Intelligence and the Undie Bomber

Five thoughts about the Undie Bomber:

1. This attack wasn’t some unprecedented, sophisticated plot carried out by a wily terrorist enemy constantly searching for ways to strike at the soft underbelly of American national security. This was vintage al Qaeda, circa 2001. The plot looked eerily similar to the Shoe Bomber. It was directed against what was supposed to be one of our most hardened targets: aviation.  And it was carried out by a foreign national  — not some sleeper cell of US citizens — who had already raised some flags in the system and whose own father ratted him out. From an intelligence perspective, it doesn’t get easier than this.

2. In both the Shoe and Undie Bomber cases, it was the agility of passengers, not the agility of US intelligence agencies, that made the difference.

3. But don’t go blaming the CIA. The agency formerly known as central was demoted after 9/11. Centralizing terrorism-related intelligence is supposed to be done by a new agency called the National Counter Terrorism Center (whose “24”-like offices were designed by a Disney team. No joke). If you want to understand what went wrong, start here.

4. Shame on Senator Jim DeMint, who is holding up the confirmation hearing of Erroll Southers, Obama’s nominee to head TSA and a first-class public servant.

5. This plot was hatched in Yemen and Nigeria. Just two of the roughly 60 countries in which al Qaeda operates. So why exactly are we putting more blood and treasure into Afghanistan?

Author: Amy Zegart

Amy Zegart is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. She is also a faculty affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (by courtesy). Her research examines national security agencies, American foreign policy, and anything scary. Academic publications include two award-winning books: Spying Blind, which examines intelligence adaptation failures before 9/11, and Flawed by Design, which chronicles the evolution of America’s national security architecture. She is currently working on a book about intelligence in the post-9/11 world. Zegart writes an intelligence column at, and her pieces have also appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times. Previously, she taught at UCLA and worked at McKinsey & Company. A former Fulbright Scholar, she received an A.B. in East Asian Studies from Harvard and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford. A native Kentuckian, she loves to watch good college football and bad reality TV.

10 thoughts on “Intelligence and the Undie Bomber”

  1. This current effort by the masterminds at Al Qaeda once again shows a rank degree of amateurism in the construction deployment and failed detonation of the device. The only device they have had real luck with was the highly sophisticated explosive installed and triggered in a video camera that took out the Taliban, and Osama’s, enemy General Ahmed Shah Massoud of the Northern Alliance. Who every built that must have been killed and took the plans with him as Al Qaeda has never done such a bang up job since.

  2. Absolutely right, the USA should not let its policies be dictated by Al Qaeda, which it will do by becoming dislocated and disoriented by embarking on more Don Quixote adventures, or by re-introducing torture, or by suspending democratic freedoms.

    This year the British and Irish Governments opened up files from 1979 under 20-year rules. It would be well to remind ourselves the situation of the the British Government and the IRA at that time – a splinter group (the Irish National Liberation Army) murdered a senior British politician and friend of Margaret Thatcher in the House of Parliament itself, the IRA murdered war-hero and royal relative Lord Mountbatten, the IRA delivered bombs to all corners of Northern Ireland, murdered RIC & Army personnel & seemed to be able to plant bombs in London at will. That year it killed 12 paratroops in a single operation. Yet the British (under a hardline Thatcher) stuck grimly to a policy they thought would succeed – engage the Irish government, improve co-operation between security services North and South, and (I suppose) pray. Though Thatcher wanted to re-introduce the death penalty for terrorism, she could not carry Parliament with her. And as all this went on, well-known IRA leaders like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were living openly in Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom).

    In retrospect, it all seems grotesquely amateurish. The Irish would not extradite "terrorists", and the British would not use "hot pursuit". British Army patrols which strayed into the Republic were arrested by the police. Though the IRA moved all its bombs from the Republic, travel between the two states was barely disrupted – there were never passport controls (though Thatcher wanted to introduce them).

    But it somehow worked & without abandoning basic freedoms or introducing torture. Oh, it was a dirty war – blackmail was used to gain information on both sides, honey traps, covert murders, survellance were all used – but in the main, civilized values prevailed. There were exceptions, like the IRA "proxy bombs", holding a family hostage until the father (usually a civilian worker) drove a bomb into a British base which then killed him and several others.

    I think it illustrates a significant difference between the European and American approach to terrorism. The European way seems to be to grit ones teeth and say: "Fuck it, we are going to lose people, hundreds maybe thousands, but we'll beat the bastards. We will put in the best controls we can, take them on and beat them in the long run." But the Americans would undoubtedly reject the British-Irish approach to the IRA as somehow unmanly, or plain chicken. In the American way, a pin prick is as bad as an apocalypse, the objective is not to beat the terrorists but to look good in the news cycle, everything is for the short term, and headless chickens are made to look good in that situation. The best hope is that Obama (whose attitude seems to be more European than American) may change this approach.

  3. I don't suppose anyone who has tried to fly in, to or from the US in the past week, or who will do so in the next couple of months, will think that the attack "failed". It had the desired effect, of terrorizing the people and – more important – public officials who must be seen to "do something", even if most of what has been announced so far is completely irrelevant to what actually happened. The life or death of a few hundred people on the plane is almost incidental to that purpose (though of course it's MUCH better that they were spared.) The cost in time and irritation to millions of people makes the attack a success, without getting into possible disproportionate responses in foreign policy, distractions from more important public policy deliberations, etc. The fate of the superstitious schmuck who carried but failed to detonate the explosive is irrelevant to everybody.

  4. What made both of these attempts fail was the inability of al Qaeda to get a commercially produced detonator through airport security. It is very, very difficult to detonate a high explosive without such a device. The device that took out General Massoud didn't have to go through airport security, and almost certainly used a real detonator.

    I agree that this attempt was almost laughably amateurish. I hope this makes recruiting more difficult for al Qaeda in the future. Who will want to fry their nuts and spend the rest of their lives in jail for a device that has almost no chance of succeeding?

  5. How to solve the terrorism problem. Listen to crack counter-terrorism experts such as radio talk show host (and Fox channel favorite) Mike Gallagher, and Jo-Ann Armao of the Washington Post crack counter intelligence and counter terrorism team, upon whose razor sharp like intuition and understanding of the issue, 24 was most likely based.

    As for Demint, yeah, note to media — maybe that holdup, as well as the reasons for it (good or bad) should be made a bit more of this discussion.

  6. Absolutely the NCTC is the principal culprit. Not only does the NCTC receive the same intel (from all sources) as the CIA, but since its inception in 2004, day to day counter-terror operations have largely been usurped from Langley.

    Yet,the CIA remains an easy target, and one the Obama Administration has already demonstrated a willingness to exploit.

    Despite the NCTC's culpability,public/private reprimand is unlikely. For, lets not forget, that the NCTC is largely the brainchild of John Brennan, its first director and current Obama Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism…

  7. This sounds like something that the idiots from the Ivy League on high paid welfare at the CI lying A would dream up.

    Remember the number of tries to tie the Ft Hood shooter to Al Queda? The dude is 2 hours from the Satan of Satans and they couldn't give him a road map to Bush's number 3 house.

    Give me a break, his father turned him in? He's from Nigeria and he is a member of Al Queda? I mean how many members of al Queda are there? We've killed their top six or seven at least 50 times.

    Let's just fire all of the CI lying A and see how many al quedas show up. I'd bet we would end up with "NONE."

  8. The obvious solution is to take all unemployed Americans and station them in international airports with flights into the US. They can be paid to check the testicles of all passengers for hidden explosives. It's what we call a "win, win".

  9. Well, what is Demint supposed to do? If he thinks – and it's a plausible opinion, I think – that a nonunionized TSA will be more effective than one which is unionized, this is his one shot as a minority member. Maybe he is right, maybe he is wrong, but we elect these guys to try to put their views into programs.

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