Since 9/11 there have been innumerable articles on the emergence of al-Qaeda 2.0 or 3.0. The attack in Afghanistan that killed several CIA officials along with a Jordanian intelligence officer, harks back to al-Qaeda prime – the disciplined organization that from the late 1990s to 9/11 carried out a series of sophisticated, meticulously planned, multi-pronged strikes against hard targets.
The attack on the CIA base in Afghanistan similarly involved a careful analysis of American systems and vulnerabilities and tremendous patience and tradecraft. And it did devastating damage to a particularly sensitive node – experienced CIA operatives are the products of decades of experience, they are not easy to replace. In addition procedures for vetting information and agents will become more cumbersome, further hampering operations.
If the attack on the CIA in Afghanistan represents al-Qaeda Prime, the attacks emanating from Yemen are examples of al-Qaeda 2.0 and 3.0. While the attacks linked to Yemen have received far more press and drew more blood – they have not had the same level of sophistication. From a technical standpoint the attempted Christmas bombing was only a slight variation on a previously tried tactic – that has had only limited success in the past. The operational security was not sophisticated (which is why so many are in an uproar that US intelligence failed to intercept the bomber.) This is al-Qaeda 2.0, a regional affiliate operating independently and while not as capable as al-Qaeda prime, still possessing substantial capabilities.
The other two attacks in the U.S. linked to Yemen are indicative of al-Qaeda 3.0 – the self-starters and “lone wolves.” The two attacks are Nidal Hassan’s murderous spree at Ft. Hood, Texas and the June 1 shooting at an army recruiting center in Little Rock Arkansas that killed one soldier and wounded another (and has been lost in the shuffle of terrorism news.) Hassan received inspiration and justification from Yemen-based radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, while the Little Rock shooter had travelled to Yemen where he became radical (exactly what he was doing in Yemen is a matter of dispute).
Some have taken comfort in the relative lack of sophistication of the Yemen-based attacks. The lone-wolf attacks are tragic for the victims and their families, but not true strategic dangers to the United States. I stand by my own analysis that complex strategic attacks against the U.S. homeland remain difficult because of the barriers to moving trained operatives. Getting one past security is all too possible. But the more complicated the plan, the more operatives required and the greater probability of detection.
Nonetheless, there are causes for concern.
Then director of Central Intelligence George Tenet told the 911 Commission that in the summer of 2001 “The system was blinking red.”
However, the previous successful al-Qaeda strikes (1998 embassy bombings and 2000 Cole bombing) were against U.S. targets abroad, thus the intelligence community focused on that possibility – missing the signs of 9/11.
Apparently, the same situation prevailed in late 2009 – a focus on al-Qaeda attacks abroad. Now, the Christmas bombing is driving the vast U.S. intelligence apparatus to re-focus its gaze on Islamist attempts to reach the U.S. While necessary to some extent, it could also prove a vast strategic distraction.
But given the inherent challenges of long-range strikes, as well as the growing capability to hit hard targets abroad – al-Qaeda may choose to focus its efforts on more useful targets closer to its operating theaters. While space may dilute the long-range effectiveness of al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, closer to home it is may show greater sophistication. The October attack on Saudi Prince Nayef foreshadowed the Christmas bombing technically, but operationally was more akin to the attack on the CIA base. The attacker reached the prince by claiming to be a terrorist prepared to surrender personally to Prince Nayef, who directs Saudi counter-terror efforts.
Al-Qaeda has also shown political/strategic sophistication in its targeting and there are an enormous number of hard targets in their operational strongholds – including U.S. Embassies and other installations, oil facilities, high-profile political targets in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other U.S. allies, and the ultimate prize, Pakistan’s nuclear program (to name just a few.) Alternately, rather than going for “spectaculars” they may more attacks like the CIA bombing that effectively throw sand in the gears of American military organizational machinery.
Again, the system is blinking red, but are we monitoring the right gauges?