The story was immediately picked up and fervently politicized. Another excruciating intelligence failure, 9/11 all over again, proof – ex Vice President Cheney surfaced to lead the attack – that this administration refused to take seriously our War on Terror. President Obama apologized. What seems to have been missed by most of the press accounts was the fact that the bomb Abdulmutallab smuggled onto the aircraft, while sophisticated enough to have evaded detection, lacked any kind of effective fuse or detonation device and so required this hapless young Al Qaeda convert to try and set it afire in the cabin, a move that brought down his fellow passengers.
Five days later another episode involving Al Qaeda occurred which was, comparatively, brushed off by the media and the politicians but which in fact was far more crippling to immediate American interests and replete with bad portents over the longer run. A Jordanian physician named Humam al-Balawi, widely known for posting inflammatory pro-al-Qaeda declarations on radical Web sites, who had attempted to enter Gaza recently as part of a medical relief team, had persuaded Jordanian intelligence officers that he could pinpoint the location of bin Laden sidekick Ayman al-Zawahri for the CIA and subsequently found himself ushered into the agency’s tightly guarded Forward Operating Base Chapman in southwestern Afghanistan, in the embattled province of Khost. Nobody in charge wanted to risk alienating this seeming convert by searching him at the gate; the explosives he set off blew away five of the CIA’s best operatives in the region along a mercenary from Xe (formerly known as Blackwater) and a key Jordanian intelligence officer.
The tradecraft here was beyond incompetent; the publicity aftermath was expertly managed and humiliating. Al Jazeera released a video prepared before the martyrdom featuring Dr. Balawi in camouflage fatigues explaining that his sacrifice was to revenge the 2009 killing of Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. From Istanbul, Balawi’s earnest widow Defne was outspoken about her pride: “…my husband has carried out a great operation in such a war….” In the ongoing contest for hearts and minds throughout the Middle East, Dr. Balawi and his backers had obviously won a great victory.
Several elements behind these setbacks for the West have gone largely unremarked. One was the speed with which the details surrounding both incidents surfaced in the press. It may have been that our intelligence agencies were slow to “connect the dots” and identify Abdulmutallab before he could board his aircraft in Amsterdam, but within hours an impressive range of detail on the would-be bomber was everywhere. The same was true of the late Dr. Balawi. Not since Lee Harvey Oswald was already being hunted down in Dallas before he could change his shirt has the press pounced so promptly, so primed with background intelligence. A wide range of interests on every side have unmistakably been intent on capitalizing on the stories.
One point that rarely got much notice was the fact that both the bombers were from the Arab middle classes, purportedly — like most of the 9/11 hijackers – the beneficiaries of Western industrial progress during recent decades in the Middle East. Like U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the psychiatrist child of Americanized Palestinians who discovered Islam in mid-life, lauded suicide bombers in his e-mails, and last November machine-gunned thirteen bystanders to death and wounded thirty others at Fort Hood on receiving orders deploying him to Afghanistan. Like his recent counterparts, Hasan was a modern scientific professional, by no means an advocate of a mindless return to fourteenth-century Islamic fundamentalism. He had been convinced by the principal themes of Al Qaeda – America was stealing his fellow Arabs’ birthright, its involvement in the Middle East was corrupting and exploitive, and anything he or his fellow converts had to sacrifice was well justified by the prevailing jihad if it helped the Muslim community get its authenticity back.
The fact is, from the Saudi monarchy to the Pakistani intelligence services, the forces we label terrorist have been getting a lot of furtive support all along. Their methods are abominable, obviously born of desperation. By overreacting in our efforts to suppress them we are impoverishing ourselves, squandering the resources we will obviously need if we are to rejuvenate our own society, and eroding what reputation we still have around the developing world. We need to rethink our primary interests as a society, and reset our priorities.
I recently attended the James Cameron film Avatar. To me, at least, it played like an Al Qaeda recruitment film. On the pastoral planet Pandora invaders known as The Company, led by a muscle-bound Marine officer, had set up camp with the intention of first demonizing, then exploiting the indigenous forest dwellers before scattering and decimating them and mining out their resources. Naïve, fortified by their animistic God, the tribes would fight back.
For us to recover and survive as a society, it occurred to me, watching, it is past time for us to comprehend who is so widely regarded as the scourge of the earth these days, and why.
Burton Hersh has written widely in the intelligence field, most notably in The Old Boys: The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA (Scribner, 1992). His most recent book, Bobby and J. Edgar (Carroll and Graf/Basic Books, 2007), draws heavily on CIA and FBI sources.