When I first heard about the Christmas airplane plot, my working assumption was that we should discount talk of a internationally orchestrated campaign. After all, as far as terrorist attacks go this was a pretty lame one. There was none of the redundancy, simultaneity, and good planning that were once the hallmark of al-Qaeda. But according to Eric Schmitt and Eric Lipton investigators are taking these claims seriously:
Federal authorities on Saturday charged a 23-year-old Nigerian man with trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, and officials said the suspect told them he had obtained explosive chemicals and a syringe that were sewn into his underwear from a bomb expert in Yemen associated with Al Qaeda.
The authorities have not independently corroborated the Yemen connection claimed by the man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was burned in his failed attempt to bring down the airliner and is in a hospital in Michigan. But a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation said on Saturday that the suspect’s account was “plausible,” and that he saw “no reason to discount it.”
As Spencer Ackerman pointed out yesterday if this is what an international al-Qaeda conspiracy looks like these days, then we’ve made a lot of progress:
Abdulmutallab acted alone. There can be little doubt the operation was intended to go off on Christmas, for the obvious symbolism, so we would have seen evidence of a coordinated attack by now. The inescapable if preliminary conclusion: al-Qaeda can’t get enough dudes to join Abdulmutallab. And what does it give the guy to set off his big-boom? A device that’s “more incendiary than explosive,” in the words of some anonymous Department of Homeland Security official to the Times.
The bad sign here is the emergence of Yemen as a potential trouble spot. This is something the government has been aware of for some time. But I think it underscores the difficulty of ever truly succeeding at eliminating “safe havens” all the world ’round. You could imagine a sort of whack-a-mole situation developing, since no matter what results from our current efforts in Afghanistan and Yemen I hardly think we’re going to bring stability and good government to every single country on earth.