Sunday, October 09, 2005

Al Qaeda Wishful Thinking

In his speech on October 6 (transcript here) President Bush mentioned ten Al Qaeda plots that had been foiled since 9/11; including three within the U.S.

Here is a brief summary of those wished-for Al Qaeda attacks that were blocked:

In the U.S.:

1. Jose Padilla's radiological 'dirty bomb' plot was disrupted when he was arrested in Chicago.

2. West Coast Airliner Plot, in which the US disrupted a plot to attack targets on the West Coast of the United States using hijacked airplanes;

3. The East Coast Airliner Plot of mid-2003 where US and a partner disrupted a plot to attack targets on the East Coast of the United States using hijacked commercial Airplanes.

From the Washington Post:

The reported plots aimed to strike a wide variety of targets, including the Library Tower in Los Angeles, ships in international waters and a tourist site overseas, the White House said last night. Three of the 10 were directed at U.S. soil, officials said. The government, they added, also stopped five al Qaeda efforts to case possible targets or infiltrate operatives into the country.
The other seven plots Bush referred to:

1. Al Qaeda planned to fly a jet into Heathrow Airport in 2003

2. In mid-2004 the United States and “partners” disrupted a plot that involved urban targets in Britain. These plots involved using explosives against a variety of sites.

3. In 2003 the United States and “a partner” disrupted a plot to attack Westerners at several targets in Karachi.

4. In the Spring of 2004 the United States and “partners”, using a combination of law enforcement and intelligence resources, disrupted a plot to conduct large-scale bombings in Britain.

5. In late 2002 and 2003 the United States and “a partner nation” disrupted a plot by Al-Qaeda operatives to attack ships in the Arabian Gulf.

6. In 2002 the United States and “partners” disrupted a plot to attack ships transiting the Straits of Hormuz.

7. In 2003 the United States and “a partner nation” disrupted a plot to attack a tourist site outside the United States.

There were reportedly five casings and infiltrations that were stopped in the early reconnaissance stages:

“The US Government and Tourist Sites Tasking”: In 2003 and 2004, an individual was tasked by Al-Qaeda to case important US government and tourist targets within the United States.

“The Gas Station Tasking”: Around 2003, an individual was tasked to collect targeting information on US gas stations and their support mechanisms on behalf of a senior Al-Qaeda planner.

“Iyman Faris and the Brooklyn Bridge”: In 2003, and in conjunction with a partner nation, the US government arrested and prosecuted Iyman Faris, who was exploring the destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Faris ultimately pleaded guilty to providing material support to Al-Qaeda and is now in federal prison.

“2001 Tasking”: In 2001, Al-Qaeda sent an individual to facilitate post-September 11 attacks in the United States. US law enforcement authorities arrested the individual.

“2003 Tasking”: In 2003, an individual was tasked by an Al-Qaeda leader to conduct reconnaissance on populated areas in the United States. —AFP

Let me add one point to all this. The biggest problem with preventing something bad from happening is being successful and not being able to prove that your preventive measures had anything to do with it.

What do I mean by that? Let me explain.

My area of research when I worked at NASA was on the psychological aspects of space flight. I was involved in astronaut selection and in identifying the psychological stressors of space and developing countermeasures against them for operational use.

One of the issues connected to this research used to bother me a lot and it was this: preventing something from happening is a good thing (e.g., you obviously don't want astronauts manning a space station or on a 2+ year trip to Mars to become suicidally depressed and become a risk for the mission), but by the very act of preventing such a thing from occurring you can never then prove that it might have occurred in the first place.

Critics can then claim that the countermeasure/preventive action was not really necessary to begin with. The same is true of selection techniques--or in fact, of almost any preventive measure in any area. If you are successful, the event you fear will not happen. So, were you wrong to try to prevent it?

Likewise, because the plots listed above were successfully prevented from happening, many people --especially those that hate Bush etc. to begin with--will argue that nothing of significance occurred and will attempt to blow it all off.

This is worse than foolish thinking. This is stupid and dangerous thinking. If you take any of the above Al Qaeda plots to their logical conclusion, they would have resulted in serious death and mayhem. By the logic of the critics of prevention, since nothing happened, there is no evidence you were successful.

The sarcastic "critics of prevention", by the way, become the pontificating "critics in hindsight" that blast away without mercy when there is a "failure of imagination"; or for "not connecting the dots"; or because "not enough planning in advance" when something terrible occurs.

Would they have preferred another attack here like 9/11? I would guess that it really matters little--either way, they can still blame Bush for what happens; or sneer at him when it doesn't.

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