
PREBLEI don't think we should look at that as a failure. I think we should look at that as we have a multilayered security system, and intelligence is a key component of that. It's not just screening everything. It's about targeted screening of suspected packages according to, you know, all the things we've been talking about here. I think if you started talking about blanket screening, then the costs become really prohibitive. And it's not just the dollar cost. It's also extremely disruptive in terms of a global logistics chain which depends upon things being delivered very, very quickly in most cases, in many cases.
REHMAnd so what we're going to continue to depend on is the willingness of our allies to come forward to give us a hand up. Is that your feeling, Juan?
ZARATEAbsolutely. And I think Yemen is the best example of that. I think the Saudi government has the deepest and most, sort of, sincere interests in seeing Yemen stabilize and making sure that al-Qaida doesn't have a foothold there. As was mentioned by Scott, the Saudis are target number one in many ways. We've seen the Saudi officials targeted, oil infrastructure targeted. Over the last few months, we've seen in Yemen not only police targeted but also foreign officials like the British ambassador. And so this is a group that can be targeted but has to be targeted with rings of interest, the Saudis first. And now you're going to start seeing the European step up. And I think that will be helpful in terms of how we screen cargo and how we screen people.
REHMJuan Zarate of CBS News. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. Let's go first to San Antonio, Texas. Good morning, Robert. Good morning, Robert. Are you there? I'm afraid not. Let's go now to Cincinnati, Ohio. Jim, are you there?
JIMI am here. Can you hear me?
REHMCertainly can. Go right ahead, sir.
JIMFirst, you got a great show, Diane. I appreciate it.
JIMMy question would be for your guests and really for FedEx. It doesn't seem like it would be that difficult to do a verification procedure where you just simply add one layer that you have to have a phone number to the recipient and a verification that the recipient on the U.S. end is expecting the package. And then it seems like -- I mean, there can't be -- I can't imagine more than a few hundred packages coming from Yemen everyday to the U.S.
REHMWould that do it?
ZARATEWell, I think that's one step that could do it. I think what the shipper is going to look at are looking at these areas of the world, and particularly Yemen, Somalia, parts of the Maghreb, where you have an al-Qaida presence and trying to put then in place additional screening mechanisms. And I think a verification procedure may work in Yemen, and I agree. I don't think we've got huge volumes coming out of Yemen. I think we'd be in a very different place if this was coming out of France, for example, and the volume was much higher and much more complicated to deal with screening.
REHMBobby in Dallas wonders whether anyone was tortured in order to learn what we needed to know. Chris?
PREBLEWell, we've talked already about the Saudis and how seriously they take this threat. And we also know that the Saudis' techniques would not pass muster in a constitutional republic like the United States. They're actually quite proud of their counterterrorism efforts, their deradicalization program. The evidence suggests that it's not particularly coercive, and yet they are, you know, not a liberal democracy by any stretch of the term. So it wouldn't shock me if that was true, but we have no evidence in this particular case of that.
ZARATEI would just say, in terms of the Saudi rehabilitation program through which maybe we've gotten some of this information, that rehabilitation program has actually been criticized for being too soft for providing these ex-radicals with too much in terms of reintegration into Saudi society. They're often given homes, arranged marriages, a whole package of things to reintegrate these individuals into Saudi society. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. And in this case, you've got a little bit of a mixed bag. It didn't work at first. And then you had the individual, the rehabilitated individual, sort of brought back into the fold and perhaps provided some of the critical initial information.
PREBLEIf I can jump in on that, I had a good fortune to travel to Saudi, courtesy of actually one of Juan's colleagues at CSIS, Jon Alterman. And we visited the deradicalization program. They're very proud of it. They've...
SHANEDeradicalization program. It's -- again, it's sponsored by...
REHMSounds right out of Orwell.
PREBLEIndeed. And I think there has been a criticism of the program for being too soft in certain respects. And one other critical aspect, the Saudis are most concerned about the threat to radicalization to the regime, to their regime. And they draw a very clear distinction even about how they define what a radical is. And so by their definition, a radical is someone who is opposed to the regime in Saudi Arabia, not necessarily a radical who is prone to violence outside of the country. We would hope -- and there's some evidence of this -- that they would broaden their definition a little bit. At a minimum, there are overlapping areas here.
REHMChristopher Preble, he is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. Short break, and when we come back, more of your comments, your questions. Join us.
REHMOne of our listeners, Mathew in Richardson, Texas says, "Has anyone suggested just cutting off all shipments from Yemen and USA? That has been done by both the U.S. and Europe.
SHANEThat's right, Diane. The United States cut off shipments from Yemen immediately when this plot was discovered. There are no direct flights from Yemen into the United States anyway. So we -- so they're really talking about flights that -- or packages that originated in Yemen and passed through Europe on their way to U.S. And much of Europe has also, at least temporarily, halted shipments from Yemen.
REHMAnd Cathleen in Sterling, Va. wants to know why Yemen wants to depose the Saudi royalty. Is it because the U.S. supports the Saudi royalty that Yemen is after? Chris.
PREBLEThat's not accurate. There's no evidence the Yemeni government is opposed to the Saudis. In fact, they have a common enemy in the Houthis in the north -- we've talked about a little bit already. There are Yemenis who are opposed to the Saudi government just as there are Saudis who are opposed to the Saudi government. But in this particular case, the two governments appear to be working together.
REHMAll right. To Newport Township, Ill. Good morning, Jim.
JIMYes, good morning. Another one of the endless shows, it seems like, discussing the effect of this epic situation but not discussing the cause. I mean, it seems like, now, members of the -- this panel you've collected is hitting for the dark ages in the sense of legitimizing the use of torture. How would we like it if a Middle Eastern empire was occupying much of North America? Can we ever think about the causes, like the massive military presence of the United States in the Middle East, such as 14 military bases in Iraq alone?
SHANEWell, the caller raises a very interesting question and a very difficult one. And that is that many of the young men, for the most part, who have been radicalized, who turned up in these plots in recent years, believe that the West is at war with Islam or the United States is at war with Islam, with this religion. And because of the sort of aftermath of 9/11, unlike 10 years ago, they can point to the U.S. having large numbers of troops in Iraq, having a large numbers of troops in Afghanistan, carrying out a fairly intensive missile campaign in Pakistan, selective missile strikes in Yemen.
SHANEAnd so you can see how to -- obviously, I think most Americans would think it's a lot more complicated than a war with Islam. We're not really at war with Islam. We're not at war with Islam. We're at war with a terrorist group that many Americans would say has hijacked the religion of Islam. But you can see that to an impressionable young Muslim looking for a cause, this might be a radicalizing factor. And, I think, that's one reason, you know, that we've not attained that approach in Yemen. We haven't sent 100,000 troops to invade Yemen, which many experts on Yemen believed would just strengthen the ranks of al-Qaida there.
REHMAnd yet there are many who are calling for drone attacks against Yemen, much like the current drone attacks against Pakistan, Chris.
PREBLEWell, I think there is a very fine line between an occupation, which can be seen and cast as -- as Scott says -- as evidence of a U.S. war against Islam, which we certainly don't intend but is interpreted that way. But attacks from the air by drone attacks or other strikes can have a similar effect, at least in the short term, especially if civilians are killed in the process, which many times they are. On the other hand -- still, on the third hand, you know, there have been some key successes scored against al-Qaida using drone attacks including the -- you know, the killing of one of their senior officials in 2002. So...
REHMDo you think they'll be stepped up?
PREBLEI suspect that they will be. But I hope that that effort is in conjunction with good intelligence. And as always, a compelling narrative about who the real danger is here and why the risks within Yemen, to the government of Yemen, to the people in the region, is -- you know, is being brought down on them by this al-Qaida presence. And it's not just something the United States is going out and seeking. I think that's the key narrative that we need to be telling here.
ZARATEI think the caller raises a good point. And I think the narrative of al-Qaida has always been consistent, dating back to their declaration of war in the U.S. in '96 and again in '98. And again, their attack in Aden, in the port of Aden in Yemen in October 2000, well before we were in Afghanistan, well before we were in Iraq. This is a movement that has seen the conflict with the U.S. in sort of millennial terms and has wanted to (word?) movement, a global movement that attacks us. And I think the caller's right. We've got to be conscious of it, but we can't allow a heckler's veto based on how the enemy interprets our actions because they've used each and every excuse possible, whether it's U.S. support to Israel, U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, support to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt -- you name it. They've used the excuse to demonstrate that we are the head of the snake, and we need to be attacked.
REHMJacob has written, "I can't help wondering if the intent was to successfully explode the devices or to have them caught and create the confusion which will ensue. With the holiday coming up, I can see this creating lots of frustration and anxiety, the intent of terrorism after all." Scott.
SHANEWell, that's absolutely right. I mean, one of the things that's remarkable about the recent plots -- take the Christmas attempted bombing of the airline over Detroit. No one was harmed other than the bomber himself who burned himself. Take the Time Square car bomb in May. You know, a lot of people got a heck of a scare, but no one was harmed -- and, now, this. But each of those set off, you know, days or weeks of media coverage, of talk and of anxiety, and in some ways, you could say the -- you know, we're learning. And perhaps al-Qaida is learning that they don't always have to succeed to get our attention, to cause us to spend a lot of money, cause us to change our behavior and to cause us to worry.
ZARATEI think that's right. And I think with the presence of two Americans -- Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan -- in the group, they understand. And they've read and interpreted the reactions and overreactions in some instances to those prior plots, the failed plots. And I think at this point they've learned that you throw some spaghetti at the wall, try to inspire some people, try to throw some plots out there. And in this case, this plot is sort of the best of all worlds for them because, again, best-case scenario, the packages find their way into the belly of a civilian aircraft.
ZARATEAnd you've got a Lockerbie Pan Am 103-style attack on our hands. Worst-case scenario for them, it gets discovered, as it did in this case. People get scared. Synagogues in the U.S. get frightened. We have to worry about the supply chain, and there is a relative chaos. And so even in the utmost failure for them, they've achieved some degree of success. And I think that's unfortunately reflection of their ability to adapt to our reactions.
REHMTo Boca Raton, Fla. Good morning, Eric.
ERICHi, Diane. Happy Election Day to you and your panel.
ERICI want to ask you a quick question, which is kind of like the following up. I have a funny feeling that the true modus operandi is not to actually kill them, but to actually make us spend so much money, we kind of bankrupt ourselves.
PREBLEThat's a direct quote, actually, attributed to bin Laden, where he says, all we have to do is raise a flag on which is written al-Qaida, and they will run to the farthest point in the world and bleed themselves into bankruptcy. He obviously overstates our ability to bleed ourselves into bankruptcy. I don't think we're even that stupid. But it is true that the true cost of terrorism is our reaction to it. And there is a very fine line between complacency and overreaction. And I think in many of the cases we've talked about today, we can see evidence of some overreaction but also some techniques that have been targeted based on key intelligence, you know, useful information. There's a very big difference there than, again, a blanket screening of all packages or persons or shutting down the traffic from a particular place.
REHMThe CIA, Scott, wants to have more leeway to use special ops inside Yemen.
SHANEThere have been some press reports to that affect. But I think, in general, the U.S. has been very cautious about having Americans on the ground in Yemen for good reason because it's a conservative tribal country. And nothing gets people riled up more than, you know, foreigners running around with guns or just running around, you know, seeming to occupy or invade their country. So we've had a relatively small presence of special forces, folks who mostly do training for the Yemeni counterterrorism forces and select them with missile strikes.
REHMThat's how Vietnam started.
SHANEThat's exactly right.
SHANEBut I think with the -- with as many troops as we still have in Afghanistan and Iraq, we're not likely to turn Yemen into a Vietnam.
REHMBut, Juan, how active are these special forces in Yemen today?
ZARATEWell, I think what you've seen post-9/11 has been the counterterrorism community, the special forces community around the world actually trying to work with key partners. You've seen it in Southeast Asia. You've seen it in the Gulf. And I think Scott is right. The U.S. wants to keep its hand hidden here, doesn't want to be out in front. And this is a difficult balance for President Saleh and the Yemenis. They know they need U.S. support. They want it. They frequently ask for it. But they don't want it to be seen, and they don't want it to manifest. And I think that's part of it.
ZARATEThe other thing I would say, Diane, in terms of the thematics coming out of al-Qaida, certainly you've seen this bankrupting of the U.S. post-financial crisis being a central theme for al-Qaida, harkening back to the bankruptcy of the Soviet Union. The jihadists count themselves as responsible for the fall of that empire. They are banking on...
REHMThey and Ronald Reagan.
ZARATEWell, they don't -- they never give credit to the Americans for anything, whether it's the Kuwaitis, the Bosnians, what have you -- but in any event, that's a theme. But also you've seen a theme out of Somalia and Yemen of baiting of the United States, calling for the United States to come in more visibly because they think that will not only grandiose them, but fill their ranks even further.
REHMOur caller in Boca Raton pointed out that today is voting day. And I hope all of you and all those listening will get out there and vote. Is there any connection on the timing of this potential bomb threat to our elections? Chris.
PREBLEThere's speculation in every single election cycle that a terrorism plot that is discovered is connected to elections, and there's no correlation whatsoever. So it's a spurious correlation.
REHMThat we know of.
PREBLEI've heard people bring this up time and time again. I see no evidence to support that.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Ann Arbor, Mich. Good morning, Scott.
SCOTTHello. Is this -- are you talking to me?
REHMYeah, sure am.
SCOTTOkay. The reason I'm -- I called is it seems to me that I kind of agree with an earlier caller who said we're still skirting the primary issue in the whole, "war against terror." And that is, you know, I think -- and I'm an American and a Christian -- but when bin Laden said initially, you know, that he felt that we were being unfair in the Muslim world, I think he may have had a point. And the reason I say that is when you look today at the reports, you know, day after day is all collateral damage.
SCOTTThere were 20 civilians killed in Afghanistan, other town or something, and nobody bats an eye. And yet, you know, if a single American were killed in any terrorist, you know, operation, we would, you know, probably go to war or something like that. And it seems to me there's a double standard. There's just -- people do not equate -- they don't see any equality between American lives and foreign lives.
ZARATEWell, I think the caller has a good point. I mean, that's the thematic that al-Qaida has out there. And I think it's supported by things that are on the internet, images that they -- that everyone sees on Al Jazeera. And so the thematic is of an America that is at war with Islam, set to denigrate Muslims around the world. The physical presence of our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and other places sort of validates that view. The problem, though, is this is a moving target for the enemy because, as I said earlier, they use each and every excuse -- again, Chechnya, Israel, Sudan, whatever the topic du jour is -- including bin Laden has talked about global warming as a cause celebre.
ZARATEAnd the other problem for the enemy in al-Qaida is the fact that they've killed more Muslims post-9/11 in their terrorist attacks than non-Muslims. And so they've had a very difficult time explaining what their program is in the defense of Muslims if they're actually killing and slaughtering Muslims around the world.
REHMHere's an e-mail from Jerry in Dover, N.H., who says, "Perhaps the explosive in the printer was not detectable. However, the shipment itself would raise my suspicions. With how..." -- let's see -- "...expensive printers are in this country, why would anyone ship a printer from Yemen?" How to answer that question? Who knows?
SHANEWell, and, of course, you'd have to already assume that somebody is opening all the packages, looking at what's inside. I mean, you know, that's your physical inspection of all cargo plan that we talked about that's probably financially unrealistic.
REHMHere's an interesting one because it points to earlier possible shipments. Farley says, "How can sending a parcel to a fake address in the U.S. give the sender any idea where the plane carrying it will be at any particular time?" And that was said to have been perhaps some trial runs, Juan.
ZARATEYeah, I think there were some trial runs. And I also think authorities are still trying to figure it how the timing devices were supposed to work, given the variability of how the parcels might get to the United States. And I think that's one of the big questions. But it may be, again, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula throwing spaghetti at the wall. They're hopeful that it explodes in midair. If it explodes somewhere else, fine. If it doesn't do damage, it at least scares people.
REHMWhere do we go from here, Chris?
PREBLEI think the point that I try to emphasize, we emphasize in the book that -- is that terrorism is intending to terrorize. And the way that you reassure people is to stress our resilience as a society. That is so essential. These pathetic people -- which is what al-Qaida is -- cannot destroy our civilization unless we let them. And I think that's the message that the Obama administration needs to continue to preach.
REHMChristopher Preble, he's at the Cato Institute and author of "Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix It." Scott Shane is a reporter for The New York Times. Juan Zarate is at CSIS and CBS News. Scott Shane is with The New York Times. Thank you all so much. Thanks for listening, all. Please be sure and vote today. I'm Diane Rehm.
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