National Security Network

In Midst of Advancing Broad Agenda - Terrorism Plot Thwarted

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Report 25 September 2009

Terrorism & National Security Terrorism & National Security al qaeda Pakistan


This week marked a significant step toward a counter-terrorism policy that is sound and secure, not based on hype.  At the UN, President Obama was making progress on the international underpinnings of our security, strengthening international efforts to control nuclear weapons, gaining global backing against Iran, and moving forward on Middle East peace.  He built up global goodwill and effectiveness by expressing America’s commitment to the United Nations and to efforts to combat climate change, and by pushing successfully to broaden and democratize the key global forum for global economic cooperation.

With little fanfare back in Washington, the government has also been defusing what appears to be a highly developed and operational al-Qaeda plot – what outside experts believe may be the most important one we’ve faced since 9/11. The suspect, Najibullah Zazi, had travelled to an al-Qaeda camp in Pakistan; possessed detailed bomb-making instructions and apparently purchased significant amounts of bomb-making ingredients. Experts explained that this plot closely resembled the July 2005 attacks in London.

What was missing from this investigation were the multiple press conferences and politicized hype that accompanied terrorism prosecutions in the Bush years.  This transparent politicization did nothing to keep America safe and sowed distrust, skepticism, and division.  Rather, the FBI and police have gone about their work in a display of confident, competent, effective governance in the face of genuine threats.

Details continue to emerge in ‘most serious’ terrorist case in years, with careful, coordinated law enforcement in the lead.  NPR describes most terrorist plots that have emerged in the US since 9/11 as “aspirational, rather than operational,” but the case of legal Afghan immigrant Najibullah Zazi appears to be different “Documents filed in Brooklyn against the driver, Najibullah Zazi, contend he bought chemicals needed to build a bomb — hydrogen peroxide, acetone and hydrochloric acid — and in doing so, Mr. Zazi took a critical step made by few other terrorism suspects,” said the Times.   The Wall Street Journal summarized the details of the case: “The Federal Bureau of Investigation alleges that Mr. Zazi last week admitted to receiving explosives training during 2008 from al Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan before returning to the U.S. The FBI said it found an image on Mr. Zazi's laptop computer containing nine pages of handwritten notes on bomb-making and handling, and that the case is connected to a plot to detonate bombs inside the U.S. The scope of the plot and potential targets are unclear.”  U.S. officials cited in the Journal article caution that there is still much to learn about the case, but that it could be the “first active al Qaeda cell uncovered inside the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.” 

Regrettably, some commentators are already asking whether interrogators are “working Zazi over” hard enough.  But it’s been clear from media reports that the FBI and police are gauging what they know – and what they let the public know that they know – very carefully.  Former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan – who through traditional and lawful interrogation was able to determine that KSM was the 9-11 mastermind – explains the way the FBI goes about interrogations: “It is a knowledge-based approach. It is about outwitting the detainee by using a combination of interpersonal, cognitive, and emotional strategies to get the information needed. If done correctly it's an approach that works quickly and effectively because it outwits the detainee using a method that he is not trained, or able, to resist.  This Informed Interrogation Approach is in sharp contrast with the harsh interrogation approach introduced by outside contractors and forced upon CIA officials to use.”

In separate but likely unrelated news, FBI agents conducted two sting operations aimed at plots directed at targets in Springfield, Illinois and Dallas, Texas.  Reuters reports that “Michael Finton, also known as Talib Islam, was arrested in Springfield, Illinois, and charged with attempted murder of federal officers or employees and trying to use a weapon of mass destruction,” after “he used a cell phone to try to detonate the bomb he believed was inside a van he had just parked outside the federal building.” In Dallas, federal officials arrested Hosam Maher Husein Smadi, a 19-year old Jordanian illegal immigrant, when he “tried to set off an explosive attached to a vehicle at the base of the 60-story Fountain Place office tower,” according to CNN.  Like the Illinois case, this plot also turned out to have been infiltrated as part of an FBI sting operation, and the explosive attached to the vehicle was a fake.  [NY Times, 9/25/09. WSJ, 9/24/09. NPR, 9/25/09. TNR, 9/25/09. Ali Soufan, 5/13/09. Reuters, 9/25/09. CNN, 9/25/09]

Methodical investigation and low-key media coverage  of serious terrorist-plot contrast with overly-politicized Bush administration approach.  Though details of the Zazi case are still emerging, it already appears to be clear break from the pattern of government investigations of terrorist plots during the last administration.  The New York Times reports: “The Zazi case ‘actually looks like the case the government kept claiming it had but never did,’ said Karen J. Greenberg, executive director of the Center on Law and Security at New York University law school. Her center has studied all the prosecutions of terrorism-related crimes since 2001, and she said many had turned out to be ‘fantasy terrorism cases’ where the threat seemed modest or even nonexistent. This time, she said, ‘the ingredients here are quite scary,’ and the government’s statements have had none of the bombast and exaggeration that accompanied some previous arrest announcements.”  The sober manner in which the Zazi arrest was made is in sharp contrast to the tactics used by federal officials during the Bush administration, which did not always correspond to the seriousness of the suspected threat. 

Last month, former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge revealed that “he successfully countered an effort by senior Bush administration officials to raise the nation's terror alert level in the days before the 2004 presidential vote,” according to CNN.  After a pre-election message by Osama Bin Laden, “Attorney General John Ashcroft and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld strongly advocated raising the security threat level to ‘orange,’ even though Ridge believed a threatening message ‘should not be the sole reason to elevate the threat level.’”  In his new book, Ridge relates wondering whether the move was “about security or politics?” [Karen J. Greenberg, via NY Times, 9/25/09. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, 8/21/09]

Obama administration keeps America safe from terrorist threat, while at the same time pushing bold international and domestic agenda. In April, former Vice-President Dick Cheney said that President Obama “is making some choices that, in my mind, will, in fact, raise the risk to the American people of another attack.”  This week has proven him completely wrong. Not only has the administration successfully prevented an attack at home, it has made significant accomplishments on the world stage, addressing some of the most dangerous long term threats to American security.  The arrest of Najibullah Zazi, occurred during a week that the Washington Post described as a “whirlwind week of international gatherings and diplomacy -- a climate-change summit and Middle East meetings on Tuesday; the U.N. General Assembly and Security Council on Wednesday and Thursday; and a Group of 20 meeting of world leaders to discuss the international economy on Friday.” [Dick Cheney, CNN, 4/20/09. Washington Post, 9/24/09]

  • Achieved significant progress on nonproliferation. Joe Cirincione, President of the Ploughshares Fund, writes in the Guardian, “[t]he past two days at the United Nations, culminating in a special UN Security Council session, have been remarkable. Obama consolidated international support for the nuclear agenda he first unveiled in Prague and embedded its principles in international law with the unanimous approval of a sweeping UN resolution.”  [Joe Cirincione, The Guardian Comment is Free, 9/24/09]
  • Restructured the G20 to be more representative and effective. The New York Times reports, “President Obama will announce Friday that the once elite club of rich industrial nations known as the Group of 7 will be permanently replaced as a global forum for economic policy by the much broader Group of 20 that includes China, Brazil, India and other fast-growing developing countries, administration officials said Thursday.” [NY Times, 9/25/09]
  • Strengthened the international response to Iran. President Obama increased pressure on Iran heading into talks on its nuclear program by gaining Russian verbal support for sanctions if diplomacy fails.  The New York Times reported that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev “signaled for the first time that Russia would be amenable to longstanding American requests to toughen sanctions against Iran significantly” if talks scheduled for next month head nowhere. “‘I told His Excellency Mr. President that we believe we need to help Iran to take a right decision,’ Mr. Medvedev said, adding that ‘sanctions rarely lead to productive results, but in some cases, sanctions are inevitable.’” [NY Times, 9/24/09]
  • Reengaged the UN and challenged its members. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama said, “Now, like all of you, my responsibility is to act in the interest of my nation and my people, and I will never apologize for defending those interests.  But it is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009 -- more than at any point in human history -- the interests of nations and peoples are shared... We have sought -- in word and deed -- a new era of engagement with the world.  And now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges.” [Barack Obama, 9/23/09]
  • Revamped missile defense and U.S.-Russia relations. By ending the failed missile defense program last week, the Administration bolstered relations with Russia, a key partner for addressing nuclear proliferation. The Washington Post reported last week, “the abrupt reversal of U.S. defense policy immediately brought plaudits from Russian officials, who had viewed the prospect of an American missile shield system on their country's western border as an affront. The shift raised the possibility of greater cooperation between the two powers on containing the Iranian threat and in negotiating an extension of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, which expires in early December.”  According to the New York Times, administration officials acknowledged “that missile defense might have had something to do with Moscow’s newfound verbal cooperation on the Iran sanctions issue.” [Washington Post, 9/18/09. NY Times, 9/24/09]
  • Pushed economic and domestic policy.  While the president was focusing largely on foreign and security policy, there were significant domestic and economic actions this week as well.  The Washington Post reports that, “Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner on Wednesday once again pressed Congress to pass a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's financial regulatory system, telling members of the House Financial Services Committee that ‘we can't let the momentum for reform fade as the memory of the crisis recedes.’” Meanwhile the healthcare debate rages on as “Advocates for a public insurance plan - the idea that has generated the most passion in the high-decibel health care debate - are pressing for a crucial test vote in the Senate Finance Committee,” writes the Post. [Washington Post, 9/24/09. Washington Post, 9/25/09]

What We’re Reading

Advisers for Afghan President Hamid Karzai support any proposal that would increase an American troop presence.

A new wave of anti-Americanism is spreading across Pakistan, as the United States government sends over more military and civilian experts trying to implement assistance programs. Pakistanis are also wary of the new US embassy being built in Islamabad.

Sixteen prisoners, including members of Al-Qaeda, broke out of an Iraqi prison in Tikrit.

Various intelligence agencies confirm previously undisclosed covert nuclear facilities in Iran. China is wary of increasing sanctions on Iran. Iran exiles also allege the construction of detonators for nuclear weapons in facilities near Tehran.

The White House is continuing to work to close Guantanamo Bay before President Obama’s January deadline.

The Security Council adopted a resolution presented by President Obama to affirm its commitment to the reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons.

President Obama announced that the G-20 will be the new body setting international economic cooperation, eclipsing the G-7.

Islamists claimed that one of the suicide bombers that attacked an African Union base in Somalia was an American.

Mexico finally approved President Felipe Calderon’s candidate for Attorney General despite allegations of a poor human rights record.

The media markets in Honduras are saturated with political stories, ads and rumors as exiled President Manuel Zelaya and the political opposition take their battle to the press.

In China, Mao’s only male grandson became the youngest general in the People’s Liberation Army.

Commentary of the Day

The New York Times congratulated the United Nations Security Council for passing a resolution to better secure nuclear weapons, but hopes for more details on how this resolution will be implemented in the future.

Paul Krugman believes action on climate change in the Senate is unlikely to be hampered by the actions of global warming deniers because that movement is losing steam.

The Washington Post believes the best way to stop the political crisis engulfing Honduras is to have elections between the two opposition political factions.