By all accounts, the work of federal investigators has been pretty effective in the wake of the discovery of the explosives-laden Nissan Pathfinder in New York’s Times Square on Saturday night, tracking and arresting suspect Faisal Shahzad within 53 hours of his having allegedly parked the truck. ABC also reports that the High-Value Interrogation Group, or HIG, is involved in the interrogation of Shahzad, and Attorney General Eric Holder said earlier that Shahzad has admitted his role in the failed plot.
But the fact still remains that we got lucky. As with the Christmas underwear bomber, the thing that averted a major terrorist atrocity was the incompetence of the terrorist himself. And Philip Shenon reports that the last-minute arrest of Shahzad — he was taken off a Dubai-bound plane that had already begun to pull away from the airport gate — “was carried out in large part in response to information from the Dubai-based airline, Emirates, which became suspicious after Shahzad’s contacts with the airline in the hours before he boarded the flight.”
A federal law-enforcement official in New York said he “took heart” at the fact that the car bombing was so badly bungled, leaving police in Manhattan with easy-to-follow clues to the identity of the bomber, including the intact Nissan Pathfinder abandoned in Times Square.
“If he got terrorist training, it was apparently pretty lousy training,” the official said.
Obviously, counting on the stupidity of terrorists is not a sufficient anti-terrorism policy, but of course there are a whole host of other tactics being used by the Obama administration to track and put pressure terrorist organizations, and I think it’s fair to assume that these tactics and policies bear some measure of credit for the poorer players that extremists have been able to field lately. By tightening border controls and working more closely with allied intelligence agencies to track extremists, the U.S. shrinks the pool of potential infiltrators, resulting in far slimmer pickings for terrorist commanders, forcing them to settle for some of the drawer’s duller knives. It also makes training those infiltrators far more complicated and costly, resulting in cut corners that in turn result in botched attacks.
Shrinking the pool of potential terrorists — both in terms of pressure applied via greater international intelligence cooperation and in avoiding needlessly belligerent approaches that alienate allies and radicalize enemies — has long been a key element in progressive anti-terrorism policy. I don’t think we know enough yet about Shahzad and those he worked with to start claiming any sort of policy victory, but it’s very much worth considering whether the more law enforcement-focused, less acting-like-a-jerk-to-the-world approach that Obama has brought to anti-terrorism is resulting in dumber, less effective terrorists.
It’s also important to understand — as many of our professional bedwetting hysterics refuse to — the difference between intent and capability. Whatever these self-styled holy warriors may say about their intentions against the United States, actually committing acts of terrorism is difficult. That’s not a reason for complacency, but it is one factor in the evolving terrorism landscape that receives relatively little attention.