Sunday, January 04, 2004

The new air terror scare

Whenever you think the situation in the United States can't possibly get any worse, it does. Americans can't go on cancelling flights and guiding flights into the country with fighter planes. When they are exhausted from the 'strategy of terror' and stop overreacting is just when an opportunistic terrorist could decide to attack. A smart terrorist would prepare the groundwork for his attack by setting out fake hints of attack as a decoy, and only really attack when things have quieted down. One lesson Americans should be learning from all this is that they can't win the 'war on terror' - their only hope in the long run is to stop creating the injustice which creates terrorists. Perhaps the instilling of paranoia is the actual attack . . . the terrorists can cause as many problems through malicious and misleading 'chatter' as they can with real physical terrorism. A few comments on the recent airplane scares:

  1. The French had to cancel flights to the United States due to the American fear that these flights would be used for terrorist attacks. Although there are conflicting reports that no names were involved, it appears that the Americans somehow identified names on the French passenger lists that matched, or were 'similar' to, names which they had gathered in some sort of surveillance operation (wiretaps or reading of e-mail), and they had heard that these particular flights had been targeted. The French authorities checked the names against the actual passengers, and the identities of the real passengers bearing the suspicious names were laughably far from being possible terrorists (of the six suspicious names, one was a 5-year-old child, and others included a prominent Egyptian scientist, an elderly Chinese woman and a Welsh insurance agent). The French are being quite polite about it, but they obviously feel the Americans are idiots.

  2. The whole idea that terrorists would be using their real names and clear descriptions of what they were planning to do using unencrypted communications is ridiculous, especially in the wake of the massively increased surveillance after 9-11. If the American authorities think they are hearing anything suspicious it is either due to an overactive imagination or is a ruse by the terrorists to create panic or create a diversion. Even the 9-11 terrorists did their most delicate planning in face-to-face meetings in Spain and Las Vegas, and aliases and code words are easy to use.

  3. It is possible that all of this folderol is in aid of the 'strategy of terror' which seems to be part of the Rove plan to get the Chimp reelected. Americans are remarkably skittish (there is possibly a form of justified guilt involved in this), and the thought may be that depicting the Bush Administration as the protector against the real threat from the big, bad terrorists may improve his chances at getting close enough to election again that his father's friends can reappoint him as King. What bothers me about this theory is that the timing appears to be all wrong. We are still too far from the next election for this terror to be still scary when the voters have to decide on a President, and I don't think either the American body politic or the American economy will be able to stand a constant diet of this nonsense until November. On the other hand, this fake terror threat could provide a fake context for a future real terrorist attack, one that could occur just before the Republican National Convention in September, and be used as the springboard by Bush into reelection.

  4. I am not a reductionist, and am not one of those who believes that al-Qaeda had nothing to do with 9-11. I also don't believe the whole thing was some kind of intelligence trick. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. While al-Qaeda has proved itself to be a capable group of terrorists, I simply do not believe that 19 unworldly Muslim men, most of whom officially had never set foot in the United States, with at most a few months training from some goofs in the mountains of Afghanistan, arrived in the country and perfectly pulled off an operation that would have been challenging for the most advanced commandos in the world. I believe that it was a joint operation of al-Qaeda and some sophisticated military operation, and no one was tricked into participating. Each side achieved its own goals, and they could well decide to operate together again. The next attack, and there will no doubt be one, could be a similar joint operation. The fact that fake terror warnings are being used by Rove for political purposes does not mean that there is no risk of a real attack, and that attack could follow a sophisticated model like 9-11.

  5. On the other hand, a much less sophisticated operation is also possible, using much less sophisticated methods, and with no military input (like the attempted attacks of Ahmed Ressam or Richard Reid). That kind of attack, which also will certainly occur again as long as the injustices in American foreign policy continue, will look quite different from the 9-11 attack, and will be much easier to detect and stop (although both Reid and Ressam may have been trying to be caught, either for self-preservation, pangs of conscience, or some darker motive). It is all a matter of luck, and some day American luck will fail.

  6. With locked cabin doors, possibly armed pilots, and armed sky marshals, not to mention lots of beefed up security at boarding and a prohibition against any kind of potential weapons, what are the terrorists going to do to take over a plane if they are going to use planes in the next attack? One hint of what the next attack might look like is the destruction of the plane by bomb when it is flying upwind of a large city, with some sort of polluting material, possibly radioactive, in the luggage compartment. This would require no action on the plane itself. Unless the Americans have absolute control over all luggage handling in every airport in the world, I don't see how this could be stopped, but I also don't see this as much of a real risk to the population, although it may have big psychological effects before an election.

The French had a chance to check the names of the alleged terrorists against the actual passengers bearing those names. I wonder what would have been discovered if, on the morning of September 11, American authorities could have conducted a similar check against the infamous 19 names of terrorists supposedly on those four flights.