Saturday, October 30, 2010

Making political hay out of terrorist haywires?

Thoughts, opinion and pure speculation about the latest terror threat and the politics that surround it.

By Steve Douglass

Let me ask you something. Am I the only one who thinks its convenient, just four days before a mid-term election (where it seems that the ruling political party is about to be handed their hat and shown the door) a new imminent terrorist threat has been uncovered?

Could it really just be a coincidence (or in the case of the Democrats and President Obama) a fortuitous gift from al Qaeda to have engineered such an amateurish and hopelessly flawed laser-printer-toner-cell-phone bomb plot (one so easily and publicly peeled apart) just in time to bolster the public image of the president and his party?

Now before you groan and write this off as the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist, consider the following:

Rarely are ongoing intelligence operations against terrorist organizations publicized or even acknowledged unless they involve the public. Cases in point, Richard Reed, “The Shoe Bomber” and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab “The Underwear Bomber (and not to mention) Faisal Shahzad (the failed Times Square Bomber) all became known because their failed attacks took place in public places.

But for every plot we know about, there are ten disrupted plots – we'll probably never know about.

It's an intelligence agency maxim: Our failures are known – Our successes are not, because to reveal them would put undercover operatives in immediate danger, reveal sources of information and methods and methodologies used in the war against terror.

And yet – in this case – detailed photos and analysis of the devices involved have been splashed across the globe (in itself unprecedented) a new terrorist villian -Qassim al-Rimi (also known as Abu Hurira al-Sanaei of the Arabian Peninsula ) – has been connected to the plot, plus arrests have been made (in Yemen)- all within 48 hours.

Not to mention, the President has assured the nation that everything is under control and vowing (at a White House news conference, “to take whatever steps are necessary" to prevent an attack.”

Looking quite presidential (after recently being reality-checked by Jon Stewart) Obama said, “Going forward, we will continue to strengthen our cooperation with the Yemeni government to disrupt plotting by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and to destroy this al Qaeda affiliate.

There it is – a done deal. The voting public has been reassured by the commander-in-chief, vows to hunt down and punish evil doers have been made – and God is in is heaven and everything is right with the nation – tragedy averted – all just four days before an election.

So? This wouldn't be the first president to make political hay out of a threat to the nation? Right?

If you are still with me – I'd like to take this terrorist event to the next level – and analyze it from a different angle. One of practicality.

Keep in mind, what follows is pure speculation – but what if this entire event was engineered as a political ploy to influence the coming election?

DId I loose you?

Consider this:

How hard would it be to for an intelligence agency to buy a printer, fill the cartridge with PETN, improvise a crude cell phone trigger and have it shipped from Yemen and blame it on a new (hitherto unknown to the American public ) arm of al Qaeda.?

OB takes the credit, looks more presidential, Dem stock goes up a few points maybe even enough to save a few majority seats and the Republicans are forced to go begging again.

It may seem like a far fetched plot from a bad movie - but when examined closely is entirely plausible. Anyone ever hear of Tonkin Gulf? Watergate? Irangate?

This is what bugs me. The preliminary U.K. investigation indicates that the target may have been an aircraft, British Home Secretary Theresa May said,"authorities do not believe the perpetrators would have known the location of the device when they detonated it." - end quote.

If that is true, it doesn't sound like a particularly viable terrorist plan to me. 

If (as first reported) the devices were to be triggered by cell phones - it is also highly doubtful they would have worked - especially in flight in an aircraft over a vast ocean where cell services is non-existent. It is also very unlikely a cellular device could even pick up the signal from inside a metal box contained inside a metal aircraft with shielding being a major obstacle to cellular reception.

IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan are basically constructed the same way (except not hidden inside laser printers) and usually triggered by a confederate within safe line-of-site of the device. When it comes to standard IEDs the explosive of choice is usually a bomb or shell - bulky but with huge destructive power - and easily hidden inside a car or buried in the ground but with the antenna in radio line of sight of the perpetrator.

But the device shown on all the networks is different – as if it was devised by monkeys.

There is very little chance that it would have worked. Calling and triggering a cheap Chinese GSM phone on a cargo plane bound for the U.S. Is more than problematic.

Considering, cellular service (domestic and abroad) compatibility issues, battery life and the uncertainty of where any one of the devices could be at any given moment (plus throwing into the mix a host of technical and logistical obstacles) don't add up to a well-thought-out plot. It is more likely these bombs were intended to scare and not to kill.

As it looks now - the devices themselves and the unlikelyhood they would work seem also to be less a terrorist attack than a ploy.

At closer inspection the phone board used does not have GPS support and although it could have up to a 15 hour battery life - the trip from Yemen is a lot longer than that - not even considering warehousing time, even with the inclusion (as in the widely circulated photo) of a tiny nickle-cell battery.

Although it may seem a cell phone trigger would only have to passively receive a signal to detonate an explosive, they also have to transmit regularly (which is a large drain on a battery) and undertake a "handshake" with any cellphone system in range.

Even if the phone was programmed to turn itself on (at a certain time) ascertaining where it would be is practically impossible, especially if the intended target was an aircraft.

If not -and the intended target was a rabbi at a gay-friendly synagogue in Chicago (as suggested by other reports) who says it wouldn't have been quickly discovered by the intended target for what it was? Suspicious?

I imagine the following exchange, “Rabbi Rebinowitz – did you order a printer from Yemen? No? Call the police.”

I'm just spit-ballinghere but - wouldn't it be more effective to have the bombs go off if they were plugged into a wall - especially if jewish synagogues were the real intended target?

If this was an actual terrorist bomb plot - it was amateurish plot at best with almost zero probability of success.

The press is now reporting it was a "tip"(the package tracking numbers) from an "American" intelligence source that led to the device's discovery. Read into that what you will. 

Consider - the devices were also never on passenger planes so the most a terrorist could hope to do is down (if the target was an aircraft) an airplane with a few people on board.  Hardly a worthy target of an up and coming terrorist offshoot of al Qaeda.

From a terrorist's point of view – the act of downing a few cargo planes (unless they were over major cities) wouldn't have much of an economic or political impact on the U.S. and as President Obama recently said, "We can absorb a terrorist attack.”

UPDATE: Terrorist cargo may have been shipped on passenger planes - however the sender would never have known that.

So what would be the point? A dry run that only served to show how incompetent your bomb makers are?

Still, this plot (no matter how ineffectual) will draw some serious attention to Yemen and the AQAP. As a result of the President's remarks, it will also have the unintentional effect of raising Qassim al-Rim to new top-terrorist boogeyman status among Arabian extremists, above Osama Bin Laden.

Plus there are far reaching effects on poor Yemen, caught between the democratic West and the extremist East – where terrorist cells are imbedded like ticks and hiding within the government itself. Yemen has been walking the tightrope between the two ideologies ever since the attack on the USS Cole.

According to CNN: Many of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's members previously belonged to al Qaeda in Yemen. The National Counterterrorism Center says that group carried out suicide attacks on a Yemeni oil facility in 2006 and mortar attacks two years later on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, Yemeni military complexes, the Italian Embassy and the Yemeni presidential compound.

Later in 2008, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula detonated two car bombs outside the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, killing 19 people, including six of its own members. Earlier in the month, Qassim al-Rim promised that Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, would be punished "for his crimes" and announced that a new army would rid the country of "crusaders and apostates."

Earlier this year, the President approved $150 million to train and equip Yemeni forces so they could fight al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Up to 50 U.S. special operations troops are now in the Middle Eastern country training Yemen's military personnel and involved in counter-terrorism missions.

So – in light of all this – and as purely an exercise in skeptical thinking – who would benefit from concocting a faux-terrorist plot?

Let me think: the Democratic Party, on the eve of mid-terms, hoping the political tide can be turned back their way.

President Obama, his actions boosting his stature among hawkish Democrats and Republicans who think he's soft on terrorism.

The U.S. military and U.S. intelligence communities begging to be let off the chain to fight a war on terrorism full-out.

Or maybe it was al Qaeda - hoping to influence the election to keep the Democrats in power - not wanting war-mongering Republicans again at the helm.

Meanwhile back in reality the votes in next weeks election have already been cast in most people's minds - but the races could be closer then the polls are indicating and majority control could come down to one or two highly contested seats.

Every vote counts and maybe-just maybe an undecided voter (or scores of them) could be persuaded by recent events to jump off the fence they are sitting on and (in light of recent events) vote for a Democrat.

Update: as of the Sunday morning newscasts, polls indicate that the Democrats are narrowing the gap with some undecided voters now saying they will vote for Dems.

I'm sure there is tremendous pressure on Yemeni authorities, as well as the FBI and CIA to get this whole incident wrapped up in a nice tidy bow - before the election on Tuesday.

I must comment never have I seen such wide distributed and unfetterd media access to an ongoing terrorist-bug-hunt with almost real-time updates and expert evidential analysis, complete with circles and arrows and paragraphs explaining what each part is. This latest terrorist scare most likely would be classified as a non-event that most likely (although an important victory in counter-terrorism circles) would have never seen the light of day = if there wasn't for a looming election.

It seems to me – this incident has been rapidly and deliberately pushed to forefront of the public consciousness - all on the eve of a critical election - calculated to push the needle back into the Democrat win column.

Despite the crowing from the current administration - this incident can't be considered a win. The devices got on planes and it was only after they were airborne that they were discovered.

Was it a plot? Most definitely. Who's behind it? That remains to be seen.

The likelihood that this plot was hatched within the Beltway are slim indeed but it is something interesting to ponder. Imagine the implications if it was.

If it was a intelligence agency/think-tank/executive conspiracy it is bound to come unraveled as conspiracies are want to do.

Only time will tell.



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