The apparent terrorist plot hatched by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to transport explosive devices to the U.S. heartland via cargo planes is a sobering reminder that, as Americans cast their ballots today, terrorism remains a serious national concern. The episode is also a reminder that the threat is best contained through a combination of vigilant law enforcement, heightened security, military restraint and diplomatic leadership. In the lead-up to the midterm elections, Americans should not interpret the potential for such violence as posing a grave or imminent danger that is beyond sensible conflict management.
Let's be clear. The danger posed by increasingly sophisticated organizations such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is real, and it is lethal. Underestimating the transnational nature of such organizations is not an option. Successful terrorist organizations are remarkably adaptive, nimble and capable of exploiting vulnerabilities by striking new and softer targets. The large number of cargo shipments to the U.S requires careful monitoring. So too — as recent terrorist chatter suggests — do soft targets including shopping malls, public transportation and critical infrastructure.
Anwar al-Awlaki, the fiery American imam on the run from U.S. forces, appears determined to transform AQAP from a purveyor of regional violence to an actor capable of challenging U.S. military adventurism and threatening U.S. global interests. He should be taken at his word and dealt with accordingly.
It is likely that AQAP will continue to merit special attention from U.S. and European authorities for the foreseeable future. In the wake of the formidable show of force posed by American drone strikes on the Afghanistan- Pakistan border, AQAP has proved capable of shifting resources to weak and failing states, namely Yemen and Somalia, from which it can operate with relative impunity. While the temptation to strike out at organizations in these alleged safe havens is great, restraint is called for given their crumbling infrastructure, large and sympathetic populations lack of valuable military targets. Any response is likely to be interpreted the world over as a continuation of a perceived decade-long, U.S-led imperial campaign.
The real danger lies not in U.S. counterterrorism officials underestimating the transnational danger posed by such organizations. The danger lies in political leadership overestimating the intent and capabilities of such organizations and framing the violence as an existential threat. It is naïve to assume that those who apparently plotted to ship devices via cargo planes to Chicago were intending solely or even primarily to inflict mass casualties. The ability to achieve this end exists, and the number of soft targets is virtually unlimited.
It is more likely, therefore, that the plot was hatched with the intention of provoking an overreaction by the U.S. government. Such an over-response is an almost necessary prerequisite to building a terrorist organization's strategic profile and efforts to ensure that it is able to inflict future, more serious political violence.
By falling victim to such ploys, the U.S. plays into the hands of those who seek to elevate their importance, rally support in the form of funding and recruits, and ultimately invoke sympathy when U.S. efforts result in an increase in civilian casualties. That the hypocrisy of U.S. strategic alliances with repressive regimes is highlighted whenever such plots are hatched is further indication of the political calculation behind such maneuvering.
In the coming days, political pundits and policymakers alike will likely trumpet their cherished opinions as to the sources of the apparent threat and what ought to be done to respond. Americans will hear myriad explanations: It was a test run; it was an effort to influence the midterm elections; it was a reminder that terrorism poses, as the president suggested, a "credible threat."
Here's the more likely scenario: The plot was hatched as a low-cost means of provoking a costly response and an effort to draw the U.S. into a skirmish for which there will be little reward and devastating consequences.
Ivan Sascha Sheehan is an assistant professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.