Terrorist Plots Part Of Cat-And-Mouse Game

Last week's terrorism plot — the attempt to ship bombs aboard cargo planes — represents the latest effort by al-Qaida and its partners to find ways to attack the United States. This plot was foiled. The episode highlights a dangerous game: the way both sides — al-Qaida and the United States — learn and adapt. Al-Qaida hatches a plot; the United States reacts; al-Qaida tries something new.

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The counterterrorism challenge since 9/11 has involved a series of moves and countermoves by al-Qaida and the United States government. Al-Qaida comes up with a surprise attack, say, using airplanes as weapons; the intelligence and law enforcement communities come up with a new defense, and in response al-Qaida seeks another approach.

We're going to go through that process in the next few minutes. This is a sort of war game: blue team versus the red team, as the military will sometimes say. Good guys versus bad guys. Here to take us inside that game are counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston, who will give us the al-Qaida side, and Tom Gjelten, who explains how the U.S. responds. We'll start with Tom and the reaction after 9/11.

TOM GJELTEN: In the beginning, the United States saw al-Qaida almost as an enemy state. The reaction was to go to war against it. That was 2001 in Afghanistan. When Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders fled to Pakistan, the United States pursued them there. In the last two years, we've seen hundreds of missile strikes on their hideouts.

As a result, the original al-Qaida leadership is on the run, no longer able to command worldwide terrorism operations as it once could. Advantage: the United States.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Al-Qaida adapted by shifting a lot of its attack planning and execution to its affiliates, groups like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen or al-Shabaab in Somalia. They are among almost a dozen terrorist groups now shouldering new responsibilities. Its affiliates operate independently. They have their own membership, financing and they plan their own operations.

Al-Qaida's Yemen branch has been a particular problem. The face of the group is an American-born cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki. He's called on his followers to make the same transition that he did: from American Muslim to terrorist fighter.

Mr. ANWAR AL-AWLAKI (American Cleric): I eventually came to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding on every other able Muslim.

TEMPLE-RASTON: His message, easily found on the Internet, has inspired individuals to act, individuals including the young Nigerian who carried explosives in his underwear onto a U.S. airplane last Christmas. That plot had all the hallmarks of the new terrorist threat, a relatively simple attack executed by an individual. Advantage: al-Qaida.

GJELTEN: Smaller, simpler attacks do less damage but are more difficult to detect. Individuals operating alone are harder to discover than conspiracies, like the one behind 9/11. With diverse threats emerging on a smaller scale, U.S. intelligence officials had to work harder to connect seemingly unrelated pieces of information.

That became especially clear when the Christmas Day bomber slipped through the cracks. A new, more finely focused approach was necessary. The director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Michael Leiter, told a Senate committee he had created so-called pursuit teams to track down each and every terrorism lead.

Mr. MICHAEL LEITER (Director, National Counterterrorism Center): We have done a better job since Christmas Day of identifying new cases, domestically and overseas, and enhancing our understanding of individuals who may pose a threat to the United States.

GJELTEN: Individuals - that's what counterterrorism work has come down to: finding those lone wolf terrorists one-by-one.

TEMPLE-RASTON: To make that search harder, al-Qaida started recruiting Westerners, people with no arrest records and clean passports from countries that don't raise red flags. As a result, the plots come from all directions. Earlier this year, one al-Qaida affiliate trained Germans to launch commando-type attacks against Europe. Al-Qaida's North African arm had designs on France.

Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman says this is part of a broader pattern.

Mr. BRUCE HOFFMAN (Terrorism Expert): We see a threat that's morphing, that's transforming, that's assuming new and one has to say more pernicious forms as our adversaries are constantly searching to identify and then exploit the gaps in our security.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Gaps like the security on cargo jets bound for the United States.

GJELTEN: Air cargo is hard to secure because there's so much of it. Screening all of it effectively would require an enormous effort. Yet again there's a new security challenge. Philip Mudd, a CIA veteran and former head of the FBI's national security branch, says intelligence and law enforcement agencies just have to get smarter in the way they look for things, like suspicious packages.

Mr. PHILIP MUDD (CIA Veteran): There are countries that are centers for militant activity. There are the kinds of packages that might come out of those countries, that might contain a small device. Instead of just looking at the global activity, are there countries and attributes of packages we might look at that make this problem more manageable?

GJELTEN: The big thing now is creativity. To fight al-Qaida, you have to be able to think like al-Qaida. You have to imagine what they might do next and prepare for that.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Which is the reason why investigators are looking into whether last week's package bombs may not have been a plot as much as a test. For nearly a week now, al-Qaida's watched the United States react - and they've learned from it.

I'm Dina Temple-Raston.

GJELTEN: And I'm Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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